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Can Mookie Betts keep up offensive surge for Sox stretch run?

Boston Red Sox's Mookie Betts points to second base after scoring on a double by Xander Bogaerts during the first inning of a baseball game against the Tampa Bay Rays, Sunday, May 14, 2017, in Boston. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)
(AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Mookie Betts is once again the Boston Red Sox’s best position player. He has played super-elite defense in right field and has been bested on the basepaths only by Billy Hamilton and Byron Buxton. He’s stayed healthy and hit at the top of the order all season, meaning that he’s accrued a ton of value simply by being there and producing. He is nominally the face of the franchise, as he has been since his mammoth breakout in 2016.

He’s been on a tear for the last two weeks. Since Sept. 4, he’s hit for a 156 wRC+ while launching three home runs in 43 plate appearances. The Red Sox offense has been rather poor for a contender, and the worst among all six current division leaders. Betts might be peaking at the right time to help propel the Sox bats into October. Can he sustain it?

Betts has been great this season, but he hasn’t quite touched the heights of last season’s MVP-caliber campaign. His bat has come back to earth in a big way. He wasn’t likely to eclipse 30 home runs again, even amid the perfect storm of juiced balls and lofted swings currently populating the game. His combination of pitch selection and high contact meant that his power would become more limited. Now, pitchers are throwing Betts fewer fastballs high and inside, an area where he generates tons of power. He currently sports a 103 wRC+ this season, down 34 points from last year’s mark and 18 points lower than his career figure.

Is he experiencing some bad luck? It’s possible. A .264 average on balls in play suggests that balls aren’t dropping in. On the other hand, last year’s .322 BABIP meant that luck was on Betts’s side. Pitchers are pitching him differently, and outfielders are playing him deeper. That means fewer doubles and lower power.

Betts’s quality of contact has been remarkably consistent in his three full season in the big leagues. If we just look at walks, strikeouts, exit velocity and launch angle, Betts has posted Expected Weighted On-Base Averages (xwOBA) of .334, .336 and .334 since 2015. Betts has put the same swing on the ball for his entire career. One could easily surmise that a shallower outfield, combined with Betts’s speed, meant that he could turn some of those line drive singles into doubles, or see some of those fly balls drop in behind a speeding center fielder in previous seasons. Not anymore.

HOUSTON, TX - JUNE 16: Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) reacts after hitting a homerun in the eighth inning of an MLB baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox on June 16, 2017 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, TX. Boston Red Sox defeated Houston Astros 2-1. (Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)

HOUSTON, TX – JUNE 16: Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) reacts after hitting a home run in the eighth inning of an MLB baseball game between the Houston Astros and the Boston Red Sox on June 16, 2017 at Minute Maid Park in Houston, TX. Boston Red Sox defeated Houston Astros 2-1. (Photo by Juan DeLeon/Icon Sportswire)

Has he been doing anything differently in the last 11 days? A .379 xwOBA in those 43 plate appearances suggests that he has been. A .424 raw wOBA, meanwhile, might say that he’s still getting luckier than the contact quality itself. The Sox have been in the middle of a long homestand, and Betts has yanked three doubles and two dingers in the direction of the Green Monster. The ballpark is doing its thing.

The quality of opposition is helping, too. Betts faced 28 pitchers against the Blue Jays, Rays and Athletics in that 11-day span. Only 11 of them have tossed at least 30 innings and produced above-average lines by Deserved Run Average this year. Betts knocked two home runs and a triple off of Sean Manaea and Raul Alcantara on Tuesday. Not the stiffest of competition.

43 plate appearances just isn’t a lot to go on, especially when we have the previous 616 to consider. Given Betts’s track record overall, it would be hard to predict that he will keep drilling pitchers for dingers and extra-base hits. Betts has been the same hitter on contact he has always been. The reality of that has been made plain of late.

On the other hand, the Red Sox go on the road to face Tampa Bay, Baltimore and Cincinnati over the next 10 days. If ever there were a series of punching bags (the Rays excepted) for Betts to feast on, these would be they.

No matter what, the Red Sox are on target for their second consecutive AL East title and a berth with the Astros in the AL division series. Betts will lead the charge. Houston’s staff will be the toughest he will have faced in weeks. Luckily, they will come to Fenway for the last series of the regular season. It should provide ample warmup. Here’s hoping Betts lights the flame.

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