Mookie Betts Has Shifted from Preseason MVP Favorite to Red Sox Enigma

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterSeptember 5, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 03: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox in action against the New York Yankees during a game at Yankee Stadium on September 3, 2017 in the Bronx borough of New York City. (Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images)
Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Mookie Betts is either having a great season that's somehow just OK, or an OK season that's somehow great.

The fact that there's even a debate is a problem for the Boston Red Sox. And a growing one, at that.

Coming off a 2016 season in which he mustered an .897 OPS with 31 home runs and 26 stolen bases while playing Gold Glove defense in right field, Betts was expected to once again be an MVP contender for a Red Sox team with its eyes on the World Series.

To an extent, these expectations are being satisfied.

At Baseball Reference, Betts entered Labor Day ranked 10th in the American League with 5.1 wins above replacement. Meanwhile, the Red Sox's 77-61 record gives them a 2.5-game lead over the New York Yankees for the AL East lead.

Yet it's not because of a sudden and widespread affliction of blindness, deafness and dumbness that Betts isn't getting the same recognition that he got en route to a runner-up finish in last year's American League MVP race. Nothing attracts MVP attention like offense, and that's where the 24-year-old is falling short.

Overall, his OPS is down from .897 to .769. And after going into the All-Star break with an .841 OPS and 16 homers, he has just a .638 OPS and two homers since the break.

BOSTON, MA - AUGUST 27: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox steps into the batter's box against the Baltimore Orioles in the first inning at Fenway Park  on August 27, 2017 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Michael Ivins/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

When a hitter is slumping that bad, it can behoove his manager to put him on the bench for a day or two and let him clear his head and soothe any aches he may have.

But Boston manager John Farrell doesn't have that luxury. 

"I haven't gone to that point," Farrell said of sitting Betts, per Chad Jennings of the Boston Herald. "He impacts the game so many different ways, and the defensive side of it is a key component to it, and when he does get on base, he's a threat obviously. Been a major player for us."

No kidding. Sitting Betts would mean sitting a glove and arm that have produced more defensive runs saved than any other and a pair of legs that's produced more baserunning value than all but two other American Leaguers. Plus, Betts' bat has at least been clutch.

With no pine in sight, Betts has two possibilities to pull out of his offensive slump: Either Lady Luck takes care of it, or Betts himself does.

Door No. 1 doesn't appear to lead anywhere. Rather than a case of him hitting into a whole bunch of bad luck, Betts' second-half slump is a case of him being a worse hitter. His strikeout rate is up, and his launch angle and exit velocity are down:

HalfK%Launch Angle (°)Exit Velo (MPH)
1st8.315.088.6
2nd15.312.187.1

There doesn't appear to be a physical explanation. The right knee surgery Betts underwent last winter didn't hamper him out of the gate. He did hurt the same knee late last month but didn't miss any action.

Instead, what's really happening is that Betts is being slow to adjust to an adjustment against him.

His quick wrists are his best asset at the plate, particularly against pitches he can turn on. For his career, he owns a .603 slugging percentage against pitches on and within the inner third of the strike zone.

This should be no secret to even the casual viewer, much less to opposing pitchers. The latter are responding in the appropriate manner. When Betts was a rookie in 2014, 47.5 percent of the pitches he saw were on the outer third of the zone and beyond. It's 55.6 percent this year, and not coming down.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant, this is Betts' pitch heat map from the first half:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

And here's his pitch heat map from the second half:

Image courtesy of BaseballSavant.MLB.com.

Pitchers are now living exclusively around the outer edge when facing Betts, essentially daring him to leave his comfort zone and find a new approach. 

"It's tough," Betts told Alex Speier of the Boston Globe. "You see teams pitching you away, pitching you away, then come in. I feel like more pitches are away than in, so I'm taking my chances that way, but also trying to get the mistakes and drive those to my power."

The fact that Betts isn't oblivious to what's going on is a silver lining. So, too, are the adjustments he's tried to make. For instance, his use of the opposite field is up from 17.4 percent in the first half to 25 percent.

To date, though, nothing has warmed up his bat. And it's no help to a Red Sox team that can't shake the question of whether its offense is good enough for October. It has gone from 4.8 runs per game before the break to 4.5 runs per game since the break, with its OPS falling from .759 to .707.

Boston's best hitter is now rookie left fielder Andrew Benintendi, who entered Labor Day with an even .800 OPS. Among teams' best hitters, his OPS ranks near the bottom:

Arguably, the Red Sox don't need a great hitter to storm through October. With a collection of solid hitters who make frequent contact and run the bases aggressively, they're not unlike the Kansas City Royals teams that went to back-to-back World Series.

But without at least one great hitter, the Red Sox resemble the 2014 Royals team that lost the World Series more than the 2015 Royals team that won it. The latter had a deep collection of quality hitters even before adding Ben Zobrist.

Nobody can salvage Boston's temperamental lineup like Betts can. When he's right, he can beat teams with his pesky approach, his power and his baserunning. That's what he did throughout 2016, and what he was doing through the first half of 2017.

However it happens, the Red Sox need that guy back.

         

Data courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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