Mookie Betts: Same As He Ever Was

Mookie Betts: Same As He Ever Was

July 6, 2023 0 By Dan Freedman

About six weeks ago, after watching Mookie Betts go 0-for-5, with 2 strike outs and leaving a couple of runners on base, I had a thought bubble. At the time, Mookie was hitting roughly .240 and slugging below .500. This was the thought bubble: “Has Mookie lost it? Did the Red Sox avoid a catastrophe, and are the Dodgers stuck with a $365M contract for a player who once was?”

Maybe it was just wishful thinking. Maybe it was just me hoping that my favorite team didn’t make an all-time blunder. Maybe I just didn’t want this to be Babe Ruth Part Deux for Boston fans.

Truth be told, at the time I took the long, and unpopular, view that the Red Sox were correct in trading Mookie Betts. I didn’t think he would sign long-term in Boston (despite his now, after-the-fact, protestations to the contrary) and that he wanted to test the free agent market. He then came to my hometown team, allowing me to see him up close each and every day. And he has been terrific. Or has he? This is where my bias may have kicked in.

I have been watching Mookie for his entire career, but even more so now that he is in Los Angeles. And I could have sworn that – as stated above – he had lost a little something. He seemed to be striking out slightly more often; he seemed to be getting runners in from scoring position slightly less often. He seemed to be just a tick or two off the guy we all love and adore. But the eye test is not nearly enough – I had to do the work.

Now, for purposes of this analysis, I put aside the fact that Mookie is a 6-time Gold Glove winner in right field and offered to play second base and shortstop to solidify the Dodgers’ defense. The intangible of that type of leadership – and the ability to play those positions so adroitly – cannot be quantified (well, the analytics department in any organization can quantify it, but we as mere mortal fans have a harder time putting “actual” value to such versatility). I wanted to just look at the offensive numbers to see if Mookie, now into his thirties, was losing a step or two. Let’s take a look:

2020*64 (173)9 (24)16 (43)24 (65)38 (103).292.9271473.6
2023+86 (164)20 (38)23 (44)52 (99)64 (122).272.9371483.9

*The stats for 2020 are over the 60-game season, with the number in parentheses representing a 162-game season.

^This is the first year of Mookie’s 12/$365M extension.

+All stats current through July 4th, with the numbers in parentheses representing a full-season projection.

According to the above, maybe – if you squint a lot – you might be able to see some flaws in Mookie’s overall batting profile.

Putting aside his 2016 season when he had 214, Betts has lived between 160 and 180 hits. Those numbers were down the past two seasons, but he is back on pace this year. The lower hit totals caused his batting average to dip (and even with his current hit totals, he is still at the lower-end of his career averages). Mookie is no longer a perennial (or even close to a perennial) .300 hitter. And you can call it causation or correlation, but his BABIP has also dropped every year since hitting a high of .368 in 2018 (.309 –> .289 –> .276 –> .272 –> .269).

But the number of doubles is essentially the same across seasons; and he is on pace for a career high in home runs, which may be part of the reason why he agreed to participate in this year’s Home Run Derby. His OPS is pretty darned consistent for his entire career. His OPS+ is elite, every season.

The quick review of the above shows that he is starting to strike out more often. He first broke 100 Ks in 2019, was on pace for the same in 2020, did it again last year, and this season is heading for an all-time high. Is there any substance to that noise? Only time will tell. But going back to the eye test, it seemed to me, as a casual observer, that those strike outs have come in inopportune moments.

Baseball Reference has a metric called BRS% (the percentage of all baserunners who scored by the batter, but not necessarily resulting in an RBI). Mookie’s career average is 17.7% (including 17.6% in his MVP season). In 2019 it was 14.9%, then jumped to 18.6%, then fell to 13.7%, coming back to 16.1% last season. This year, he is living at 19.8%. So maybe my “clutch eye” was tuned in the last couple of years, but this year he is pushing for a career best. Hmm?

Other than 2019, Mookie never grounded into double plays at a 10% clip (i.e., what percentage of opportunities to ground into double plays did the player do so). This year he is just under at 10% (4/45).

I decided to take a look at one more advance stat (also from Baseball Reference): Productive Outs, which means advancing any runner with no outs; driving in a run with the second out; with failure meaning not advancing the runner(s) with an out. And here Mookie is close to a career low. His percentage of Productive Outs is 28.6%. For context, his career average is 30.5%, and his career median in 33.3%. One might argue that the above is within the margin of error; and this writer might agree with that assessment.

So what does all of this mean? It means that Mookie is still fantastic. He is still a joy to watch and, by all accounts, an even better teammate. He is still going to give the Dodgers about 7 bWAR this year; will still hit around 40 HRs; and will still be 30-40% better than the average Major League player. Regression or not, father time sneaking up on him or not, he is still one of the greats of the game. We can quibble about strike out rates, but need to read them with walk rates (nearly at a career high). And then we need to factor in what I told you to forget above. This guy has repeatedly traded in his gold outfielder’s mitt to play middle infield, and has arguably done it better than Kiké Hernández has in Boston (Mookie: 3 errors in 102 chances at 2B/SS; Kiké: 14 errors in 246 chances at 2B/SS).

As we age, our eyesight gets worse, and it would figure that so too does the eye test. Maybe he wouldn’t have stayed in Boston, and so the Red Sox were smart to trade him; but that is irrelevant to the current analysis. Mookie Betts was and remains an all-timer.