Miscalculating Mookie Magic: Anatomy Of A Slump

For the games between the 17th and 23rd of this month, the Boston Red Sox went 3-4, their AL East lead slipping into a tie with the hated rival Yankees. Their offense seemed to sputter in fits and starts. Sure, part of that is just baseball. You’re not going to score five or six runs every night. Yet, it seems that they failed to fire on all cylinders due to a struggling catalyst in Mookie Betts. Now, the popular (read: illogical) narrative to his early struggles at the plate would be to nosedive into panic, screaming down Yawkey Way with hair on fire. Yes, Betts had a tough week and seemingly so went the Sox in parallel — despite still being sixth in the majors at 4.94 runs per game — and we’ll look at his week. However, we’ll also look at the many reasons not to drink yourself half to death in your new Betts jersey. I’m sure the folks at the Cask & Flagon will thank me.

Before rebounding Friday night, going 2-for-3 with a walk and a run scored, Betts had hit a feeble .136 (3-for-22) in the aforementioned span with only one RBI. That had dropped his season average below the Mendoza Line to a pallid .194. According to Baseball Prospectus, his True Average (TAv) was .243. By their definition, that is just south of an “average” hitter. His on-base percentage was barely on anything at .271 and he had a punchless .323 slugging percentage. In short, the stick in his hands was more toothpick than baseball bat; it wasn’t working. And we all know that when you are struggling in Boston, the sharks in the journalistic water circle quickly (as well as amongst the fans). Betts is not supposed to be the second coming of Rickey Henderson, no matter what myths we built on Opening Day and then again on the home opener at Fenway.

He does, however, need to get on base for Big Papi more often and consistently (as he did last night). Panicking about his struggles at the plate is the easy part. How about we look at some aspects of his game that point to a guy who is still performing at a high level on the base paths and on defense, which surely will help him recover his confidence at the plate and return him to a successful level of performance there as well.

Despite the poor hitting numbers, it would behoove all Sox fans to remember Betts only struck out twice during this slump. In the age of acceptable 180+ strikeout seasons, this is promising. He also grounded into exactly zero double plays. Zero. When he has gotten on, he has continued to steal bases at a clip that keeps him among league leaders (tied for first, in fact). On Patriot’s Day, not only did Betts steal second in the bottom of the first, but advanced to third on the catcher’s throwing error.

It was a heads-up play that allowed Ortiz to drive him in on a sacrifice fly.

What about his glove? We remember his beautiful read off of Bryce Harper‘s bat to rob him of a home run during the home opener, but has he faltered there as well? Um, no. According to FanGraphs, for the 2015 season, Betts ranks fourth amongst center fielders in DRS (Defensive Runs Saved) behind Lorenzo Cain and A.J. Pollock. He’s ranked fourth only due to being in a tie with Dalton Pompey. Betts has also made the second most Out Of Zone (OOZ) plays to Cain – Cain has 18, Betts 16 – and has two more than God, errrr, I mean, um, Mike Trout. Mookie currently has a meager, yet positive FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) of 1.4. Even by traditional fielding measures, Betts is still sterling, with one outfield assist, 39 put-outs in 40 chances and a 1.000 fielding percentage. You see the trend here? I sure hope so.

Back to his bat. Forecasting hitting is always easier than forecasting pitching. Baseball Prospectus has a cool table attached to all player pages that is the “Rest-of-Season Forecast.” It gives predictive season totals based on percentage projections (think: if he performs at 70% of expected projections, then….). So, let’s be conservative here and just sample what Betts would produce at a 60% projection for the rest of 2015. He’d end up with a slash line of .289/.366/.430, which would be a very comfortable place for a 22-year-old leadoff hitter to be. That would also project to 74 runs scored, 25 steals, and a 3.7 WARP. Furthermore, if you scroll just a bit further down on that page, you’ll see a Similarity Index. Many of the names on that list, plus the projections, should serve to keep you from getting thrown out of all the bars on Yawkey Way.

So, the Sox only scored 3.0 runs/game during that semi-treacherous stretch. Might we be level headed enough to not levy all the blame on Betts. Might we recall that Xander Bogaerts snapped an 0-for-13 funk on Thursday and Mike Napoli appears to be a shadow of Evan Gattis. Here’s to hoping Betts continues to rebound by building on last night’s game and is allowed to be comfortable in his role, aided by the rest of the lineup coming through.

As soon as the mlb.com shop has them, I’m set to order my Mookie jersey.

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