Can Mookie Betts Continue To Improve At The Plate?

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The Boston Red Sox are counting on a talented. young core to fuel their offense in 2016. The decisions before Opening Day to relegate Pablo Sandoval and Rusney Castillo to the bench place even more responsibility on that young group. Ian York digs into the data from 2015 for evidence that Mookie Betts can sustain his impressive career arc.

In the first half of 2015, Mookie Betts batted .273/.326/.447/.773 a respectable, but not overwhelming line, and significantly lower than the .812 OPS he had put up as a rookie in 2014. From July 1 on, Betts hit a much more impressive .310/.356/.512/.868. Was he doing anything differently?

The short answer is that Betts changed his approach at the plate, especially to offspeed and breaking pitches, and was able to adapt to pitchers’ new approach to him.

Looking at heatmaps of pitch locations clearly shows pitchers’ changing approach to Betts in 2015 compared to 2014. Here are the locations of pitches in 2014 and 2015:

The grey polygon is the strike zone as umpires called it in each year. The charts are from the umpire’s viewpoint, so the batter’s silhouette shows the right-handed Betts’ position. In 2015, pitchers didn’t locate their fastballs very differently compared to 2014, though they avoided the lower third of the plate more. Breaking ball location changed more significantly, consistently targeting the bottom outside corner. The biggest difference was with offspeed pitches, which in 2014 were mainly thrown for strikes but in 2015 were predominantly below the bottom of the strike zone.

Pitchers in the major leagues don’t make these kind of changes randomly. They were throwing Betts more pitches outside the zone because he was swinging at them more often. In 2014, Betts was an exceptionally patient, not to say passive, hitter swinging far less than the average right-handed batter. In this chart, Betts’ swings per pitch (including strikes, fouls, and hits) in each sub-region are compared to those of the average RHB; areas that are blue mean Betts swung less than average, and red areas are where he swung more than average.

In general, he swung at fewer pitches both inside the strike zone and out, with offspeed pitches being no exception.

In the first half of 2015, though, Betts began to swing at more low offspeed pitches than the average RHB. These charts represent swings per pitch, so they don’t simply reflect the increased number of pitches he saw in those regions.  

While Betts was able to make contact with some of those low and outside pitches, this was clearly not the most effective approach.

However, in the second half of 2015, Betts cut back on some of his swings, returning to a more patient approach for offspeed pitches.

Equally importantly, when Betts did swing at low and outside pitches, he began to make hard contact with them. The charts below show Betts’ total bases per pitch in the first and second halves of 2015. The more intense the red, the more total bases per pitch. Pitch locations for each pitch type are shown as the contour maps in the background.
Betts’ effectiveness against fastballs was very similar in his first and second halves. Against breaking pitches, he hit for about the same average, but with somewhat more power. He hit slightly better against offspeed stuff in the second half, but more importantly by swinging less frequently at pitches below the strike zone, he removed what may have been his only major weakness. If he can sustain his combination of power and patience in 2016, he will be a very valuable player.

Betts’ effectiveness against fastballs was very similar in his first and second halves. Against breaking pitches, he hit for about the same average, but with somewhat more power. He hit slightly better against offspeed stuff in the second half, but more importantly by swinging less frequently at pitches below the strike zone, he removed what may have been his only major weakness. If he can sustain his combination of power and patience in 2016, he will be a very valuable player.

Ian York uses the PITCHf/x to monitor the strike zone, highlights great performances, monitors league-wide trends and tracks the performances of some interesting young hitters.

Follow Ian on Twitter @iayork.

All data compiled from PITCHfx and Baseball-Reference.com.

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Ian is an immunologist and virologist who lives in Atlanta with his wife and two sons. Most of his time is spent driving his kids to baseball and soccer games, during which he indoctrinates his children on the glories of Pedro Martinez, the many virtues of the Montreal Expos, and other important information.

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