Mookie Betts has had an impressive first half to his first full year in the majors, even drawing some comparisons to Andrew McCutchen. While that is some high praise, it may be heaping a bit too much on the 22-year old outfielder. Damian Dydyn takes a look at Mookie and the Cutch to see how Betts measures up to McCutchen.
As spring training was wrapping up, Mookie Betts found himself being compared to one of the best players in the game. At a quick glance, there are some obvious similarities between the young Boston Red Sox phenom and Andrew McCutchen, but as Dave Cameron pointed out shortly after the comparisons started, the transformation McCutchen went through is extremely rare and it is unlikely that Mookie will end up following the same offensive path. That said, when we look at McCutchen’s age 22 season and compare it to what Mookie has done so far this year (also his age 22 season) there are some very encouraging signs for Betts fans.
McCutchen played in 108 games in 2009, amassing 493 plate appearances. He hit 12 home runs, stole 22 bases and slashed .283/.365/.471 which was good for a wRC+ of 122. At the All-Star break, Mookie sat at 10 home runs, 13 stolen bases with a slash line of .277/.328/.464 and a wRC+ of 115 over 378 plate appearances in 86 games. Mookie strikes out less with an 11.6% to 16.8% advantage, but McCutchen walked more in that season, drawing a free base 11.0% of the time as compared to 7.6% for Betts so far. Both strikeout rate and walk rate have been pretty consistent for McCutchen over his career so this is an area in which their approaches differ, which is important when trying to project what Mookie will be in his prime.
There is more to baseball than hitting, however, and over the course of a two part series we will look at how they compare at the plate, in the field and on the bases.
For starters, they are both fairly small, highly athletic right-handed batters who patrol center field. McCutchen is currently 5’10” and 200 pounds. Mookie is listed at 5’9” and 180 pounds, though he could fill out more as he ages. How much muscle he packs on will impact how much power he adds and how it presents in games, but he will almost assuredly get heavier as he gets older.
That said, they do look an awful lot alike standing at the plate:
It is easy to see why the comparisons started. While waiting for the pitch they each have a slightly open stance with the bat angled over their back shoulder. Mookie waggles more than McCutchen, but both keep their hands a little lower than their chins until they start their leg kick. McCutchen drops his hands very slightly as his front foot comes up and Betts brings his up just a bit. Both load their hands back and right about even with their rear shoulder before starting their swing.
Mookie’s leg kick is higher, but both plant in about the same place and carry the bat through the zone with a compact swing. Their swings are fairly level with just enough loft to maximize the time the bat will line up with the plane of the pitch as it approaches the plate which helps them to square the ball up. Because of the location of the pitch, Mookie has to keep his hands in a little more, but neither batter tries to do too much and they both go to the opposite field.
The big difference is power and specifically, home run power. Andrew McCutchen not only clears the fences more often, but he does so to all fields:
That power is what will likely separate McCutchen and Betts over the course of their careers. Even if Mookie’s power doesn’t develop, he can still be an excellent hitter in his own right. With the difference in home run power and gaps in their walk and strikeout rates, it’s pretty clear they have different approaches at the plate. With that in mind, it is probably best to focus on what Mookie does well and to not get too hung up on a direct comparison.
Despite Betts’ home run power presenting entirely to the pull side at the major league level and almost entirely to the pull side in his minor league career, Mookie has a more even spread across the field when all his balls in play are considered. Betts pulls the ball at a 39.0% clip, goes to center 33.1% of the time and to the opposite field 27.9%.
Mookie is also very good at covering the plate and does an excellent job of making contact with the ball:
Betts is currently 11th in the majors with an 88.5% contact rate, 6th in zone contact rate at 94.7% and is 8th in swinging strike rate at just 4.7%. When he decides to swing, he makes contact. In a game against the Blue Jays on July 2nd of this year he took a low breaking ball into left field for a single, demonstrating his ability to cover the plate well and to square up the ball even when he’s not getting extended on it:
He drops down with his lower body keeping his torso and shoulders as level as possible to maintain a well balanced swing through the point of contact. Despite getting out in front of the ball a little, he manages to keep his front hip from flying open which is evident because his front foot finishes by pointing towards second base. Mookie is swinging at 26.5% of pitches out of the zone, which ranks as 36th fewest in the majors, so he is fairly disciplined. He does occasionally go outside the zone, mostly to the inside where he can generate more power, which you can see in the chart below and is not afraid to spoil close pitches occasionally to extend at bats. He ranks 31st in P/PA at 4.04.
This all combines to produce a patient hitter with excellent contact skills who can work counts, wear down pitchers, and drive the ball with some authority all around the park. As he fills out he should add some home runs, probably at the expense of some of his doubles and triples. He is currently hitting at 15% better than league average on the season and 20% better for his career. At not quite 23 years old, he has plenty of room to improve and is showing all the signs of being one of the better hitters in the league when he hits his prime. Keep an eye out for part two of this series where we will examine Mookie’s baserunning and defense.
Editor’s Note: We originally had used the weights listed for each player at Fangraphs.com but both the MLB’s site and Baseball Reference list Mookie at 180 pounds and McCutchen at 200 so we updated the article to reflect that.