A Leaderboard With Mookie Betts and Barry Bonds

On April 18, I wrote an article titled “How Mookie Betts Has Been Baseball’s Best Hitter.” It was true — through to that point, Betts was first among all players in wRC+. Doesn’t get much more meaningful than wRC+. Betts opened the season on an absolute tear.

The way this usually goes, we write about a white-hot player, and then the player begins to regress. This is just an unavoidable fact of how writing works; we notice when players are doing something extreme, but extreme performances are unsustainable. Sure enough, since April 18, Betts no longer ranks first among all players in wRC+. He’s ranked second among all players in wRC+, only slightly behind teammate J.D. Martinez. In one way, Betts has cooled off. In another way, he’s done nothing of the sort.

Through roughly two months, Betts has been a better overall player than anyone else. I wrote in April about how he’s been able to lift so many balls to the pull side. That’s kept up — Betts knows he’s best as a pull hitter, and he’s getting more balls in the air. Yet there’s also something else going on. There’s been one other situational change, that’s paying off in a staggering way. I still have trouble believing the numbers, and I’ve already conducted all the research.

Call it one change, with two parts. Here’s one part, as relayed by Evan Drellich.

In the past with two strikes, Betts said he “was more just thinking about putting it in play vs. driving it.”

“My at-bats are a little bit different. I don’t really care about striking out that much,” Betts said. “I still want to able to drive the ball with two strikes, the same way I do if it’s 2-0. So I think I’m just keeping that same, aggressive, drive-the-ball mindset throughout the whole at-bat.”

It’s 2018 now, and strikeouts just aren’t a big deal. They’re no longer something to be afraid of. To hear Betts tell it, even when he’s one strike away from a strikeout now, he’s still swinging hard, still trying to do damage. No more hanging in there thinking contact-first. But while that’s all well and good, Betts’ strikeout rate is 11%. Last season, his strikeout rate was 11%. The season before that, it was 11%. Betts isn’t afraid of the strikeout, but he’s also not striking out any more than he used to. That doesn’t add up! Unless-

Unless there were more. Indeed, with two strikes, Betts is swinging with crueler intentions, but he’s also just making better swing decisions. Take a look at Betts’ career, with information from Baseball Savant. You’re seeing in-zone swing rates with two strikes, and out-of-zone swing rates with two strikes.

There’s no point ever taking a pitch in the zone with two strikes. But it’s always a good idea to take pitches out of the zone, even with two strikes, or perhaps especially with two strikes. I like this as a true test a hitter’s eye — how well can a guy identify balls, even in swing-happy counts? Compared to last year, with two strikes, Betts’ in-zone swing rate is up about four points. His out-of-zone swing rate is down, by about 15 points. That’s substantial, and remarkable, and you see Betts in yellow in the following plot of himself and all his 2018 peers:

This is a plot with 255 different players. With two strikes, Betts’ in-zone swing rate is the 16th-highest. That’s good. His out-of-zone swing rate is the 14th-lowest. That’s also good. If you take the difference between the two rates, Betts ranks in third place. To put this simply: In two-strike counts now, Betts is swinging harder, and he’s also swinging at strikes while spitting on balls. I’m going to guess the latter is also a consequence of the approach change excerpted above — we know Betts has a good eye, and he’s doing less to protect around or beyond the zone edges. In the past, he might’ve considered it a success if he put a two-strike pitch out of the zone in play. These days, that’s not what he’s about. He’s about swinging at strikes, and punishing them.

Betts homered against Jake Faria the other day. It’s a useful at-bat to examine, because, before Betts went deep, he quickly fell behind 0-and-2. From said 0-and-2 count, Betts took three consecutive balls. Here’s the plate appearance, according to Gameday:

From 0-and-2, Betts got to 3-and-2, and when Faria hung a slider over the middle of the plate, Betts didn’t miss. He earned the mistake pitch in a full count because he didn’t chase any of the earlier offerings out of the zone.

Against Faria, Betts drilled a two-strike homer. He already has seven of them. His career high is…seven. What’s happened is that Betts has turned into a monster in two-strike counts. Here are his career marks for two-strike wRC+:

  • 2014: 119
  • 2015: 70
  • 2016: 75
  • 2017: 85
  • 2018: 207

This season, unsurprisingly, Mookie Betts has been the best two-strike hitter in baseball, and by a large margin. And here’s where I can get to the original headline. I’m going to go to Baseball Reference now, where there’s pitch-by-pitch data stretching back to 1988. My stat of choice is sOPS+ — it’s player performance in a given split, relative to the league-average performance in the same split. Here are the best two-strike-hitting seasons on record, with the obvious caveat that the 2018 season is very far from over.

Best Two-Strike Hitters
Player Split Year PA sOPS+
Mookie Betts Two Strikes 2018 98 352
Barry Bonds Two Strikes 2002 206 290
Barry Bonds Two Strikes 2004 173 272
Barry Bonds Two Strikes 1992 248 271
Victor Martinez Two Strikes 2014 297 264
Albert Belle Two Strikes 1994 205 260
Michael Cuddyer Two Strikes 2014 94 255
Brandon Belt Two Strikes 2018 109 248
Frank Thomas Two Strikes 1994 210 246
Rickey Henderson Two Strikes 1990 277 246
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
1988 – 2018, minimum 75 two-strike plate appearances.

Mookie Betts, followed by three seasons of Barry Bonds. You couldn’t ask for a more flattering comparison, and while there are still four or so months for Betts’ performance to come down, you should also notice how large his lead here is. What Betts has done in two-strike counts has been extraordinary. What he’s done in other counts has also been extraordinary, but now, in all situations, Betts is putting his skills to perfect use. We know he has some of baseball’s quickest hands. We know he has some of baseball’s sharpest eyes. Even when pitchers are on the brink of putting Betts away, he’s somehow still in control of almost every at-bat. At this point, I don’t know how anyone’s supposed to pitch him.

Betts is looking more and more like a flawless hitter. It would be ideal, I guess, if he had more pop to the opposite field. On the other hand, he might not ever need it. What he’s doing now seems to work for him just fine.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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4 years ago

Flawless hitter? His power has been almost exclusively on pitches on the inner part of the plate. It is amazing to me that he hasn’t been Pedroia’ed to the point where he just never sees anything even close to the hands.

I realize pitching is hard and pitchers will inevitably miss their spots and pitches will end up inside – that Faria slider is exhibit A, the catcher was lined up low and away with the intention of having it break off the plate. Bad pitch, punished. But it blows me away every time i see a catcher call for a pitch on the inner half on purpose, which seems to still happen with regularity. How much more data do we need before pitchers just stop doing that?

4 years ago
Reply to  bananas

Pitching him, or anyone, that carefully is not realistic in the real world.

4 years ago
Reply to  Ryan

Keeping the ball on the outer third of the plate and beyond is not realistic for for the average MLB pitcher? I don’t buy that for a second.

4 years ago
Reply to  cs3

You’re right that the average MLB pitcher could keep the ball outside all day if they don’t care about throwing balls, but in trying to hit the outer third for a strike, more of the plate comes into the margin for error. Trying to throw a strike on the outer third of the plate will inevitably lead to some mistakes that fall right down the middle.

4 years ago
Reply to  bananas

I checked out his hot zones. High and tight is the only zone with under .500 slugging. I’d hardly say his power is limited to the inner half of the plate.

4 years ago
Reply to  Gregg

That’s great, but that’s also just 2018 which is a small sample of the best 2 months of Mookie’s career. If you look at his whole career it’s clear where his power thrives: brooks baseball

Also worth noting that pitchers do mostly pitch him way outside – especially with 2 strikes. The fact that mookie _still_ manages to crush inside pitches seems like a testament to his patience and pitch selection.

4 years ago
Reply to  bananas

Well also if you look at the other parts of the Brooks baseball heat map the only place he really struggles is low and outside. Anything above that has less power but he’s still hitting ~.300 on those. And if you go low and away and miss middle then you’re in an area where he’s going to punish you. Miss away and he probably won’t swing. Hit your spot early in the count and he still probably won’t swing because it’s tough to hit that spot every time and hit it with 2 strikes and he’s got the bat control to foul it off. Mookie is great at forcing pitchers to give him what he wants.

4 years ago
Reply to  bananas

It may be a small sample but he has 6 HR from the outside of the plate after only 2 last year. It seems fair to say that he has adjusted