Mookie Betts Has Been in a Funk

While Yu Darvish carved up the Dodgers on Monday night at Petco Park, Mookie Betts accounted for the team’s only notable gasp of offense, clubbing a third-inning solo homer that accounted for Los Angeles’ only run in six innings against the Padres’ righty, and one of their two hits. The Dodgers trailed 4-0 at the time, and were down 6-1 when Betts had another chance to make an impact. Batting with two outs and the bases loaded in the seventh against Austin Adams, Betts swung at a 2-0 slider high in the zone but managed just a routine fly ball for the third out; the Dodgers went on to lose, 6-2.

It’s been that kind of season for Betts, who has certainly had his moments here and there — his leadoff homer and double play against the Pirates on June 10, for example — but has generally been unable to sustain the type of magic that he generated in his first year as a Dodger. Acquired from the Red Sox in February 2020 and subsequently signed to a 12-year, $356 million deal, Betts helped spur the team to its first championship in 32 years with his offensive, defensive and baserunning contributions; indeed, his postseason work was a tour de force. This year, the 28-year-old right fielder has battled minor injuries and has yet to go on any kind of sustained hot streak.

Which isn’t to say that Betts is having a bad season, exactly. Through Tuesday, he had hit .249/.363/.456, and while that represented a 43-point drop in batting average relative to last season, and a 106-point drop in slugging percentage (but just a three-point drop in on-base percentage), it’s still good for a 131 wRC+ in this Year of the Pitcher 2.0. Not only is that wRC+ just 18 points off his 2020 mark, it’s a mere four points below that of his final season in Boston, as well as four points below his career mark. Baseball Reference’s park-adjusted league average slash stats — which are calculated after removing pitchers’ hitting — are instructive:

Mookie Betts’ Slash Stats vs. League Average
Year Age Tm BA lgBA OBP lgOBP SLG lgSLG wRC+
2014 21 BOS .291 .258 .368 .322 .444 .398 129
2015 22 BOS .291 .264 .341 .327 .479 .426 120
2016 23 BOS .318 .264 .363 .329 .534 .435 136
2017 24 BOS .264 .262 .344 .331 .459 .439 107
2018 25 BOS .346 .254 .438 .324 .640 .424 185
2019 26 BOS .295 .259 .391 .330 .524 .450 135
2020 27 LAD .292 .243 .366 .321 .562 .415 149
2021 28 LAD .249 .238 .363 .316 .456 .399 131
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
LgBA, lgOBP, and lgSLG are park-adjusted rates for all non-pitchers in the league.

The offensive environments in which Betts has played have changed markedly, not only in moving from Fenway Park and the AL East to Dodger Stadium and the NL West but with the various changes in the ball and other developments. The shape of his production is different this year, with a higher walk rate (12.8%, up from last year’s 9.8%) offsetting a lower BABIP (.268, down from last year’s .289 and a career .310), and a lower ISO (.207, down from last year’s .229), but he’s still been an impactful player. That’s particularly true when one factors in his outstanding defense, which this year has included 21 starts in center field in place of the injured Cody Bellinger as well as 39 in right; he’s 1.9 runs above average according to UZR, and seven above average according to DRS. His 2.1 WAR ranks 12th in the league.

And yet, there’s been something unmistakably off about Betts this year. After collecting hits in each of his first nine games (excluding one in which he made a defensive cameo without batting), he hasn’t strung together a hitting streak of more than four games; by comparison, he had four such streaks last year and eight in 2019. After collecting two hits apiece in the first two games of the year, he’s had just one other set of back-to-back multi-hit games, on May 7 and 8; by comparison, he had four such streaks last year and 13 in 2019.

Using Baseball Reference’s Span Finder to break Betts’ season into rolling 12-game stretches to approximate two-week periods — so, 51 such stretches through Tuesday — he hasn’t collected more than 14 hits in any such span. In only one of those spans did he top a .300 batting average (.302/.423/.512 from May 18 to June 2), and only five times did he top a .900 OPS. Even in the shortened 2020 season he had 22 12-game stretches (out of a total of 55) in which he collected more than 14 hits, 29 in which he topped a .300 batting average, and 32 in which he topped a .900 OPS; he had 14 such stretches in which he topped an 1.100 OPS. Betts does have six sets of back-to-back games with an extra-base hit (two of which ran to three straight games), compared to just four last year (including a four-gamer), and 14 in 2019. His slugging percentages have increased by month — .405 in April, .478 in May, .493 in June — even while his batting averages have stayed in the .250s

Though he’s avoided the Injured List this season, Betts has been dinged up on numerous occasions, and so he’s played in just 62 of the Dodgers’ 74 games. He missed four games due to lower back stiffness in the season’s second week, one after being hit in the right forearm by a Rafael Montero pitch on April 19, two due to a sore left shoulder in late May, plus one due to an allergic reaction, and one due to a stomach flu that forced him from Tuesday night’s game and kept him out on Wednesday. While Bellinger and Corey Seager have landed on the IL for extended stays, where they’ve been joined by a host of other Dodger position players including AJ Pollock, Max Muncy, and Zach McKinstry, it’s fair to wonder if Betts has pushed himself to play through ailments that could have sidelined him for a longer stretch. But even while agreeing with manager Dave Roberts’ assessment that he’s been playing at “80 to 85 percent,” Betts has refused to point to his health as the reason for his comparatively subpar performance, saying a couple weeks ago, “I don’t have any excuses. Sometimes you just don’t play well. I’m not here to say this is why, that it’s this, that and the other.”

Which leaves us to grapple with his performance. As is more or less the case with his slash stats, Betts’ average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, and barrel rate are all his lowest marks since 2017…

Mookie Betts by Statcast
Season BBE EV Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2017 554 88.4 4.2% 37.7% .264 .260 .459 .418 .339 .327
2018 434 92.3 13.1% 50.0% .346 .307 .640 .603 .449 .428
2019 505 91.1 9.1% 46.1% .295 .306 .524 .570 .380 .408
2020 182 90.7 7.7% 43.4% .292 .281 .562 .481 .390 .359
2021 199 89.5 7.0% 41.2% .249 .262 .456 .428 .356 .358

…but even so, he’s outdone his xSLG by 28 points, and his xwOBA is a dead ringer for last year’s mark. That said, he usually outdoes his xwOBA thanks at least in part to his speed, and it’s worth noting that several indicators of that speed are down this year. Via Statcast, his sprint speed this year ranks in just the 58th percentile, down from the 87th percentile last year and consistently in the 70s from 2016-19. Likewise, he’s fallen from the 78th percentile to the 40th in outfielder jumps, and his baserunning numbers (6-for-9 in steals, 0.3 baserunning runs, compared to last year’s 10-for-12 and 3.3 BRR) are down as well. Any of those categories could be manifestations of his less-than-mint condition.

Betts is pulling the ball at a career-high 47.7% clip, but he’s hardly getting his money’s worth for doing so. He’s produced a 54.7% groundball rate and 2.6 groundball-to-fly ball ratio on those pulls, so he has just an 88 wRC+ in that context, compared to 220 last year, and 232 for his career. Meanwhile, he’s popped up on 11.9% of his fly balls, which is just 0.7% above his career rate, but his highest mark since 2017; he set a career low at 7.1% last year and popped up just 9.2% of flies from 2018-20. As he said last month, “It’s kind of like a moving target right now. I’m trying to say, get it in the air, and then I start popping up too much. Then I need to get it lower, and then I start hitting it on the ground too much. I don’t have an answer.”

Though earlier in his career he used to eat up left-handed pitching, Betts has shown an odd reverse platoon split in recent years, hitting for a modest 104 wRC+ (.246/.359/.399) in 358 PA against lefties since the start of 2019, compared to 149 (.298/.387/.562) in 893 PA against righties. The tilt isn’t huge this year compared to last — 139 wRC+ against righties compared to 111 against lefties in 2021, compared to a comical 181-56 split in 2020 — but it’s there nonetheless, and not something you see every day.

Drilling down deeper, this year Betts has particularly struggled against four-seam fastballs from lefties, and breaking balls from righties:

Mookie Betts vs. Pitch Type and Hand
Hand Pitch AB H AVG SLG wOBA xwOBA Whiff
LH 4-Seam Fastball 30 1 .033 .033 .155 .304 18.9%
LH Sinker 14 5 .357 .786 .501 .464 11.1%
LH Slider 7 2 .286 .571 .435 .254 22.2%
LH Curveball 3 0 .000 .000 .173 .245 50.0%
LH Changeup 9 3 .333 .778 .442 .448 13.6%
RH 4-Seam Fastball 49 14 .286 .673 .454 .444 12.1%
RH Sinker 36 10 .278 .500 .381 .403 6.7%
RH Slider 44 10 .227 .341 .288 .272 22.5%
RH Curveball 20 3 .150 .200 .224 .241 35.9%
RH Changeup 8 2 .250 .375 .388 .419 27.3%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Betts has done damage against sinkers from pitchers of both hands, but he has just one hit against a four-seamer from a lefty, an infield single off the Braves’ Max Fried on June 6. He’s hit the ball hard enough (average exit velo 90.9 mph) to expect better in that context — a .180 xBA and a .331 xSLG — but even so, that’s pretty grim. This hasn’t been a problem for him in the past; he went 5-for-17 against four-seamers from lefties last year, albeit all singles (.456 xSLG, for what it’s worth), but went 12-for-37 against them while slugging .703 in 2019. It’s not as though those fastballs are all nipping the corners, either; the heat map on those pitches is a dark blob at the center of the zone:

On that note, Betts is just 1-for-7 against such pitches when they’re in Gameday Zone 5, the one right in the center — but with a .355 xBA and .776 xSLG. A few hard-hit balls just haven’t panned out, including a 106.1 mph scorcher off the Marlins’ Braxton Garrett on May 15. So it goes.

On the other hand (literally), Betts wasn’t productive against curveballs from righties last year, albeit in a small sample (1-for-7, a single), but he demolished them in 2019 (.371 AVG, .543 SLG in 35 AB). Sliders from righties weren’t a problem for him before, in either 2019 or ’20.

It all adds up to a curious set of deficiencies from a star who generally shows few holes in his swing or his game, and given the sample sizes in play, they may well be transient; it’s not as though this is a player in his mid-30s, ripe for decline. The good news is that even if Betts isn’t at full strength, he does enough things well that he’s still played as one of the top dozen players in the league. The Dodgers, given their banged-up state, could use even more from him, but for the moment this will have to do.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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Bartolo Cologne
1 year ago

Thanks for the write-up, Jay. As a Padres fan, I watched all three games in the latest series and thought to myself that he looks off (I didn’t feel nearly as scared for his plate appearances as I did all last season). I’m glad you took up the topic!

I think that the sprint speed, jump speed, and baserunning are really the most telling parts, as they all suggest that this isn’t a mechanical or mental problem, but an injury issue. The old adage is that speed never slumps. Well, it does if you’re playing hurt. He’s such a tremendous talent and presence in the game, I hope that he is able to get some rest and get better soon. Especially now with Bellinger back, if I’m the Dodgers, I’d rather lose Betts for a week or two and get him back 100% for the rest of the season than keep him dragging along like this. It’s a credit to how amazing Betts is that the version of him that is noticeably dragging is still a top 15 player in MLB.

Travis Lmember
1 year ago

Speed also declines as a factor of age, which goes hand-in-glove with injuries as well as baseline skill degradation. The increase in walk rate indicates that maybe Mookie is moving towards the old player skills.

Bartolo Cologne
1 year ago
Reply to  Travis L

True, but I’m skeptical that a player of Betts’ caliber and conditioning would see this stark of a drop off from one year to the next at the ages of 27 to 28 due to aging.

1 year ago

Yeah, he’s still in his prime physical years. If he bulked up, slowing down makes sense, but he hasn’t. Some sort of injury or conditioning could be at play.

1 year ago

I hope it’s not, but sure looks similar to McCutchen. 28 was his last really good year.

1 year ago
Reply to  lamont

Lot of similar skills to McCutchen and something he didnt touch on, but his power without the juiced ball is basically average now. His Max EV is not great and most of his home runs are wall scrapers. Huge issue moving forward.

1 year ago
Reply to  Travis L

His walk rate hasn’t increased. It’s exactly where it was in 2019 and 2018. Last year was a decrease in a shortened season