Mookie Betts’ Historic Season by Craig Edwards September 27, 2018 The existence of Mike Trout makes things difficult for everyone. He’s produced more wins through age 26 than any player in history, averaging 9.1 WAR per season. He’s made adjustment after adjustment after adjustment. He became an average Hall of Famer before his 27th birthday. It’s not easy to compete with that. It’s possible that we’ve grown so accustomed to Trout’s level of production that, when another player rivals it, the effect is muted. But that’s precisely what Mookie Betts is doing this season. Betts has recorded a season on a level we’ve only seen from Trout, Barry Bonds, and Alex Rodriguez over the past 25 years. And if it weren’t for presence of Trout himself just behind Betts on the WAR leaderboard, it’s possible that Betts’ accomplishment would seems even more unusual. In 2015, a 22-year-old Betts broke out with an impressive power-speed combo, resulting in a 120 wRC+ and a 4.8 WAR season. The following year, he improved nearly every aspect of his game and put together an MVP-caliber campaign, recording just over eight wins finishing second to Trout in the balloting. Last year, Betts fell off a bit despite another good year on the basepaths and in the outfield. He increased his walk rate without suffering a corresponding rise in strikeouts, but his power dropped and he ended up with “only” 5.4 WAR for the year, ranking 15th among MLB position players. This year, Betts’ speed on the bases and in the outfield are just as good as they have been in the past, but his power — including an ISO of .297 — has helped him reach another level. It’s easy to point out Betts’ increased strikeouts this season — still a low 14.8% mark — and argue that he is selling out for power, but it isn’t quite so simple. Early on in the season, Jeff Sullivan noticed that Betts was no longer just trying to make contact with two strikes. Instead, Betts focused on driving the ball, and it has paid off. Since 2002, Betts is having one of the greatest two-strike seasons we’ve seen. Best Two-Strike Seasons Since 2002 Season Name PA BB% K% ISO wRC+ 2002 Barry Bonds 207 28.0% 22.7% .297 185 2004 Barry Bonds 173 22.0% 23.7% .308 172 2014 Victor Martinez 304 5.9% 13.8% .205 159 2004 Albert Pujols 257 9.3% 20.2% .354 148 2018 Mookie Betts 312 9.9% 28.8% .249 146 2012 David Ortiz 163 9.8% 31.3% .301 141 2011 Mike Napoli 263 11.8% 31.9% .218 140 2018 Tyler White 138 10.9% 31.2% .264 137 2010 Magglio Ordonez 149 17.4% 25.5% .187 136 2007 Placido Polanco 240 5.8% 12.5% .109 133 More than half of Betts’ plate appearances this season have ended with two strikes due to a patient approach, but he hasn’t suffered like most — the MLB average wRC+ with two strikes is 45 — as his change in approach isn’t just a two-strike issue. Betts has done a better job this season of identifying pitches he can handle, and he’s done a much better job covering the outside portion of the plate. In terms of approach, we can see from the graphs below how Betts has swung less often at pitches low and inside and swung more often at pitches on the outer third of the plate. Visually, here is a swing from Betts near the end of the 2017 season. Now look at this swing from last month on a similar outside fastball. Look for Betts’ foot position before his swing and after he takes a step. These are very similar events on similar pitches with similar outcomes. In the footage from this year, though, Betts gets under the ball a little more, the launch angle is higher, and the ball travels a tiny bit farther. Betts put himself in position with his feet to make a more level swing on the pitch away, and it has helped him this season. Betts has never put up an ISO above .100 in a season when going to the opposite field (.086 career), but his opposite-field ISO this season is .182. Betts’ ability to get pitches on the outer half of the plate has helped his performance in that quadrant, but his selectivity on the inside part of the plate might have helped his outcomes there, as well. The graphs below show slugging percentage per 100 pitches last season and this season. Betts has been more selective on low-and-in pitches while changing his stance to give him more power away. Both of those tweaks appear to have made a positive difference. We can’t talk about any hitter’s positive improvement without noting launch angle. Betts’ average launch angle is the highest it has been in his career, and whether that’s due to increased selectivity low combined with more aggression high or something else entirely, Betts is putting fewer balls on the ground and hitting more balls with desirable launch angles, as the charts from Baseball Savant show. All of the above supports what we already know: Mookie Betts is a great player having a great season. What makes this campaign especially historic is that Betts has reached double-digits in WAR for the year. Since 1901, there have only been 50 10-plus WAR seasons. Since 1947, there have only been 23 10-plus WAR seasons. Betts’ 2018 campaign is just the 12th 10-plus WAR year in the past 50 seasons. The list below shows all the position players to reach that mark since 1901. Most 10+ WAR Seasons Since 1901 Player 10+ WAR seasons Babe Ruth 9 Rogers Hornsby 6 Ted Williams 5 Barry Bonds 5 Willie Mays 4 Ty Cobb 3 Mickey Mantle 3 Mike Trout 2 Lou Gehrig 2 Honus Wagner 2 Mookie Betts 1 Lou Boudreau 1 Norm Cash 1 Jimmie Foxx 1 Rickey Henderson 1 Joe Morgan 1 Stan Musial 1 Cal Ripken 1 Alex Rodriguez 1 Tris Speaker 1 Carl Yastrzemski 1 Of the players on that list, the only non-Hall of Famers are Bonds, Rodriguez, Trout, and Norm Cash. Cash is the only one without a clear Hall of Fame case, and with Betts’ eight-win season in 2016, he already has a great runner-up season that Cash can’t boast. There are 36 players in the past 100 years with at least two eight-plus WAR seasons. Twenty-seven of those players are in the Hall of Fame. Bonds would be if not for PED associations. The same might be true for Rodriguez, as well. Albert Pujols and Trout will be Hall of Famers. Chase Utley will have a good argument, too. Only Snuffy Stirnweiss, who put together his great seasons during World War II, and John Olerud fall short of Hall-type careers. Mookie Betts isn’t just having a great season. He’s having one of the single greatest seasons of all-time and putting his career on the path to the Hall of Fame. Betts is just the 11th player to put up a 10 WAR season at 25 years old or younger, and every single one of those players, except Trout, is already in the Hall of Fame. When Trout accomplished the feat in 2012, he was the first player since Mickey Mantle with a 10-win season at 25 or younger. Let’s not let the talent and skills of Trout cloud Betts’ season, as the latter is currently putting himself up with the greatest players of all time.