The Lightning Hands of Mookie Betts

We’ve spoken about Mookie Betts a few times recently in these digital pages, highlighting what we might expect out of him given his age and tools, and looking at the validity of some of the comparisons to a young Andrew McCutchen. And why not: despite a batting line in the opening week that might not wow us at first glance, he’s been a walking highlight reel since spring training with his sneaky power, base running, and defense in centerfield.

Monday only added to the hype, as he did this in the top of the first inning on a Bryce Harper would-be home run:


Followed by this base running gem in the bottom of the same inning:


Quickly followed by this line drive shot in the bottom of the second:


Those plays are a great full day at the park for an established superstar; they were a great 40 minutes for Mookie Betts during the opening week of his first full year as a major leaguer. We’ve only played six or seven games this season, so it’s hard for us to cut through the noise and hype — however, there’s the sense that it this is the continued beginning of something special for the guy playing centerfield in Boston.

Yesterday, following the home run, there was a common theme to the reactions from the press and social media: Mookie Betts has incredibly quick hands. It’s not hard to see why people are saying that: the pitch was inside, Betts kept his arms in, and the swing was short and explosive. Adding to that, Jordan Zimmerman hit his target. He and Jose Lobaton were trying to get Betts inside with something hard (PITCHf/x classified it as a slider, but it would be an abnormally fast slider for Zimmerman, and it didn’t break much); the pitch was going where it was supposed to, Betts just hit it out. From the Red Sox broadcast:

How many times have we seen this so far this season, where they try to sneak a fastball inside to Mookie Betts, and he just cleans it out?

There’s a bit of hyperbole there, as the Red Sox have played seven games, but we get the gist. To that point, the pitch location of his home run yesterday was similar to the one he hit on Opening Day; it turns out it’s similar to most of the home runs he’s hit at the big league level. There have been 195 home runs hit so far this season: Betts’ second-inning shot yesterday was the 30th-most inside pitch hit for a home run, and his dinger on Opening Day was the 18th-most. This next one, on a 1-2 count from September of last year off Miguel Gonzalez, is illustrative of that tendency:


The angle of the camera shot makes the ball look a bit closer to the plate than it was, as it was over a foot inside from the center of the plate when Betts hit it. That was good for the 34th-most inside pitch hit for a home run in 2014 (out of 4,188 total home runs). We’re starting to get an idea of what’s going on with Betts’ power. Jeff wrote a great article last week about where Ryan Zimmerman is like Miguel Cabrera, and how both are able to hit pitches way off the plate inside for home runs. We’re not seeing that extreme level of off-plate power with Mookie Betts (and we may never), but we are starting to get an idea where his happy zone is, and it’s a little different from most hitters. Take a look at where his career home runs have been in the strike zone (the zone is not exact, but it’s good enough to get the point):


Don’t get my wrong, most hitters like pitches middle-in. Those two closer to the center of the plate are pitches that hitters often do damage to. The difference between other hitters and Betts is that most of them like it a little more middle than the other five pitches above, and most of them don’t have the in-zone contact skills that Betts possesses. That highlights the trickiness inherent to pitching to Betts: he doesn’t have many glaring holes in his swing and doesn’t chase a lot of bad pitches. Try to bust him inside, and he can drive the ball, even when it’s on the black; try to get him to chase outside, and he’ll take his walks. Let’s take a look at his zone profile for swing rates to get an idea of how often he chases:


Not a lot, is the answer. The place to get him, it seems, is well-located on the outside corner, where he doesn’t swing much and isn’t as able to drive the ball (.182 slugging for the 38% purple box). Again, you could say the same about most hitters. Zimmerman and Lobaton made the mistake of trying to beat Betts in the place where he swings the most, and the result was a three-run home run that effectively ended the contest. They weren’t the first battery to try that, and it’s a safe bet they won’t be the last.

There’s one thing for certain: pitchers will adjust to Betts’ strengths. As is the case with all young players, how Betts adjusts back to the pitching change will tell us a lot. Based on his contact skills and eye at the plate, he might be better suited to weathering those adjustment periods than most. With hands as quick as his on inside pitches, everything becomes a lot easier.

Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.

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That last GIF shows a very strong back leg once he’s turned his core to be in a position to turn on the inside pitch with authority.

Which looks a lot like Miguel Cabrera’s form. Holy re-justifying the hype!!