The list of baseball players with more talent and potential than Mookie Betts isn’t very long.
As far as 2017 goes, Betts again should contend for the MVP. Here’s a closer look at why he might or might not bring home the hardware:
THE CASE FOR BETTS
He obviously came close last year
Mike Trout was the best player in baseball last season. There’s quite a case for Betts at No. 2. He posted a career-high 7.8 wins above replacement (via Fangraphs), trailing only Trout and National League MVP Kris Bryant. But Betts’ traditional stats obviously were off the charts, too. He batted .318, hit 31 home runs, drove in 113 runs and stole 26 bases while also playing tremendous defense in right field. He lost the MVP race to Trout by 43 points and earned nine of 30 first-place votes.
He plays for a good team that should contend for the playoffs
Since 2004, 10 of the 13 American League MVP winners came from a first-place team. Two more came from division runners-up, both of which made the playoffs. The AL MVPs from 2004 through 2015 played on teams that averaged 93 wins. More often than not, MVP winners come from the best teams in the league. The lone exception in the last 12 years is Trout, who won last season on the relatively simple merit of being the best player in the world. Trout winning seemed to signal a shift in narrative-driven voting, but the Red Sox are the best team in a bad division, meaning Betts will get plenty of exposure and love.
He doesn’t strike out
This might seem random and terribly simple, but one thing Betts does very well is make contact. His already solid strikeout rate dropped from 12.5 percent in 2015 to 11 percent in 2016. Among qualified hitters, only 10 players struck out a lower rate than Betts. He also hits the ball hard, generating an average exit velocity of 91.43 mph last season, nearly 2 mph better than the major league average. Hitting the ball often and hitting the ball hard often should ease any concerns Betts was overly “lucky” in 2015, as his .322 batting average on balls in play could suggest.
He does everything well
Betts doesn’t have an MVP in his trophy case, but he does have a Gold Glove for his incredible right field defense in 2016. It’s still insane to think he was a full-time second baseman as recently as 2013. He played outfield at an elite level last season.
Look at those charts above. According to MLB’s Statcast information, Betts allowed just one ball categorized as “easy” fall in for a hit last season while catching 34 balls categorized as either “tough” or “highlight.” And he routinely makes it look easy, an indication that he’s almost always taking an ideal route to the ball even in a spacious right field like Fenway’s. What does that mean in relation to the MVP? Now more than ever, voters are using advanced statistics to help guide them, making defense even more important than it already was.
Betts still is only 24(!), so we’re not expecting his physical skills to diminish anytime soon. If anything, he’ll continue to get better.
THE CASE AGAINST BETTS
There’s not much else to say. Trout’s the best player in baseball, and he’s on a path to becoming the best player of all time. He could roll out of bed and win the MVP.
Given the aforementioned contact numbers and Betts’ age, we don’t expect to see a sharp decline in production from him this season. But there’s a very, very short list of players who are able to put up 30 home runs and 100 RBIs on a season-to-season basis while also swiping at least 25 bags and playing Gold Glove-caliber defense. There’s also no shortage of tape on Betts, who will eclipse 1,600 career plate appearances on Opening Day. Betts is the guy in the Boston lineup opposing teams will focus on most. Which brings us to our next point …
No more David Ortiz
When you lose a player like David Ortiz, there’s going to be an obvious ripple effect throughout the lineup. And no disrespect to Mitch Moreland, but he’s not going to fill that gap. He’s not being asked to, either, as Boston clearly put an emphasis on run prevention with the additions of Moreland (a Gold Glover) and pitchers like Chris Sale and Tyler Thornburg to reinforce the rotation and bullpen, respectively. You never say never, but the Red Sox probably aren’t going to lead the majors in runs like they did last season. We’ll soon learn how much Betts’ environment affected his 2016 production.
Thumbnail photo via Joe Nicholson/USA TODAY Sports Images