Mookie Betts did something for the first time this season Tuesday night as the Boston Red Sox steamrolled the New York Yankees 14-1 at Fenway Park.
He swung and missed at a pitch inside the strike zone.
We forgive you if you were too focused on Betts’ stat line — 4-for-4 with a grand slam, two doubles, a single, a walk and five runs scored — to notice he whiffed at a 2-0 changeup from Yankees starter Luis Severino in the fourth inning. But yup, he sure did. Right before laying off back-to-back 96 mph fastballs to earn a free pass.
Why is this significant? On the surface, it isn’t. We’re dealing with just a 10-game sample size, and making contact on balls thrown over the plate isn’t exactly an earth-shattering development for a major league hitter, especially one of Betts’ caliber. Betts made contact on 92.7 percent of the strikes he offered at in 2017 — considered a down offensive season by his standards — and his career mark sits at 93.6 percent ahead of Wednesday’s middle game against the Yankees.
However, the importance of Betts’ ability to pounce on favorable pitches is quite evident when you begin to peel back the layers and evaluate the success he’s having this season with a modified offensive approach. Betts isn’t just barrelling up good pitches. He’s also laying off bad pitches.
Betts has swung at just 14.6 percent of the pitches he’s seen outside the strike zone this season, a massive improvement over the 22.1 percent he took a whack at last season and his career mark, which sits at 23.6 percent as of Wednesday. And when Betts has swung at pitches outside the strike zone this season, well, he’s still putting wood on the baseball, making contact at an 86.7 percent clip in such situations versus 72.6 percent in 2017 and 73 percent for his career.
Simply put, Betts is being more selective while simultaneously being more aggressive. He’s willing to take pitches he’s not comfortable handling — he has swung at 33.3 percent of the total pitches he’s seen this season versus 38.7 percent for his career — but he’s also prepared to swing the bat early in counts if the right pitch comes along, something he wasn’t necessarily focused on in the past.
“As you know, I take a lot of pitches and I kind of made it a point this year to try and be aggressive and swing early, because that’s when they’re attacking me,” Betts told his former manager, John Farrell, on ESPN after Sunday’s game in response to a question about his new offensive approach. “It’s definitely worked this year.”
Sure has. Betts leads Major League Baseball in average (.432) through his first 10 games. His on-base percentage (.533), slugging percentage (.730) and OPS (1.263) rank third. Betts took a step back last season after an otherworldly 2016 in which he finished second in American League MVP voting behind Mike Trout, but it looks like the Red Sox right fielder could have a special 2018 thanks to his immaculate pitch recognition coupled with some adjustments to his game plan.
Overall, Betts has swung and missed at just 1.6 percent of the total pitches he’s seen this season, the lowest mark of all qualified MLB hitters and far better than his career mark of 5.1 percent.
“He’s always been a swing at strikes first, getting his pitch to hit,” Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers said, per NBC Sports Boston. “He understands that part. To me, it’s leading him to be more aggressive, encourage him to take a few more gambles early on. It’s worked in his favor so far.”
In other words, don’t get used to Betts swinging and missing at strikes, like he finally did Tuesday. It’s even rarer than a Red Sox loss these days.
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