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As a Red Sox fan, fan of tremendous young talent, and fan of players with unusual first names, you know Mookie Betts is going to be high on my list. Thanks to Eno Sarris at Fangraphs, I learned about him when he was just a rising talent in A-ball in 2013. Since then I have been following him intently (and enjoying drafting him in my dynasty league). In 2016, he finished as the #1 player in all of fantasy baseball on the ESPN Player Rater, just edging out Jose Altuve and Mike Trout.
He obviously had a phenomenal season worthy of being considered the fantasy MVP. Now the question becomes: where does he go from here? He’s just 24 years old, so it seems like he could get even better. However, I have some regression concerns that are worth diving into.
Those concerns can best be summed up this way: Is this power for real?
Betts increased his power output dramatically in many ways.
His ISO, SLG, Hard%, HR, and HR/FB% were all at career highs. Something clearly changed with his power. His batting average and steals increased also, but I don’t see any reason to expect regression with either of those since his BABIP was not unreasonable, he has a near-perfect batted ball distribution (Pull%, FB%, GB%, etc.), he is still very young and fast, he has a low strikeout rate, and he swings and misses at an elite rate (5.6% SwStr%).
Back to the power surge, let’s look at some more in-depth numbers from Statcast to see if this is legit. His 90.6 mph average exit velocity puts him #86 among all hitters with at least 190 batted balls. That’s 86th out of 257, so in the top third. For average distance, he is #119. For barreled balls per hit ball, he’s at a mediocre 156. On barreled balls per plate appearance, he’s down at 141. Still in the top half, but very close to the middle. Finally, his average home run distance of 386 feet is #208, much closer to the bottom than the top.
So, other than exit velocity, none of the Statcast values show much hope for continuing at this same power level. To add even more fuel to this fire, let’s look at the ESPN Home Run tracker. Look at this screenshot of the home page, showing only the “leaders” in each category.
Do you see it? Look who’s just one HR off the “lead” in both “just enough” homers and lucky homers. That does not bode well for keeping up his 2016 pace. We have just one last place to look.
I want you to pay close attention to this graph of Mookie’s ISO over time (15-game rolling average). Look especially at the 2016 trend, noticing the peaks and valleys. Got it? Hey, you in the back with the hat wearing the flannel shirt. Yeah, you, I see you. Are you ready? Ok.
First, compare the HR/FB graph here to the ISO graph above. It sure looks like they line up very well. That indicates that some luck with wind, short fences, or something else was a big factor in his big home run spurts and that those home runs really drove his ISO. I put the Hard% on there as well just to show that some of that power increase at different points in the season was driven by simply hitting the ball harder. Look around game 250 and game 325 or so. There definitely seems to be some correlation there.
Also, when his power tailed off in September, his Hard% dropped off, so it’s likely that it wasn’t poor luck but soft hits that drove the power drop. He had arthroscopic knee surgery this offseason and was dealing with knee soreness late in the year, so it’s reasonable to assume that had some impact on his power.
Even with that injury, he still finished the season with those 30 HR. I think in the end, this was a very fortunate year for his power and not a new normal. Looking at the Statcast data, HR/FB ratio, “lucky” and “just enough” home run totals, and rolling averages, it is apparent that he doesn’t possess the raw power to hit 30 HR regularly.
I’m not saying it was all a fluke, since he did have a higher Hard% than in 2015 and was still in the top third in exit velocity, but he probably should have ended up with 20-25 HR, not 30 and a slugging % closer to 0.500.
Before we get to the magic projection moment, a quick fun fact: Betts has exactly 54 HR and 54 steals in his career. This has been a quick fun fact, sponsored by Kwik-e-Mart.
0.305/0.370/0.500 with 20 HR, 25 steals, 100 R, and 85 RBI
Edit: after some of the commenters forced me to reconsider my initial projection, I agree with them I was too harsh on the power regression, so I have updated it to this:
0.305/0.370/0.515 with 24 HR, 25 steals, 103 R, and 89 RBI
I bumped the batting average down just a little because it is so hard to maintain 0.318 even as good as he is. You know why the slugging and homers are expected to be down. Without David Ortiz, I think the runs scored drop a little bit (also, 122 is crazy) and if he bats leadoff for most of the year, it will be difficult to get back to the huge 113 RBI he had in 2016.
All in all, it is still an all-star fantasy batting line and he is in the conversation for top overall draft pick. I personally would put him below Trout and Altuve, but wouldn’t argue with anyone that wanted to take him #1 because he has such a high floor with his balanced skill set, speed, batting eye, youth, and relative health. Tschus!