For all of the talk about Mookie Betts’ increased aggressiveness early in counts, it’s possible to exaggerate the significance of his change in approach. After all, through 10 games this year, Betts is actually swinging less frequently than at any other point in his career.
To date, Betts has swung at just 33.3 percent of pitches – down from last year’s rate of 36.0 percent and his career norm of 38.7 percent. He’s swung at the first pitch in just 6.8 percent of his plate appearances, a rate that is less than half his career standard of 14.3 percent. For all of the discussions of approach, there may be an even more significant change that Betts has made in erupting to his explosive start, a mechanical adjustment that is particularly interesting given how the idea formed to make it.
For Betts, getting the right stride of his front foot has always been the key. At the beginning of the 2013 minor league season, after Betts got off to a dismal start in Single A Greenville, it was a couple of days of cage work with Drive hitting coach U.L. Washington to adjust and control his leg lift that allowed Betts to sync his body in a way that allowed his athleticism and hands to transform him from a little-known prospect to a player on the fast track to superstardom.
Last year, however, Betts’ stride drifted too far forward. At the point of impact, his stance became too open.
“I think one of the big things with Mookie is controlling that stride length. The further he gets his stride length out, the longer his swing. He’s so quick anyway it doesn’t matter, but [the right stride length creates] more precision, more accuracy with his barrel,” explained hitting coach Tim Hyers. “We try to get a lot of guys with their feet underneath them because it helps their hips to stay connected to the ground. With him, when his stride length gets too far in my opinion, that’s when he starts to leak, he starts to get [too much length with his swing] in the back, and I just call it a clean path. It disrupts his clean path. When his stride is a little more under control, underneath him, it allows the hands to work. We all know what kind of hands he has.”
Those hands – the ones that a scout who saw him in Portland compared not to a baseball player but instead to boxer Floyd Mayweather – allowed Betts to make contact and put the ball in play a year ago but without the consistent ability to drive the ball that had been on display in his MVP runner-up season of 2016.
“I was hitting some balls good and they weren’t really going anywhere,” said Bets. “This year, I’m able to let my hands take over and it seems to work.”
Betts’ stride length has a lot to do with that. And for that, while the 25-year-old notes the influence of both Hyers and assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, he also identifies another critical influence in allowing him to get his mechanics back in sync in a way that allows him to generate exceptional electricity in seemingly every swing.
The one whom Betts calls “Large Father” – David Ortiz – briefly visited Red Sox spring training at the end of February and beginning of March. Ortiz immediately identified what he remembered of Betts during his spectacular 2016 season, and what he saw him doing differently in 2017.
“The main person that helped me with [correcting the stride] was Ortiz. He’s actually the No. 1 person who helped with that,” said Betts. “He came in, sat me down, and it was kind of like overnight, I think.”
The ability of Ortiz to convey a message with potentially profound impact is a welcome asset for the current Red Sox staff. While Hyers has a long history with Betts dating to his time from 2013-15 as the Red Sox’ minor league hitting coordinator, Ortiz has an even longer history with the Red Sox star.
“If David Ortiz can share his knowledge with these guys, it’s something that goes a long ways. He’s so knowledgeable about the feel, the game-planning, reading pitchers, and also mechanics. When he’s around and talks to them, it only helps them out,” said Hyers. “I think David was like, ‘Hey, when you were going good, this is what I remember – this is what you were doing really well.’ I think Mookie said, ‘Oh, yeah – I’ll put that at the top of the list.’”
The feedback from Ortiz and his coaches – along with the encouragement of Red Sox manager Alex Cora to attack meaty pitches early in counts – had something to do with Betts’ .432/.533/.730 start. Betts’s remarkable athleticism and aptitude allowed him to make a critical and potentially challenging adjustment almost immediately.
Tuesday’s 4-for-4 game with a grand slam and two doubles inflated Betts’ line to almost fictional proportions, but it reflects an almost perfect approach. While he has been more aggressive to pitches in the strike zone this year, swinging at 58.4 percent of them (up from 53.8 percent last year), he’s chasing fewer pitches out of the strike zone than ever, swinging at a career-low 14.6 percent of pitches.
He’s making pitchers work in the strike zone. When they do, he’s punishing them.
“He goes in there with an idea of what he wants to do,” said No. 2 hitter Andrew Benintendi. “He doesn’t swing at bad pitches. He waits for that pitcher to throw what he wants or make a mistake. When he does, it’s trouble for them.”
That is particularly true when opposing pitchers try to beat him with four-seam fastballs in the strike zone, a task that has seemed all but impossible this year. According to Statcast data at BaseballSavant.com, Betts has seen 76 four-seam fastballs this year. He’s 8-for-15 against them with four doubles, good for a .533 average and .800 slugging mark. Perhaps even more startling, he has not swung and missed at a four-seamer this year. He has just four swings and misses all season against the 184 pitches he’s seen, a 2.1 percent swing-and-miss rate that is easily the lowest in the majors.
He’s on time all the time, he’s balanced, he’s not expanding the strike zone, he’s aggressive on hittable pitches in it, and he’s hitting the snot out of the ball. It’s a dazzling combination.
“He is an MVP-type player. Period,” said one scout.
It’s impossible for Betts to maintain what he’s doing, but the early returns on his approach in 2016 suggest a player who may have another gear to his already impressive game. Thanks in part to the conversations he’s had with Ortiz and members of the Red Sox staff, there is a sense of enormous possibility that hovers over Betts and the Red Sox in the initial weeks of the 2018 season.
“Knowing his talent, his potential is – it’s untapped so far,” said Hyers. “He’s a guy that in my opinion, his ceiling is whatever he wants to make it.”
Source: Alex Speier | Boston Globe