Boston Red Sox

By Tony Massarotti, 98.5 The Sports Hub

Mookie Betts is off to a historic start this season, so it’s worth clearing this up now. Despite missing time to a hamstring injury, Betts was on pace for 59 home runs through the first 30 games of the Red Sox’ season, all while stealing three bases (on pace for 16), batting .365, and playing his usual brand of stellar defense.

So let’s get this out of the way: Betts is a fabulous talent. The Red Sox need to find a way to keep him.

But that doesn’t mean he’s perfect.

If you listen to The Baseball Reporters, you’ve often heard me say that Betts’ effectiveness can be “mitigated” because he lacks opposite-field power. This is hardly Betts’ fault. He just lacks the size and strength of behemoths like J.D. Martinez, Hanley Ramirez, and even Manny Ramirez, who possessed the rare strength to drive the ball into or over the bullpens at Fenway Park.

Know how many times Betts has hit the bullpens at Fenway in his career? Zero. In fact, he has just four opposite-field home runs in his career – three on the road, one at home. The three opposite-field shots were in Baltimore (two) and Toronto (one), both of which have short right fields. The only one at Fenway wrapped around the right-field foul pole.

Just the other day, a caller – Alex from Newton – rightfully chastised me for suggesting earlier this year that Betts is not a $30-million-a-year player. Assuming that 2016 – and not 2017 – is a reflection of his real ability, Betts is worth a ton in this day and age. Whether the Red Sox will be able to keep him is certainly a matter of debate, but only because Betts has shown no willingness to sign with Boston before he gets to free agency following the 2020 season.

That said, it’s worth noting that Betts’ postseason numbers to this stage in his career have been modest at best, especially compared with his regular season totals:

 

Here’s the simple summary:

Category Regular Season Postseason
Batting average .295 .269
On-base pct. .356 .345
Slugging pct. .502 .385
At-bats per HR 24.5 N/A

Obviously, the current postseason sample is still small. But all of the numbers are lower – and he hasn’t hit a home run yet. So does this mean Betts is a choker? No. And here’s why.

Thanks to YouTube, we can easily find video of each of Betts’ seven career postseason hits. I’ve taken the liberty of going through all of them, because it’s important to recognize how pitchers approach him. In the playoffs, after all, pitchers bear down a great deal more and adhere to game plans much more strictly, because a single mistake can win or lose a game.

Here’s a still frame from Betts’ first career postseason hit, a single against Corey Kluber of the Indians. Note that the catcher is set up and down and away for a curveball that Betts ultimately punches to center field … for a single.

Did Kluber get him out? No. But he didn’t give up an extra–base hit, either, let alone a home run.

Now, here’s a still from Betts’ second career postseason hit, a double against left-hander Andrew Miller that hit the left field wall at Fenway Park. Note where the catcher is set up on this one.

Now, are the Indians stupid for pitching Betts down and in at Fenway? Well, yes and no. In this case, the pitcher limits the options. Andrew Miller is almost purely fastball-slider, and the latter is his wipeout pitch against both left-handed batters and right-handers. In the absence of a changeup that moves away from righties, Miller has no choice but to come in on a hitter who loves the ball on the inner half off the plate. And if Miller isn’t perfect, you get what you got here – a double (or worse).

Now let’s get to 2017. Against Just Verlander, Betts doubled. But again, the Astros pitched him carefully. Betts is leading off the fourth inning of a 2-1 game and the count runs full. Still, Verlander is willing to risk walking him by throwing a breaking ball, staying away. Betts is out in front, but because the pitch is up (and not down) he is able to hook it into the left field corner for a double.

This at-bat, as much as any, is a testament to Betts’ hand-eye coordination and his skill as a hitter. But Verlander wins something here, too. The chance of Betts homering on this pitch? Zero.

Now to postseason hit No. 4. The score is lopsided this time, but the Astros philosophy has not changed. They’re staying away. Will Harris throws a fastball that tails in slightly, and Betts lines it to center field for a single.

Could this pitch have resulted in a homer? Sure. Even then, the Astros were going to make Betts earn it by forcing him to hit to the bigger parts of the ballpark. And history has shown Betts generally doesn’t do that.

Betts’ fifth postseason hit, meanwhile, was a single against Dallas Keuchel, but it was largely a win for the pitcher. Again, the Astros are set up away. And unlike lefty Andrew Miller, Keuchel has a changeup that fades away, which he threw here.

The result? A little bleeder off the end of the bat that squirted over the first-baseman’s head for a fluky double. Betts got on, but the fact that the hit was a double was more of a fluke than anything else.

Now on to No. 6, a single to left field in a game the Red Sox were actually leading by a run. Houston’s philosophy has not changed, especially with the big right field at Fenway. Lance McCullers throws a slider down and away that Betts is able to hook to left field for a single. But the chances of Betts elevating this ball to left for extra-bases are next to zero given how far out in front he is.

Again, this at-bat is a testament to Betts’ ability. Most guys miss this pitch entirely. Betts hits it relatively hard, but low. The Astros minimize – or mitigate – the damage.

Now the last one. Charlie Morton is on the mound. The catcher is set up – you guessed it – away. The pitch is a breaking ball. The problem? The pitch “backs up,” as a pitcher might tell you, which is to say it almost breaks toward the hitter instead of away. (In these cases, it’s almost as if the ball slips out of the pitcher’s hand a little.) Betts absolutely hammers this pitch.

Baseball being baseball, Mookie got some bad luck here. The ball was hit so hard – and was played well by Marwin Gonzalez off the wall- that Mookie managed only a single.

Nonetheless, this entire sequence of at-bats should illustrate to you that opposing pitchers understand where Betts’ only vulnerability is. If they have missed, he has hit them and hurt them. But the damage has been relatively minimal – Betts has zero career postseason RBI – because pitchers for the Indians and Astros have steadfastly adhered to the plan, refusing to expose themselves to Betts’ greatest strengths.

You can hear Tony Massarotti weekdays from 2-6 p.m. EST on the Felger & Massarotti program. Follow him on Twitter @TonyMassarotti.