The American League Championship Series starts tomorrow. To beat the defending world champion Houston Astros, the Red Sox must be at their best. So here’s a question:
Where’s Mookie Betts?
Don’t look now, Boston, but the probably 2018 AL Most Valuable Player had a relatively quiet AL Division Series against the New York Yankees. The Red Sox won the series, of course, and Betts made contributions with both his glove and legs. But he also went 3-for-16 with four strikeouts, posting a .188 average and .566 OPS that leaves a great deal to be desired.
Can the Red Sox win without Mookie? Sure. Essentially, they just did. But there is a gap between the Astros and the Yankees – the Astros and everyone, really – and the Red Sox are going to need Betts at his best if they are going to fill it.
“It’s good that we won (against New York) and he didn’t take charge offensively like he’s been doing the whole season, so that’s a plus for our team,” Red Sox manager told reporters, emphasizing the Red Sox’ depth. Added the manager looking ahead to the ALCS: “He’s looking forward to it. I know that I am. And he’s going to be fine.”
For the Sox’ sake, they’d better hope so.
So here’s another question: did the Yankees pitch Betts exceptionally well in the Division Series or did Betts get himself out? The right answer, as almost always: a little of both. Betts entered Tuesday’s Game 4 have gone 12-for-28 (a .428 average) with a 1.050 OPS against Yankees starter C.C. Sabathia. He then went hitless in his first two at-bats against the Yankees starter with a groundout and weak fly en route to an 0-for-4 night.
In his first at-bat, Betts drilled one Sabathia pitch but yanked it foul, deep down the left field line. He then got a meatball in the middle of the plate, but rolled over it and grounded out to an overshifted infield.
In the image below, you’ll see that catcher Gary Sanchez is set up down and in, but has to reach back toward his right shin guard to catch a Sabathia pitch that waist high and in the middle of the strike zone. When Betts is on his game, he crushes this pitch – probably for extra bases. But Sabathia got away with it.
OK, so now let’s jump ahead to Betts’ second at-bat, during which Sabathia pitched him quite well. After throwing Betts all fastballs and cutters – all at roughly 89-91 mph – Sabathia starts him off with a slider (down and away) in the next at-bat. This pitch may look like it’s outside, but it broke down and caught the outside part of the plate, almost precisely where Sanchez is set up.
OK, so now the count is 0-1. So what does Sabathia do? After going soft away, he comes in hard (at least for him). Betts gets tied up with a 90 mph cutter than probably looked harder than it was, but give Sabathia and Sanchez credit for setting him up.
Note how Betts hands are close to his body and that the ball is hitting the middle of his bat.
Now, with the count 0-2, Betts has all kinds of things to worry about. Sabathia began the at-bat by dropping a strike down by the knees on the outside corner. Then he elevated slightly and came hard inside, inducing a foul. Betts now has an entire strike zone to cover – low, away, up, in – and has to guess on the next pitch.
Sabathia goes back down and away – generally the safest place to pitch Betts – and gets Betts off-balance, out on his front foot, resulting in a soft fly to right fielder Aaron Judge. As Betts lunges.
On this at-bat, credit Sabathia.
Nonetheless, we all know that baseball is a bottom line business. During his extraordinary 2018 season, Betts racked up 180 hits – including 84 for extra bases – while striking out just 91 times. That hit-to-strikeout ratio of essentially 2-to-1 in completely consistent with the totals for his career (789 hits, 363 strikeouts, a ratio of 2.2-to-1.)
But in the playoffs? Betts has now played 11 games and batted a collective .238 with no home runs, a .333 slugging percentage (compared to .518 career regular season) and .667 OPS (compared to .888). More revealing is the fact that he has just 10 hits and nine strikeouts.
Starting tomorrow, the numbers need to be more in line.
Or the Red Sox may not be able to overcome it this time.