On Tuesday night, Mookie Betts hit two home runs against the Washington Nationals that were virtually identical. The jugs and the transition from dusk to night is really all that sets the two videos apart. The swings and the trajectories are twins.
It was almost like an artist’s signature, a personal way for the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar to announce that he’s incarcerated.
See, at age 29, Betts is already tied for the all-time MLB lead in three-homers. He ended up singing and walking instead of scoring a record-breaking seventh triple blast night, but the message got across. At his best, Betts is a machine. And I only mean that in a figurative sense. Batting is particularly difficult because it’s reactive because it can’t be replicated in a batting cage like the whirring baseball delivery robots. Sometimes with Mookie, you’ll wonder if that’s true.
Obviously, hitting multiple home runs in a game is a good thing, but many otherwise unremarkable major league hitters do it occasionally. What set off alarm bells about Betts’ game was consistency.
In terms of individual accomplishments, the last decade has been the story of Mike Trout reigning at the top as a hitter or two stand up to challenge him each year. Betts is the only player to have proven his ability to enter Trout territory more than once. He’s the only non-Trout player with more than one 9-WAR season (he has two, Trout has four), and his 2018 ranks ahead of Trout and everyone else as the most valuable season since Barry Bonds.
And those two precision cuts against Washington could be the telltale sign that Mookie Betts is about to have one of his turbocharged MVP seasons for the ages.
A megastar like Betts — someone who can make the difference to a World Series champion, someone who will sign a 12-year, $365 million contract — has high standards and high ceilings. At Betts, however, the floor and ceiling are made of different materials.
Betts is a perpetual All-Star due to his absolutely elite hand-eye coordination and processing speed, which allows him to make contact more than 85% of the time he swings and walk nearly as much as he punches. He’s a consistent MVP voter because, in addition to this core skill, he’s also regularly ranked among the best outfield defenders and baserunners in the game. (Depending on what metrics you ask, that could be a dramatic understatement. According to Baseball-Reference, Betts is both a top-five baserunner and a top five defender of the last decade.)
Any one of these traits can sustain a solid major league career. So all in all a very strong mix.
So in a “normal” Betts season, he’ll be hitting .280 with a baseline percentage of .360, hitting 25 homers with 10 steals, and finishing sixth in MVP voting. What takes him from there to the otherworldly heights he reached in 2016, 2020 and especially 2018 has a lot to do with those swings from a spot the difference challenge.
When Betts is at his best, he has a superpower of consistent contact.
Since Statcast became publicly visible in 2015, we’ve gained a pretty good understanding of what types of contacts lead to hits and good results.
You want to hit it hard – 95 mph out of the racquet has become the industry standard for “hard hit” balls. And you want to hit it in the air, but not too far in the air. You know the arc, what a line drive looks like, what a deep home run drive looks like. The starting angles that roughly enclose this range are 5 degrees and 35 degrees.
Overall, MLB thugs have progressed to the point where 22% of their batted balls fall within this golden zone, which we call “good contact.” It is captured visually on charts available from Baseball Savant. Here’s what Betts’ chart looked like in 2017, when 22% of his balls hit made good contact.
You can see where the color cluster pops up and how narrow the window is in the grand scheme of things. The goal is to fill that window like a quarterback hitting a target from 20 yards — because that’s where, say, 156 of Betts’ 190 career homers live. In that 2018 MVP-winning season, 32.7% of Betts’ balls in play were in the good contact zone, the third-best in the major leagues.
Hitters build their entire game around this idea. Most of them accept sacrifices—lower batting averages, more strikeouts—because there’s immense value in hitting even a few balls like this a season.
It’s great to make a lot of good contact when you hit the ball, but racquets that can smack the ball on the rare occasions they do hit are a dime a dozen. They throw off lots of punches that whistle on wild swings or wait on the right pitch. And there’s great value in being able to hold pitches.
What you really want to look for in a hitter is lots of good contact per swing. And Betts is special because he can pour hits into that ideal zone without sacrificing much of anything.
Only 8% of MLB swings result in good contact, but in Betts’ career he averages a 12.3% clip, the best of any active player.
In the Statcast era, dating back to 2015, there were 1,199 hitter seasons with at least 750 swings. With that particular thing, good contact per shot, Betts has two of the top three seasons and three of the top 20. In that hot 2018 season – running up a ridiculous .346/.438/.640 line – his rate was 15.4%, almost twice the league average.
(The only hitter to match Betts’s tenacious talent in this area is former Twins catcher and first baseman Joe Mauer, on about half the tries.)
Obviously, this is a tremendous strength for Betts. It’s also a hugely important one. Because he so seldom misses when he swings, this calibration goes a long way in determining how good his batting line will look – which, I know, poor Mookie Betts, is a tough life never lacking when he’s literally in the major league beats.
How Betts compares to his own standards in this area is about as close as you can get to a metric for being “locked up.” More broadly, it can be a handy indicator of when he’s living in his usual upstairs and when he’s reaching for the ceiling.
The bad news for the league: It looks like 2022 will be a blanket year.
In top gear, Betts can mix elite batting averages with elite slugging numbers because he’s hitting a solid 30 or more home runs and then adding 50 extra extra base hits by being extremely fast. One of his best seasons is making good contact on at least 12% of his swings. This season he’s at 13.2%, which ranks third among MLB batsmen who have swung at least 200 times to date.
What’s scary is that he actually stumbled onto a fairly pedestrian launch. But for the past month — since April 25 — he’s tied for MLB’s best course, with 15.8% of swings turning into good contact.
This is what a well-oiled machine looks like. And unsurprisingly, it keeps delivering results. Betts hits .340 with 10 home runs in that time, surpassed only by Aaron Judge. At the top of the Dodgers lineup, he again leads MLB in runs – a category he has led twice before. His slugging and park-adjusted OPS+ are higher than any season since 2018.
At the end of the season, the machine may produce more trophies for an elite talent in his prime.