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If Mike Trout Didn’t Exist, Mookie Betts Would Be the Best Player in Baseball

Even with a mediocre bat, the Red Sox outfielder would still be an All-Star. But nearly two months into the 2018 season, he’s hit the ball better than anyone else in MLB.

Mookie Betts Getty Images/Ringer illustration

After falling into an 0-2 count, Mookie Betts is hitting .382/.432/.912 in 37 plate appearances this season. There is no more absurd statistic that so aptly captures Betts’s absurd start to the 2018 campaign; in the situations most favorable to a pitcher, in which MLB as a whole amasses a .446 OPS, the Red Sox right fielder is hitting like Babe Ruth in 1921. He could go 0 for his next 70 after an 0-2 count and still have an above-average OPS in the split.

Betts’s inordinate success in that subset of at-bats is but a microcosm of his inordinately successful 2018 season. He started hot, with five multi-hit performances in his first 10 games, and only grew hotter, as he now leads the majors in every conceivable important offensive statistic. Baseball-Reference’s standard player batting chart includes 16 positive (e.g., not counting double plays) statistics; Betts ranks first in the majors in nine of those categories and first in the American League in a 10th (total hits). He’s tops in MLB in runs, doubles, home runs, total bases, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and park-adjusted OPS.

He hasn’t just improved compared with the rest of the league, though. He’s also making previous versions of himself look arcane. Compared with last season, when he slumped to his worst numbers as an MLB hitter, his OPS+ has doubled in 2018. Just regarding his power, preseason projections called for him to repeat last year’s total with 24 more home runs; he’s already two-thirds of the way there less than one-third of the way through the season.

By wins above replacement last year, Betts was a top-10-15 position player, even as an inferior batter. This outburst elevates his ceiling like one of his many homers over the Green Monster, and although it’s still early in Betts’s league-leading run, Mike Trout at least has his newest challenger—and perhaps his fiercest yet.

A deeper examination of Betts’s triumphs thus far reveals an immediate explanation for his offensive evolution. Here is a map of the landing spots for all 36 of Betts’s extra-base hits this season. They form a distinct pattern.

Not even Brian Dozier, perhaps the best contemporary example of a right-handed power bat with extreme pull tendencies, produces diagrams so slanted toward one side. Betts has adopted three linked habits that allow him to access the mighty power his 5-foot-9 frame belies.

First, he’s pulling the ball at a career-best rate. Among 164 qualifying batters, only 11 have pulled the ball more frequently than Betts (Dozier places one spot ahead of him). Second, he’s hitting the ball in the air at a career-best rate. Only 13 qualifying batters have hit ground balls less frequently (Trout places two spots ahead). And third, he’s hitting the ball harder than ever before. Only eight qualifying batters have a higher hard-hit rate than Betts. Those trends pop in graphical form.

Betts is a selective hitter but not in an Aaron Judge “three true outcomes” way. He has the 12th-lowest swing rate but the 11th-highest contact rate among qualifying hitters; that means he works deep counts but doesn’t often end them with a strikeout or walk. When he sees the pitch he wants, he pounces.

His latest home run, a three-run laser off the Rays’ Jacob Faria on Tuesday night, illustrated all of these trends. Faria began the at-bat with two strikes, but Betts laid off three balls to work the count full. And when Faria hung a slider on the decisive pitch, Betts whipped his hands through the zone and yanked it into the left-field bleachers.

Through two months, opposing pitchers have yet to make any inroads in combating Betts’s tweaked approach. He’s crushing the ball in any count, in any park, against any pitch. FanGraphs tracks production against individual pitch types with its “pitch values” stat, and Betts is one of just two qualified hitters with a positive value against every kind of pitch he’s seen this season. (The other is Kris Bryant, another 2016 standout who’s on a career-best hitting pace thus far in 2018.)

The obvious strategy would be to attack Betts outside with fastballs and biting breakers, as Oakland righty Daniel Mengden—who retired Betts in all three matchups in a start at Fenway last week—told FanGraphs’ David Laurila recently about his approach. Betts unsurprisingly has been baseball’s best right-handed hitter, by far, on inside pitches but falls back somewhat to the pack on the outside part of the plate, where it’s harder to tap into his pull power. Except that solution is easier said than done—Betts has a solid batting eye, and he’s not afraid to take outside strikes and wait for a pitch to float back over the plate.

By itself, Betts’s hitting prowess would make him an MVP candidate; combined with his numerous other talents, it gives him a chance at a historic season. He’s a true five-tool player, with all his little bits of greatness adding together to push him beyond the mere mortals who can only hit or field or run, but not all at once.

As a fielder, Betts produces nonpareil results. Since the start of the 2016 season, Betts ranks first in the majors in all manner of advanced defensive statistics by a wide margin, and even on a more granular level, he ascends to the top of every one. FanGraphs’ core defensive stat, ultimate zone rating, splits into several component factors, and Betts leads all of them: Since the start of 2016, Betts ranks first among all outfielders in arm score and error score, and he ranks first among all fielders, period, in range score. And if anything, catch-all statistics like WAR might be underestimating his defensive contributions because his presence as a reserve center fielder gives the Red Sox added flexibility that most corner defenders don’t impart.

His baserunning, meanwhile, isn’t the absolute best in baseball, but he doesn’t fall far from the top. Again since the start of 2016, Betts ranks second in the majors in baserunning value, behind only Billy Hamilton. And despite not rating quite as well this year because, at least for the moment, he’s taking the extra base (e.g., going from first to third on a single) at just an average clip, he still places in a tie for the fifth-most stolen bases in the majors, with 11 successful swipes in 13 attempts.

That combination of skills gives any player a tremendous baseline. It’s why Hamilton has always been playable despite hitting like a shortstop from the 1960s, and it’s why Betts last season, although he struggled like never before at the plate, still eclipsed 6 bWAR as Boston’s most valuable position player.

That’s Betts as a mediocre hitter: still immensely useful. Betts as a good hitter rockets even further up the sport’s hierarchy. He was the second-best player in 2016, finishing behind only Trout in WAR and the AL’s MVP vote. Yet even then, at his previous peak at the plate, Betts performed capably as a hitter but not superlatively so, ranking among the likes of Brandon Belt, Matt Carpenter, and Yoenis Céspedes in park-adjusted hitting.

We already know what a right-handed outfielder who rates among the sport’s best with every tool looks like—but in 2018, Betts has shown us a second version. He and Trout have spent the season juggling the MLB WAR lead. The Betts-vs.-Trout comparisons are here, and despite being largely mocked when they first appeared last month, they have seemingly gained credence with every Betts blast.

It’s still far too early to make a meaningful effort at claiming Betts’s superiority, though. Two torrid months doesn’t overwrite six-plus torrid years for Trout, whose greatness stems not only from his dominance, but from the consistency with which he expresses it. Since 2012, Trout’s first full season, he has six of the top 14 hitting seasons by park- and league-adjusted offense. No other player appears in the top 14 of that leaderboard more than once, while no Trout season falls outside that top group. And by FanGraphs WAR, Trout has four of the top five overall seasons for a position player since 2012; by Baseball-Reference’s version, he has four of the top six (one of the other two was Betts’s 2016).

Individual players have threatened Trout for individual years at a time, but never sustained the competition beyond a single season. Bryce Harper even bested Trout in WAR in 2015, but Trout has been nearly three times as valuable as Harper since. So even if Betts nudges ahead of Trout by 2018 numbers alone—at the moment, Betts leads by 0.4 fWAR, while Trout is ahead by 0.1 bWAR—it will take years of such relative overperformance to mount an actual challenge. As it stands in 2018, Betts is hitting at such a high level that it’s likely not completely sustainable while Trout isn’t doing much better than his career norm at the plate—and the two outfielders are still running neck and neck.

That cautionary note won’t stop the debate, of course, especially if Betts romps through the summer months with a home run every other day. But he and Red Sox fans championing their man have more immediate concerns, anyway: The Red Sox and Yankees have the majors’ two best records as they battle for first place in the AL East, and every Betts homer puts Boston one step closer to clinching the division instead of having to potentially face Shohei Ohtani or Seattle’s James Paxton in a wild-card game. The Yankees are a formidable opponent, with baseball’s highest-scoring lineup and a roster full of sluggers, but for the last two months, Boston has had the best hitter in the world.

Statistics through Tuesday.