Each swing of Mookie Betts’ bat produces more hits, and far more total bases, than anybody else’s. Have a look:
(My apologies for the use of mid-August numbers. It has taken me a while to complete this article due to lack of available time.)
On the total base per swing list, the difference between Betts and second place is bigger than the difference between second place and 37th place.
What’s especially interesting to me is that if you look at the top 11 names on each list, you see that they’re entirely different lists, except for the one name, Betts, at the top of each list. That’s remarkable when you consider the seemingly opposed approaches to getting on one list versus getting on the other. The hits per swing list is full of guys who’ve optimized their games for making contact, and perhaps aiming the ball to “hit ’em where they ain’t”. The total bases per swing list is full of guys who’ve optimized their game for impacting the ball, driving it hard and presumably with a good launch angle. These differing approaches display for us a tradeoff that exists throughout sports – the tradeoff between accuracy and power. Think of a pitcher who overthrows a fastball and loses control of it. Think of a bowler who might slow down his roll to be more accurate, or speed up his roll to get more power. You can surely think of some other examples.
Betts appears to be defying that tradeoff, excelling at both accuracy and power with each swing of his bat. How does he do it?
An attempt to break down the skills that contribute to turning swings into hits
To get an idea, let’s try breaking down the different skills that would go into producing high numbers for bases per swing.
Consider four main divisions: pitch recognition, accuracy of swing, power in swing, and sprinting speed. (A fifth, park factors, is relevant, but not one I’ll spend much time on in this article. It does come out at the end though, for Betts.)
This second division, “accuracy of swing”, can be further subdivided into three dimensions: timing (depth), horizontal accuracy (width), and vertical accuracy (height).
We can break down power into some components, too, but we’ll do that later to keep things from getting too confusing.
Which results do each of these skills affect?
If your pitch recognition is poor, you’ll have a lot of swings and misses, and possibly a lot of bad contact. Your HpS (Hits per swing) and TBpS (Total Bases per swing) will both suffer.
If your timing is off, you’ll be either early or late. It can add to your swings and misses, but perhaps the best indication of poor timing will be hitting a lot of foul balls relative to balls hit fair. While this doesn’t necessarily hurt you as a hitter (it works great for Mike Trout), it will lower your HpS and TBpS.
If your vertical accuracy is off, that brings some swings and misses, but mostly popups and weak ground balls. This could be hard to separate from poor pitch recognition. I’m assuming poor pitch recognition is more closely associated with no contact, and poor vertical accuracy is more associated with poor contact.
If your horizontal accuracy is off, you’ll still hit the ball, but you won’t hit it on the sweet spot. This will sap your power, because it causes vibrations and bending in the bat that don’t happen when the ball hits the sweet spot. That bending sends energy away from the point of contact, so there is less energy stored in the compression of the ball and bat at that point of contact. Thus less energy rebounds back into the ball, and it leaves the bat with less velocity.
I had previously written in this article that putting more strength behind a swing would make up for some horizontal inaccuracy, but according to this David Kagan article, that’s not true. After a lot of thought about it, I agree with that assessment.
So apart from horizontal accuracy, power is increased by faster bat speed, and having a denser or heavier bat in the barrel. Since bats all appear to be at the regulation maximum width, and most players use the already dense wood maple for their bats, the only real variation in bats today will be in bat length. A longer bat will be harder to control, but will have a bigger sweet spot that moves at a greater speed due to being farther from the bat’s pivot point (near the hands). Players with the forearm strength to control a longer bat will generate more power using one.
Players without as much forearm strength must generate momentum by increasing bat speed. This is also increased by strength, but a not-as-strong player can still match stronger players in terms of strength put into the swing by being effective at involving their strongest muscles, those in their legs and core. It’s easier said than done. It takes a lot of whole-body coordination and skill. Mookie Betts has always been known for having exactly that.
Basic skills Betts is known for
What else of these things is Betts known for? Well, he was a standout in neuroscouting tests done in his prospect days, tests that try to measure how quickly and accurately a player recognizes pitches. And this article speaks to his and Mike Trout’s excellence at swinging at strikes and not at balls, with Betts in the top 1% of players for both. So there’s already good evidence of great pitch recognition on his part.
Commentators frequently speak of his quick hands. So he’s got a reputation for bat speed, which means power when combined with horizontal accuracy or strength of swing.
So to summarize, out of bat speed, strength of swing, pitch recognition, timing, vertical accuracy, and horizontal accuracy, Betts has some reputation for the first three, and we don’t know about the last three. So, let’s look at some stats!
These numbers are taken from mid-August. They include the 397 players who, at that point, had at least 100 plate appearances and 60 “batted ball events” (batted balls that produce a result, such as a hit, out, or error; this includes some foul balls).
Not swinging and missing
We’ve already referenced how Mookie Betts is in the top 1% of players at not swinging at balls, and at rate of swinging at strikes, which may be the best indication that he doesn’t get fooled. But having a low rate of swings and misses should more directly impact his TBpS and HpS numbers, so let’s see the data on misses per swing for the two groups:
|Name||Miss per Sw||rank||pctl|
|Name||Miss per Sw||rank||pctl|
Of the Hits per Swing leaders, 14 of the 20 are in the top 10% for not missing when swinging. Christian Yelich and David Freese are the anomalies in that group. The ability to not be fooled appears to be one of the top skills that will help a player become a HpS leader. But notice that even among those in the top 10% for making contact, about two thirds are not on this list. So clearly there are other skills that will help.
For the Total Bases per Swing leaders, however, it’s all across the board. One is in the bottom 3%; four are in the bottom 30%; and only seven are in the top 36%. However, five of the twenty are in the top 10%. The ability to make contact does appear to have a positive impact on a player’s placement on the TBpS leader list, but that positive impact seems small; there have to be some other skill or skills that make a much stronger impact on TBpS. You likely already have an idea of what some of those other things are, but I’ll be getting to those later, so I won’t mention them just yet.
Except for Christian Yelich, all five guys who appear on both the TBpS and HpS leader lists (names in bold italics) have high rates of contact. (What’s up with Christian Yelich?)
Given his high percentile for not swinging and missing (top 9% of all players), this is clearly a skill that is helping Mookie Betts appear on the HpS list. Given how few people on the TBpS list have a high rate of contact, it ought to be a separator for him there.
Timing – keeping it fair
Now let’s look at balls put in play (fair territory) as a ratio of swings that made contact. So we divide balls in play by the sum of balls in play and foul balls. Excellence at this probably indicates the player has good timing, though a player with an all-fields approach, or with an approach of intentionally fouling off difficult two-strike pitches, might have good timing and still show poorly here.
|Name||IP p Cont||rank||pctl|
|Name||IP p Cont||rank||pctl|
Of the Hits per Swing leaders, 11 of the 20 are in the top 10%, and all but one are in the top 21%. (The one who isn’t: Christian Yelich. Really, what is up with Christian Yelich?) This shouldn’t be surprising; if you hit a ton of foul balls, that adds a lot to your swings total without adding to your hits total, making your hits per swing ratio small. As with contact rate, the ability to keep the ball fair appears to be one of the top skills that will help a player become a HpS leader, but also clearly not the only one.
The Total Bases per Swing leaders, however, are once again all across the board. (According to Sam Miller of ESPN.com, all those foul balls work for Mike Trout, because with his excellent eye for the strike zone, they earn him more walks.) The ability to keep the ball fair seems to have a small impact, relative to some other skills, on becoming a TBpS leader.
But with 30% of the TBpS leaders list in the top 12% for keeping the ball fair, it certainly seems to help, and so it also can be a separator on this list for those who excel at it. With Betts in the top 6% at keeping his hit balls fair, it serves as another separator for him among the TBpS leaders.
If you multiply balls in play per contact by contacts per swing, you get balls in play per swing. And it should be apparent that improving your balls in play per swing is typically going to increase your hits per swing. And this product we speak of is just the product of the two stats we’ve looked at so far. So it makes sense to see so many players on the HpS leaders list among the best at both of these skills. And if you look, you’ll see that several of the other top players on the HpS list have more balls in play per swing than Betts. So there must be something about the balls that Betts puts in play that makes them more likely to become hits, than those of the other guys on the HpS list. Could it be power?
Hitting the ball hard
Okay, let’s have a look at some power stats, then. We’ll focus on average exit velocity. but we’ll also list FanGraphs’ rates of hard and soft contact here, for a different look.
|Name||Avg exit vel||rank||percentile||Soft%||Percentile||Hard%||Percentile|
|Name||Avg exit vel||rank||pctl||Soft%||Percentile||Hard%||Percentile|
This time, it’s the Hits per Swing leaders that are all across the board, while the Total Bases per Swing leaders all do well, all being in the top 41% for exit velocity, and all but 3 in the top 21%.
So the ability to hit the ball hard would seem to be a prerequisite for being a TBpS leader, just as not being fooled and having good timing would seem to be a prerequisite for being a HpS leader. But these things by themselves are not enough. For example, though 17 of the 20 TBpS leaders are in the top 21% for exit velocity, so are 67 other players who are not on this list. A little more digging will be required to see what puts any one player on this list. For the scope of this article, we’ll keep it to Mookie Betts. Well, actually, I will have some comments along the way for a couple of other guys on these lists.
Excelling at all aspects
Now have a look at these three lists and see who ranks in the top 10% on more than one of them.
There are nine players who are in the top 10% of the misses per swing and the balls in play per contact lists:
- Mookie Betts
- Andrelton Simmons
- Michael Brantley
- Ben Zobrist
- Joe Mauer
- DJ LeMahieu
- David Fletcher
- Alex Bregman
- Isiah Kiner-Falefa
There is only one player, however, who is top 10% for exit velocity and is top 10% on either of the other lists: Mookie Betts, who is top 10% on all three.
There are a few players who come close, however:
- Nick Markakis
- Michael Brantley
- DJ LeMahieu
These three players are in the top 20% of all three lists, and Markakis and Brantley are both on the leader lists for TBpS and HpS.
How do these few players manage to pull off both so well? Let’s think for a moment about the players we saw who are good at keeping the ball fair. We can hypothesize that it’s because these players have good timing. It ought to help them direct the ball to the part of the field where they want it to go. One way to ensure good timing is to slightly slow down your swing, extending the time at which it’s at the angle needed to keep the ball fair. But this saps power, so if most of these guys are indeed slowing down their swings a bit to attain that better timing, this would explain why they don’t put up good power numbers.
But Markakis, Brantley, LeMahieu, and especially Betts do manage those good power numbers, while having good timing, too. This would seem to indicate that these guys are not slowing down their swings. Or they have naturally quicker swings. Or they may have naturally better timing, and thus not need to artificially improve their timing by slowing down their swings. Betts’ Neuroscouting test results lend credence to that idea. So Bett’s ability to combine pitch recognition, timing, and power so well may boil down to his ability to recognize and physically react to pitches more quickly than anyone else.
Though Betts may be the best at combining well-timed contact with power, given that some other guys do that well, it might not be enough to show how he separates himself on the TBpS list. What else could go into this?
There’s running speed. We should look at that.
I went on BaseballSavant.com and looked at guys with at least 50 “qualifying runs” on the season. These are events at which they’re presumed to have reached their top speed. There were 378 such players. When they take the top two-thirds of these qualifying runs and average them, here is how our TBpS and HpS leaders fared:
I expected to see some plodders on the TBpS list, but the real surprise was that only three of the top 10 players for HpS are in the top half of players for running speed. Speed is clearly not a primary factor in hitting well. However, it can certainly help a player get a few extra hits and a few extra bases taken, and that should help a player separate himself. And it helps Betts in this case. Of the top 10 on the HpS list, only Jose Altuve is faster than Betts; of the top 10 on the TBpS list, only Mike Trout is faster than Betts.
There’s two more things to look at. One, we’ll look at vertical accuracy by looking at Betts’ ratios of ground balls, line drives, fly balls, and popups. Then we’ll also look to see if he uses all fields, a skill that can keep defenses from shifting on pull hitters. For these, we’ll use numbers from Fangraphs’ batted balls stats page.
I expected to see a high rate of line drives and a low ratio of infield popups to fly balls for Betts. But I didn’t see that:
Betts is in the lower half of all players in terms of most line drives and lowest ratio of popups to fly balls, and most of his peers on these top 20 lists have done better than him. It seems that horizontal accuracy is not a separator for him.
But let’s look at ground balls and fly balls. The percentiles below are for lowest ground ball rates, highest fly ball rates, and lowest ground ball to fly ball ratio.
Hang on a moment – Betts does well in all of these! Top 12% in each. So let’s see – slightly above average number of popups, a high number of fly balls, slightly below average number of line drives, and a low number of ground balls. All that adds up to a guy who has prioritized getting the ball in the air. He’s sacrificing a few line drives and taking on a few extra popups in order to avoid hitting ground balls. This has likely earned him more extra base hits.
Vertical accuracy and Christian Yelich
Before we move on to looking at use of all fields, let’s examine two more players here. Christian Yelich is the opposite of Mookie Betts here. An extremely high rate of ground balls, a high rate of line drives, an extremely low number of fly balls, of which a very small fraction are popups. He avoids having his balls caught for outs, and given that he’s one of the speediest players in these top 20 lists, that will help bring his speed into play to his advantage. More on this later.
Vertical accuracy and Matt Carpenter
The other player is Matt Carpenter. Look at those numbers. Matt Carpenter is the absolute king of vertical accuracy with the bat. He’s a wizard. He simultaneously has the lowest ground ball rate of all players, while also having one of the lowest fractions of fly balls that are popups. It’s all line drives and driven fly balls for Matt Carpenter. Yelich avoids popups by hitting a lot of ground balls; Betts avoids ground balls by hitting a few extra popups; Carpenter avoids both. His line drive and fly ball rates are among the best, and his ground ball to fly ball ratio is the lowest of all players. He’s number 2 in all of baseball in percentage of balls hit hard. And the thing is, accuracy with bat placement is his one exceptional skill. He’s got fairly average numbers for swing and miss and foul balls, so he doesn’t excel at not getting fooled and having good timing. His power isn’t great, either – sure, he’s top 20% in exit velocity, but when you’re top 0.5% in your fraction of hard-hit balls, that’s not impressive. His sprinting speed is in the bottom third of all players. The fact that he ranks second in all of baseball in total bases per swing is based entirely on his exceptional accuracy in positioning his bat when he swings.
Using all fields
At last, let’s look at whether Betts uses an all-fields approach, again using batted ball numbers from FanGraphs. They provide percentages of balls hit to the opposite field, up the middle, and pulled. We’ll rank high fractions higher for opposite field hitting, and low fractions higher for pull hitting.
Wow. There’s really only one player on each list that is less of an all-fields hitter than Betts. He’s one of the most extreme pull hitters in all of baseball. But so is Jose Ramirez of the Indians, his fellow MVP candidate. Could pull hitting work in his favor?
Consider this: he pulls balls and hits them in the air. He also doesn’t hit foul balls, which would lead one to suspect that pulling the ball is deliberate. And when he pulls the ball in the air in home games, it goes right to Fenway Park’s Green Monster, a nice, big, close target. Sure enough, his batting average is more than 40 points higher at home than on the road this season.
Remember how Mookie Betts was a standout in neuroscouting tests. That says he identifies pitches quickly. This gives him the ability to not be fooled, and to have excellent timing. With excellent timing and quick hands, he can consistently pull the ball while keeping it fair. And by pulling it and keeping it in the air, he maximizes distance traveled. He’s leveraging his natural abilities and the Green Monster to get the ball past the warning track and rack up a lot of bases.
What is up with Christian Yelich
And finally, looking over these all-fields numbers, we now know what is up with Christian Yelich. He’s got one of the strongest all-fields approaches on this list. He hits the ball hard – Fangraphs has him in the top 4% of players in percentage of balls that are hard hit, and BaseballSavant has him in the top 3% for average exit velocity. He’s top 20% in sprint speed. All of which combines to make him hard to defend on balls in play, which would explain why he has the highest BABIP on these lists, and is in the top 1.5% in the league for BABIP. This is why hitting ground balls works for him. He can use his speed and the fact that he’s a step closer to first base than right-handed hitters to beat out ground balls. And he can’t be shifted on, so more of those ground balls will get through to the outfield. And let’s recall that he’s not bad at not swinging and missing and keeping the ball fair; he’s average at these things, where his peers on these lists excel at these things. He’s just on these lists for different reasons.