Mookie Betts is hitting his MVP stride for the Dodgers

On Tuesday night, Mookie Betts hit two home runs against the Washington Nationals that were virtually identical. The pitchers, and the progression from twilight to night, are really all that distinguish the two videos. The swings and the flight paths are twins.

It was almost like an artist’s signature, a personally distinct way for the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar to announce that he is locked in.

See, at age 29, Betts is already tied for the all-time MLB lead in three-homer games. He ended up singing and walking instead of notching a record-breaking seventh triple-blast night, but the message was delivered. At his best, Betts is a machine. And I just barely mean that figuratively. Hitting is hard specifically because its reactive, because it can’t be replicated to the whirring baseball delivery robots at a batting cage. Sometimes, Mookie will make you wonder if that’s true.

Obviously, hitting multiple homers in a game is a good thing, but plenty of otherwise unremarkably major-league hitters pull it off occasionally. What set off the alarm bells about Betts’ game was the consistency.

In terms of individual performances, the past decade has been the story of Mike Trout reigning supreme as one or two hitters rise up to challenge him each year. Betts is the only player who has proven himself capable of reaching 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 stands ahead of Trout and everyone else as the single most valuable season since Barry Bonds.

And those two precision cuts against Washington might be the telltale sign that Mookie Betts is about to have one of his turbocharged, MVP-caliber seasons for the ages.

Mookie Betts is off to an MVP-level start for the Dodgers.  (Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

Mookie Betts is off to an MVP-level start for the Dodgers. (Amber Matsumoto / Yahoo Sports)

A megastar like Betts – someone who can make the difference for a World Series champ, someone who signs a 12-year, 365 million contract – has a high floor and a high ceiling. With Betts, though, the floor and ceiling are made from different materials.

Betts is a perennial All-Star because of utterly elite hand-eye coordination and processing speed that allows him to make contact more than 85% of the time he swings and walks almost as much as he strikes out. He’s a perennial MVP vote-getter because, in addition to that baseline ability, he is also routinely among the game’s best outfield defenders and baserunners. (Depending on which metrics you ask, that might be a dramatic understatement. By Baseball-Reference’s estimation, Betts is both a top-five baserunner and a top-five defender of the past decade.)

Any one of these traits can hold up a solid major-league career. So, taken all together, it’s a very strong blend.

So in a “normal” Betts season, he will bat .280 with a .360 on-base percentage, pop 25 homers to go with 10 steals and finish sixth in MVP balloting. What elevates him from that to the otherworldly heights he reached in 2016, 2020 and especially 2018 has a lot to do with those swings out of a “spot the difference” challenge.

When Betts is in peak form, he has a superpower for consistent contact.

Since Statcast came into public view in 2015, we’ve gained a pretty good understanding of what types of contact lead to hits and good results.

You want to hit it hard – 95 mph off the bat has become the industry standard threshold for “hard-hit” balls. And you want to hit it in the air, but not too far in the air. You know the arc of what a line drive looks like, of what a deep home run drive looks like. The launch angles that bracket that range, roughly, are 5 degrees and 35 degrees.

MLB hitters as a whole have evolved to where 22% of their batted balls fall into that golden range, which we will call “good contact.” It’s captured visually on charts available at Baseball Savant. Here’s what Betts’ chart looked like in 2017, when 22% of his batted balls were good contact.

(Via Baseball Savant)

(Via Baseball Savant)

You can see where the cluster of color emerges, and how narrow a window it is in the grand scheme of things. The goal is to fill up that window, like a quarterback hitting a target from 20 yards away – because that, for instance, is where 156 of 190 of Betts’ career homers live. In that MVP-winning 2018 season, 32.7% of Betts’ balls in play were in the good contact zone, third-best in the big leagues.

Hitters build their entire game around this idea. Most of them accept sacrifices – lower batting averages, more strikeouts – because there is immense value in hitting even a few more balls like this per season.

Making a lot of good contact when you hit the ball is great, but sluggers who can wallop the ball on the rare occasions they connect are a dime a dozen. They give away a lot of strikes whiffing on wild swings or waiting on the right pitch. And there is serious value on being able to take pitches.

What you really want to search for in a hitter is a lot 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 across Betts’ career, he’s doing it at a 12.3% clip, the best of any active player.

In the Statcast era, which goes back to 2015, there have been 1,199 hitter seasons of at least 750 swings. At this particular thing, good contact per swing, Betts has two of the top three seasons and three of the top 20. In that scorching 2018 season – when he ran up a ridiculous .346 / .438 / .640 line – his rate was 15.4%, almost double the league average.

(Via Baseball Savant)

(Via Baseball Savant)

(The only hitter to match Betts’ persistent talent in this area is former Twins catcher and first baseman Joe Mauer, in about half the attempts.)

Obviously, this is a tremendous strength for Betts. It’s also a hugely important one. Because he so rarely misses when he swings, this calibration goes a long way toward determining how good his batting line will look – which, I know, poor Mookie Betts, hard life never missing when he swings at literal major-league pitching.

How Betts is doing relative to his own standards in this realm is about as close as we have to a metric for being “locked in.” More broadly, it can be a handy indicator of when he’s living on his usual high floor, and when he’s reaching for the ceiling.

The bad news for the league: It looks like 2022 is a ceiling year.

In top gear, Betts can blend elite batting averages with elite slugging numbers because he hits a solid 30 or more homers, then adds 50 additional extra-base hits by being extremely fast. His best seasons involve making good contact on at least 12% of swings. This season, he’s at 13.2%, which ranks third among MLB hitters who have swung at least 200 times so far.

What’s scary is he actually stumbled out to a fairly pedestrian start. But over the past month – since April 25 – he is tied for MLB’s best rate, with 15.8% of swings turning into good contact.

That’s what a well-oiled machine looks like. And unsurprisingly, it’s churning out results. Betts is batting .340 with 10 homers over that time, which are second only to Aaron Judge. Atop the Dodgers lineup, he again leads MLB in runs – a category he has topped twice already. His slugging and park-adjusted OPS + are tracking higher than any season since 2018.

By the end of the season, the machine may be producing more trophies for an elite talent in its prime.

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