Unlike seasons past, Mookie Betts off to a strong start
Mookie Betts’ first surge of 2017 is officially underway. The never-whiffing rightfielder went 3-for-5 with his first homer of the season on Tuesday in the Red Sox’ 8-7 win over the Blue Jays for his fourth multi-hit contest in his last five games.
After a slow start that likely reflected at least in part on his affliction with the grippe, Betts is now 12-for-22 with three doubles and a homer in his last five contests. Through 11 games, he’s hitting .356/.420/.489. He’s seen 173 pitches, swung at 63, and swung and missed just five times.
Increasingly, he’s mixing an extraordinary ability to make contact with the ability to drive the ball, a pairing of skills that helped propel him to MVP-caliber status last year. It’s instructive that Betts, with 128 straight plate appearances without a strikeout, has the longest such streak by a big leaguer since 2004.
After all, the agent of that streak was Juan Pierre, a light-hitting speedster who went deep just 18 times in nearly 2,000 career games. Betts, by contrast, can view that home run total as something of a baseline expectation. His performance on Tuesday offered an echo of the skill set he displayed in such dazzling fashion last year.
And yet the timing of Betts’ display of skills represents a departure from his spectacular 2016 season. It’s easy to forget that a year ago, Betts got off to a difficult start. Through the team’s first 13 games, he was hitting .207/.220/.345 with one walk and 16 strikeouts. He concluded April with 22 punchouts, his most in any month of his career.
Betts likewise got off to a poor start in 2015, hitting .189/.274/.297 with 14 strikeouts through 18 games. Moreover, in his prospect breakout season of 2013, Betts opened the year for Single A Greenville with a .145/.340/.263 line through 23 games and 100 plate appearances.
While such early-season stumbles were easily forgotten in both years by virtue of what he did over the subsequent months of each of those seasons, the 24-year-old remained mindful of them entering the season.
“I think I’ve started slow damn near every year that I’ve played. I just know that I want to be consistent, try to be in April the same guy through the hot months,” Betts said this spring. “There was a time [last year] when I looked up in April and I was the only guy not hitting .300. It kind of sucked, but I do know it’s a long year, take one game at a time, be Mookie, and everything will be fine.”
That perspective informed Betts’ outlook in the initial games of the season. Despite his poor numbers in his first handful of games, he expressed optimism about the quality of his at-bats. Experience had shown him that offensive struggles were unlikely to last. Right now, he is being Mookie – a bit earlier than was the case in his already impressive preceding big league seasons.