What’s wrong with Mookie Betts?
Mookie Betts spoke for himself, but might as well have been offering a State of the Red Sox address. The 2018 American League MVP had little interest in silver linings or spin.
Like the rest of the 6-11 Red Sox, Betts is off to a start that falls well short of standards established in an otherworldly 2018 campaign. He hasn’t been able to figure out the source of his early woes, but he does have strong feelings about them.
“Basically, what I’m doing is unacceptable,” he said. “It’s tough having so much success last year and not really having any right now. I’m not really doing anything well right now. It sucks. Nothing really else to say, but it sucks and I have to figure out a way to make something happen.”
The impetus for the self-skewering was relatively modest. Betts went 0 for 3 with a walk and a strikeout in Monday’s 8-1 loss to the Orioles. It was a bad game but not an abysmal one.
Yet it pointed to the accumulating frustration that Betts and the Red Sox are experiencing as they try to gain some traction. They are off to the worst start by a defending World Series champion since the post-fire sale Marlins were 4-13 in 1998.
Betts, meanwhile, continued an early-season pattern in which he’s been patient to a fault, taking hittable pitches in the middle of the strike zone and occasionally expanding on pitches that are nowhere near it. In his strikeout against Orioles starter Dan Straily, he took a changeup down the middle, then whiffed on a fastball that was nowhere near the strike zone.
Opposing teams have attacked Betts with pitches away — especially breaking balls — to the point where he appears to be having trouble attacking offerings that he frequently demolished in 2018.
Overall, he’s been uncertain and tentative at the plate, as evidenced by the fact that he has swung at just 33.3 percent of pitches — the eighth-lowest swing rate of the 302 big leaguers who’d seen at least 100 pitches this year.
“When they’ve been making mistakes, he’s been looking away and is frozen,” said hitting coach Tim Hyers.
To be sure, Betts has had his moments, hitting three homers. Though he’s hitting just .222, he’s still taking walks (.324 OBP) and when he does connect, he’s still driving pitches (.413 slugging). But he is off to a start that he’s struggled to fathom.
“There have been many times where I can help score runs or do something and I haven’t done it,” said Betts. “I take full ownership of that.”
The Sox similarly have been left to accept that there is a growing urgency to their struggles. Prior to Monday, there had been seven occasions this season on which manager Alex Cora said that the team “will be fine.”
After Monday’s loss, Cora’s outlook was slightly more reserved. While he recommitted to his belief in his team, he also acknowledged that the Red Sox have played like a club adrift.
“It doesn’t concern me,” said Cora. “It’s just a bad start. We’ve shown flashes. We will get better. There’s no timetable.
“Obviously the sooner the better. Trust me, I’m not saying let’s wait a month and fix this, but we’re working on a daily basis.”
More work will be needed to restore a feeling about the team that has been absent thus. In 2018, the days when Cora fielded a makeshift lineup along the lines of what he employed Monday — Christian Vazquez at second, Steve Pearce in left — seemed like they’d end in wins, or at least competitive games. In 2019, through just over one-10th of the season, that hasn’t been the case.
Though much of the team’s record has been a reflection of poor starting pitching, the offense from top to bottom has struggled to sustain the consistent pressure that forced opposing pitching staffs to buckle last year.
Dustin Pedroia (.105 after going 0 for 4 Monday), Jackie Bradley Jr. (.149/.196/.170), Eduardo Nunez (.184/.205/.211), Pearce (.125), and Brock Holt (1 for 16) — among others — have gotten off to sluggish starts.
“There’s a lot of searching throughout the lineup,” said Cora. “We have some good games and then we don’t. It hasn’t been as consistent as we know we can be.”
The layering of lineup issues on top of poor rotation performance has resulted in roughly what one might expect. The Red Sox are off to their worst start since 2011 (when they likewise opened 6-11). They’ve been outscored by 32 runs through 17 games – the worst run differential in the American League, tied for the second-worst in the majors.
Their talent didn’t vanish during the offseason. The Red Sox remain capable of going on a tear that would render the opening weeks of the season a footnote. But as they move on from a disappointing 3-3 homestand against the Blue Jays and Orioles — teams expected to reside in the AL cellar all year — they can no longer take for granted that such a run will come easily.
As the Red Sox prepare for a five-game trip to face their most formidable division rivals, with two games in Yankee Stadium followed by three at Tropicana Field, there is an urgency to end this aimless stagger.
“We’ve got to start winning,” said Xander Bogaerts. “We’ve got to turn this thing around pretty quick.”