Mookie Betts making a case for MVP

Despite how early in the season it is, Mookie Betts is playing at a level worthy of an MVP award.

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(Photo Credit: USA TODAY Sports via REUTERS/KIRBY LEE)

Did you know David Ortiz never had a three home run game in his entire career? 

Let that sink in for a moment; arguably the greatest clutch hitter in Red Sox history, he of 541 career home runs, never got a four-bagger hat trick once in any of his 41 multi-homer games over the course of a 20 year Hall of Fame-worthy career.

Did you also know Mookie Betts’ fourth career three home-run game on Wednesday gives him the most in Red Sox history? His performance against the Kansas City Royals, who the Sox had just lost to the night before amidst a 5-5 scuffle in their past 10 games, energized a ball club that has the New York Yankees set in their rearview sights. 

And while their New York rivals have had an MVP candidate of their own in shortstop Didi Gregorius, Red Sox Nation now have a champion of their own to contend for the award given to the best overall player in the American League. The hat trick, which came on three consecutive at-bats that propelled Betts into the league lead for home runs with 11 in total. 

Betts’ historical accomplishment transcends the history of the Red Sox. His long-ball trifecta was the second in his first 26 games of the season. His fourth of his career, as a 25-year-old, is the most by a player 25 or younger, and he’s tied for seventh all-time with fellow active slugger Albert Pujols for the most in history.

But, despite how impressive his propensity for the long ball has been, Betts’ offensive pace in all offensive categories is staggering. Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the stats.

He’s developed a track record

Betts is no stranger to success.

Consider this: Betts was the runner-up to Mike Trout for the 2016 MVP award. Many—including myself—thought he was more than deserving for the award after posting a .318/.363/.534 slash with 31 home runs and 113 RBI. These were career marks for the young slugger, while his 215 hits and 42 doubles, coupled with a measly 80 strikeouts, were a clear sign he was a complete hitter.

Although 2017 didn’t see him reach such heights due to an injury-plagued season that saw his power numbers sapped by a nagging left wrist injury, he was a major piece that led his Sox to a second consecutive division title. His 46 doubles were a career high even though his home run numbers dropped to 24 in total. His 102 RBI was the second time in his young career—and second consecutive year—where he eclipsed the 100 RBI plateau. His 153 games played were a testament to play through the pain throughout most the second half even if he couldn’t build upon the previous year’s success.

Over the course of his four-year career, a slash of .295/.356/.502 was compiled due to his ability to get on base while also hitting for power and for contact. A 13% strikeout rate makes him one of the toughest batters to strike out in a league where the strikeout is running rampant across both leagues. Not once has he struck out over 100 times, the most coming in 2015 where he was punched out 82 times. 

If those numbers aren’t enough to convince you of his elite production, then perhaps his 2018 stats will.

League leader

Runs scored, home runs, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and on-base plus slugging percentage.

These are the categories Betts is leading entering Thursday’s slate of games. His success this year, much like his success in past years, is built on his ability to put the ball in play. According to MLB.com, Statcast categories all exceed the league average, meaning he’s hitting the ball harder (93.64 mph) and further (405.47 ft) than everyone else in the league. 

Although his home run totals seem to come in spurts and bursts—six of his 11 have come in two three-homer performances in 2018 — his ability to increase his launch angle this season has a play in his increased slugging percentage. His 11 home runs are accompanied by an additional 11 doubles, and his average launch angle of 22.33 degrees eclipses the league average of 12.36.

Meaning Betts is hitting the ball high, hard, and far.

The biggest question will be Betts’ durability. We’ve already seen his willingness to err on the side of caution with the inevitable tweaks and pulls throughout the course of a 162-game season. His value to the Sox is highest when he’s healthy, as the four games he’s missed to this point were due to minor injuries that healed with immediate rest. Credit that to the blazing start that saw the Sox go 18-2, and Alex Cora’s ability to get his players to buy into what the coaching and training staff are saying.

A slash line of .365/.451/.823, with a 1.274 OPS, is more than just great. It’s elite, and while there is an expectation of a slight regression, Betts has deservedly earned the reputation as an elite hitter, while also probably being one of the best right fielders in the game.

An MVP award isn’t far from his grasp. It’ll happen sooner or later.

But with how he’s playing, it could be the former.

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