The Sunday Baseball Column: How Mookie Betts has attempted to help Rafael Devers' MVP push

Rob Bradford
September 08, 2019 - 9:33 am
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Sometimes we don't know the story behind the story when a player is stumbling a bit.

Maybe there is an injury involved. Perhaps it's simply a mechanical rut. Or there might just be something that only the hitter understands.

Mookie Betts had one of those things.

The Red Sox outfielder has seemingly found his way of late, carrying a .333 batting average and 1.157 OPS for September. The image Betts has portrayed finally feels a whole lot like that of his MVP season a year ago. According to the outfielder, it is no fluke.

Betts explained to WEEI.com one of the challenges he was facing when attempting to find his best baseball-playing self: In basketball terms, he was worrying too much about the assist and not enough about the shot.

Serving as the Red Sox' leadoff hitter Betts was watching in awe of Rafael Devers' onslaught on opposing pitchers, to the point where he started prioritizing the Sox' No. 2 hitter instead of himself. 

"There’s a flow to the game," he explained. "Devers is behind me swinging early so sometimes you have to sacrifice taking some pitches so he can swing early, especially the way he’s swinging the bat. He needs to be able to swing whenever. So I kind of take ownership to work the count or whatever so he can do whatever he wants to do because I’m confident to hit with two strikes. I also kind of sabotage myself, too … He’s banging and he likes to swing early and I know that. He likes to swing early and I don’t mind having two strikes so I just take one for the team."

Basically, last year's MVP was trying to mold this year's attempt at unseating Mike Trout. Betts wasn't jumping on his pitch.

For example, in May Betts swung at a pitch on the first or second pitch 50 times, putting 23 in play and coming away with six hits. That was his worst month.

His best two months? July he offered at one of the first two pitches 63 times, putting 31 in play and coming away with 15 hits, with righty hitter already collecting six hits on the nine balls he put in play on 0-0, 1-0 or 0-1 counts in September, swinging 13 times. To repeat, that is six hits on 13 swings.

"Me doing that I hurt myself, obviously. But in a way it kind of hurt the team a little bit too because I’m not doing anything nearly as productive as where I want to be," admitted Betts regarding his approach. "If I can get more productive swinging early I can help myself and the team.

"I’m just like, ‘Bro, you’re hitting .260 it can’t get any worse. Start swinging, bro. They’re coming after you. They’re definitely coming after you now because they don’t want me on base for Devers.’ It was just in my mind. If I’m on another team I’ve got to make sure, one, Mook’s not hitting and if he does you have to live with it because Devers is the one you have to stop in our lineup right now. Him and Bogey and J.D. obviously, too. Devers and Bogey have been the main guys."

"You have to let him keep swinging," he added regarding Devers. "So I don’t want him up there taking pitches. He’s hitting .330. He needs to swing all the time. Just like if somebody is hitting all these threes, get them the ball. Nobody is going to shoot, nobody. Everybody’s job is to get that guy the ball. ..

This isn't about simply jumping on pitches early in the count no matter what. That's certainly not how Betts managed his success in 2018 when he finished as the majors' only hitter with a batting average of better than .300 on two-strike counts.

It is figuring out the best way to make the entire top of the Red Sox' batting order work, and recently that has been with Betts doing what Betts.

"It comes and it goes. For a little bit, I was swinging at the first pitch and then I went away from it. I just need to keep doing it even if I make outs. I can’t be scared to make outs," he said. "It definitely feels good. I have something I can maintain. I’m not scared to make outs. There are good outs and bad outs. If I swing at a good pitch that’s half the battle."

MOOKIE'S TRUE LOVE

Obviously, Betts is really, really good at baseball. But listening to him talk basketball on the "5-Out Podcast" with WEEI.com's Nick Friar it was interesting to hear the star's mindset when it comes to his true love.

"It's been my favorite sport since I've been able to walk, pretty much," Betts said regarding hoop. (The 5-Out episode will be available Tuesday.)

Betts was actually offered a scholarship to play basketball at Lipscomb University and admitted on the podcast that he would have attempted to walk-on the basketball team at the University of Tennessee if didn't sign with the Red Sox. It was a sport already near and dear to his family, with his father having played against the Harlem Globetrotters and "Mookie" coming from his parents' love of former NBA star Mookie Blaylock.

While Betts doesn't have the opportunity to play in hoop games because of current commitment to baseball (a wise decision ... just ask Aaron Boone), it would have made for a great one-on-one battle if he got the chance to take on current teammate Travis Lakins. Lakins was recruited by a smattering of Div. 1 teams to play basketball, including Brad Stevens' Butler team.

A NEW WORLD FOR WORKMAN

While everyone will understandably be focused on the big-ticket items this offseason, Brandon Workman's contract situation represents an interesting dynamic.

Workman is heading into his final year of arbitration eligibility having signed for $1.15 million for the 2019 season. But that deal was for a pitcher who had just started his climb back into life as a reliable major league reliever, having pitched just 13 times in what would be classified as high-leverage situations. This year he has had 35 high-leverage outings, pitching in the ninth inning 27 times (which is 23 more than a year ago).

Unless something turns, Workman will head into the offseason as a legitimate major league closer, owning the lowest batting average against (.125) of any reliever in the big leagues.

"It will be different this year," said the 31-year-old. "I'll have a little bit better argument of why I should get paid. I love playing baseball and stuff but it's still my job and I would like to be paid well to do it."

The way the Red Sox' bullpen is set up, the righty will undoubtedly become the highest-paid reliever on the team next season, most likely passing Matt Barnes (who made $1.6 million this season). There is a very real scenario where very little financial commitment is made toward the group of relievers for 2020, with the team relying on the emergence of Workman and Darwinzon Hernandez to go along with what they feel they already have in Barnes, Marcus Walden and potentially Heath Hembree and Ryan Brasier.

 When it comes to the upcoming free-agent market for relievers, the possibilities aren't nearly as intriguing as last time around. Lessons also should have been learned from over-committing to the bullpen following last season, with Jeurys Familia (3 years, $30 million), David Robertson (2 years, $23 million), Kelvin Herrera (2 year, $18 million), and Cody Allen (1 year, $8.5 million) representing some of the ill-fated relief-pitching deals.

Andrew Miller (2 years, $25 million) and Joe Kelly (3 years, $25 million) have been up and down, and Craig Kimbrel is on the injured list with elbow soreness. (By the way, it is interesting to note that Kelly has thrown just four pitches of 100 mph or better this season after totaling 38 such offerings a year ago.)

As for the reliever who started the season as the highest-paid in the Red Sox bullpen Tyler Thornburg he finished off his season with the Dodgers' Triple-A affiliate in Oklahoma City. He continued to struggle in his 12 outings, posting a 6.00 ERA in 12 innings, walking nine. He did strikeout 15. The guess is that Thornburg will continue his attempt at a comeback with the Dodgers, who believe there is a lot to work thanks to the righty's solid measurables (spin rate, velocity, etc.).

THE REAL VALUE OF CHACIN

When Red Sox scout Steve Peck drove an hour across Arizona to see Jhoulys Chacin workout (even though, as he found out later, the pitcher lived 10 minutes from his Scottsdale home) there was an expectation. You were going to get a veteran hurler with a low 90's fastball and a slider that had to play for legitimate success. That's what Peck and the only other scout in attendance (from Kansas City) got.

But there was more.

Talking to Chacin it became evident what kind of presence the 31-year-old carried, with the righty going out of his way to praise the Milwaukee organization that had just cut him loose while saying all the right things when it came to his lot in life. Then Peck started talking to others around baseball and it became clear this guy was cut from the kind of cloth any clubhouse would welcome.

Sure enough, after the first week in a Red Sox uniform, the read on Chacin seems to be the correct one -- both on and off the field.

While so many focused on his two innings of no-hit ball against the Yankees after not facing a batter for seven weeks, the true impact so far has been his mentoring of players like Darwinzon Hernandez. It brings to mind the impact infielder John McDonald had on a young Xander Bogaerts in September 2013, and how memorable/important such a presence figures to be.

LET'S NOT FORGET THE IMPORTANCE OF STARTING PITCHING

While so many are getting wrapped up in this new world of bullpen games, it should be understood that in order to have sustained success you better do what the Red Sox originally intended -- be driven by really good starting pitching.

After Saturday, the Red Sox now have had 26 games in which their starters have gone three innings or less (with their record somewhat remarkably sitting at 13-13.) But consider that last year the number was 13 such starts, with the 2013 team landing at five and you get the idea what kind of challenge has faced them this time around.

Some would look at the relative success of teams allocating a good chunk of starts to relievers and say this is how things are trending. But not really. If you want to win you better have legitimate starters

Take the Rays, for instance. They obviously have rolled out the "opener" a ton, with their starters going three innings or less 35 times. The results have been a 26-19 mark and 4.77 ERA. But you know why Tampa Bay is in this thing? Because of everyone else. There have been 100 starts of four innings or more for the Rays' pitching staff, with those pitchers carrying a 2.97 ERA and the team going 54-36.

Other contenders when their starters have gone for innings or greater? The Yankees are 73-42. The A's are 79-47. And the Astros are 85-38. That's just FOUR innings or more, not six or seven.

Moral of the story: The Red Sox' priority is figuring out this starting pitching conundrum heading into 2020.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT ...

History was made this week when two lefties warmed up at the same time in the Red Sox' home bullpen. Read here for an explanation.