What Is Mookie Betts Ceiling?
It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball. You couldn’t script a better start to the season for the Boston Red Sox, coming off a last-place finish in a season in which they were defending a most unlikely World Series title from the previous year. After a torrid spring training, sophomore sensation Mookie Betts stepped to the plate to face Phillies ace Cole Hamels on Opening Day, the pitcher a large contingent of Sox fans wanted to trade him for just a few months earlier.
Hamels delivered a fastball on the inner half of the plate, a pitch that would jam most right-hand batter, inducing a harmless pop-up. Betts got out in front of it and smashed a line-drive home run to left field. In a narrative driven sport like baseball, few moments sum up the trajectory of both franchises better than that singular moment.
It seems premature to anoint Betts as one of the top commodities in fantasy baseball after just 218 career plate appearances at the Major League level, but he’s given us no reason to doubt his ability to produce at the plate. The 22-year old outfielder is batting .295/.373/.461 with six home runs in less than half a season of plate appearances now.
If there is anything we have learned over the years about prospects who come up and produce immediately, it’s that we shouldn’t trust them. Mike Trout (once again) is the exception, not the rule. The hype surrounding Betts has reached the level we saw a few seasons ago surrounding Brett Lawrie with the Toronto Blue Jays. It’s tempting to forecast that Betts won’t live up to the considerable expectations fantasy owners envision, but he possesses such a unique skill set that it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which he isn’t an elite fantasy commodity for years to come.
My colleague Nick Doran wrote an excellent piece over the weekend in which he explained that a prospect-heavy approach in dynasty formats is a flawed approach, which doesn’t guarantee success. We talk all the time about the optimal strategy of investing in as many young players with a proven track record an the elite skills to back it up because they have a higher likelihood of success than those with riskier skill sets.
Chris Mitchell, who now writes for FanGraphs, first published his KATOH prospect projection system at The Hardball Times back in December. The projection system is engineered to evaluate prospects from a 100% objective point of view using statistical factors only, which for hitters include: age, leverage-adjusted strikeout percentage, walk percentage, isolated slugging, BABIP, and frequency of stolen base attempts. According to Mitchell’s research, Betts received the highest projected offensive wins above replacement (WAR) of any prospect in baseball through his age 28 season.
KATOH projects Betts for 21.6 offensive WAR over the next six years, through his age 28 season, with an 83% probability of eclipsing 16 offensive WAR during that span. From a statistical standpoint, Betts is the “safest” prospect in baseball right now. The data still doesn’t answer the technical scouting question regarding why fantasy analysts (like myself) and projection systems alike are so high on Betts.
His offensive approach is predicated on making contact. Alex Spier of the Boston Globe wrote a compelling piece in February, which divulged that the Red Sox use of neuroscouting testing prior to the 2011 MLB Draft revealed that Betts had elite hand-eye coordination compared to other prospects in his class. It ended up being the reason they selected him in the fifth round and if he continues to develop into one of the elite hitters in baseball, it will validate their faith in the revolutionary methodology used to evaluate prospects mental capabilities.
“In simplest terms, neuroscouting reflects an effort to quantify the motor system’s response (swinging) to a cognitive function (seeing a pitch and deciding to swing),” wrote Spier in the piece. “The importance of how the brain responds to the stimulus of a pitched baseball is obviously at the heart of offensive success, particularly when facing the higher velocities and sharper breaks of pitches at the big league level.”
Betts talked about a subtle change in approach at the plate with Spier once again (seriously, follow his work in The Globe) in spring training, most notably that he was going to be more aggressive at the plate. The results were a .429/.467/.750 slash line with 12 extra-base hits and a pair of stolen bases in 56 Grapefruit League at-bats. “Can’t walk to Fenway,” the signature one-liner Betts dropped in the piece is emblematic of his truly advanced approach at the plate.
The Betts related hype has reached stratospheric levels, no doubt. But, it may be justified, given all of the compelling evidence and results we have to this point in his career. So how should fantasy owners value Betts in dynasty formats? What is his realistic ceiling?
Leading off for arguably the most explosive offense in baseball and given his ability to make contact and get on-base, it’s not unrealistic to expect Betts to consistently post batting averages in the .280-to-.290 range with 90 plus runs scored. He isn’t Ben Revere, despite his small frame at just five-foot-nine and 180 pounds, Betts closest comparison in my mind is Jimmy Rollins in terms of a guy who is undersized, but can still drive the ball. Expecting anything more than 10-to-15 home runs in a single season is a reach, but he’s certainly capable of hitting double-digit home runs. The stolen bases are the real x-factor. Betts has the speed to swipe as many as 30 in a single season, but 20-to-25 seems like a more realistic floor.
The overall package is a five-category contributor who is still years away from his prime with unlimited upside and a floor which all but guarantees that he will be an impact fantasy contributor. I would be more surprised if Betts isn’t a first round selection in dynasty formats by this time next season, than if he is.