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Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts still contributing despite a down year at the plate

September 8, 2017 GMT

It’s no longer fashionable to blame all the Red Sox’ offensive problems on the departure of David Ortiz.

But when it comes to understanding Mookie Betts’ season, one that’s been productive but disappointing, what other explanation is there?

Comb through all the numbers, talk to the coaches and watch the tape. Trends will emerge, though rarely with any explanation.

“These young players, sometimes it takes a while for them to believe and get back to simplifying things,” assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez said. “They want results right now. They want results yesterday. And they don’t trust what they have done through the years.”

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It’s not just Betts. Xander Bogaerts, too. It’s happening to Andrew Benintendi. And Jackie Bradley Jr.

Offensively, the four core young players have all taken a step back instead of a step forward. Each of their OPS numbers have dropped at least 50 points from 2016 to 2017.

“They have struggled but they still find ways to do something,” Rodriguez said. “All it takes is one at-bat.”

As the Red Sox embark for their final 22 games of the season, they appear headed for the playoffs as the only MLB team without at least one player with an .800 OPS in at least 200 plate appearances.

Chris Sale is the obvious choice for the team MVP, but Betts is the one that Sale describes as the team’s best player.

After being worth 9.5 WAR last year, Betts is currently at 5.5 (according to Baseball Reference), and that’s with a .775 OPS and 102 OPS-plus, barely above league average numbers when taking into account hitter-friendly Fenway Park.

What he does is all of the little things, and he does them really well.

On the bases, Betts is among the best in the game. He’s 23-for-26 in stolen-base attempts and knows when to take the extra base. His extra-base-taken percentage is 68, second-highest among all MLB regulars to Minnesota’s Byron Buxton.

Elite base running is nothing to sneeze at. The Red Sox don’t get a 3-2 win over the Blue Jays on Tuesday night if not for Betts sneaking from second to third on a groundout to third baseman Josh Donaldson, then scoring the game-tying run in the ninth inning.

And they definitely don’t win without him getting a perfect read on Hanley Ramirez’ bloop in the 19th inning and charging around third to score on the shallow single.

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“You know I’m just trying to do my part,” he said. “Just continuing to play the game, through however many innings we end up playing, and just doing what I can to help.”

This is why manager John Farrell doesn’t want to sit Betts down for a few days and give him a mental reset. He can be just an average hitter and still win games with his baserunning and defense, the latter of which he plays better than anyone in the game. His 29 defensive runs saved are five more than any other outfielder. He just hasn’t been the major player that the Red Sox offense is lacking.

Betts enters today with a .262 average, 42 doubles, 18 homers and 23 stolen bases with 68 walks and 68 strikeouts. Not bad. But it’s not a .318 average or the 31 homers he hit last year, when he had an .897 OPS.

What’s changed?

The biggest difference is — surprise, surprise — the way he’s getting pitched to. He’s seeing a 4 percent dropoff in pitches in the strike zone, and he’s doing less with them. He tried adapting by becoming more patient at the plate, swinging 5 percent less frequently, and that’s led to a big jump in his walk totals. But the quantity of hits isn’t there.

Has he just been unlucky?

His average on balls in play has dropped from .322 to .268, so he might not be finding the holes. But it doesn’t help that his average exit velocity dropped from 89.6 mph to 88.2 mph, and the biggest decrease has been on his swings taken against inside pitches, which he often so famously hammered over the Green Monster last year.

He’s actually pulling the ball 5 percent more frequently, just not as hard. He’s going opposite-field 5 percent less frequently.

And pitchers aren’t pitching to him like they did last year. And no, Ortiz wasn’t always the one hitting behind Betts, since the lineup changed frequently. But Ortiz was in the lineup somewhere. He was the guy they tried to avoid. This year, they’ve singled out Betts, and more recently Benintendi, as the guy to avoid.

The Red Sox are still winning games, still in first place and still have an MVP candidate. It’s just not the same one who finished second to Mike Trout in the voting last year.

Betts isn’t the MVP. This year, he’s just a VP.

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