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FanGraphs Baseball |  Daily baseball statistical analysis and commentary
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FanGraphs Baseball | Daily baseball statistical analysis and commentary

FanGraphs Baseball |  Daily baseball statistical analysis and commentary
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Zone percentage is one of the most fascinating statistics in baseball. It certainly means something, but sometimes you have to sort through a number of different factors to determine what exactly that something is. If pitchers think they can knock the bat out of your hands, they’ll come right in after you, but if they’re afraid you’ll do damage, they’ll nibble on the edges. If you chase too much they will try to lure you out of the zone, but if you make good swing decisions you can force them to throw the ball over the plate. Fastballs end up in the zone more often than breaking balls and off-speed pitches, so if you’re having trouble catching up to speed, you’ll see more pitches in the zone. There’s always some arbitrariness thrown in for good measure, but in general that’s the matrix.

When you combine all of these factors, you’ll see that players who make big hacks usually see fewer pitches in the zone than players who just try to put the ball in play. Since 2021, Salvador Perez and Bryce Harper have seen the fewest pitches in the zone, while Myles Straw and Ha-Seong Kim have seen the most. But there are some elite players who combine the best of all worlds: they make good swing decisions and combine power with contact ability. If you hang it up, they hit it, and if you bury it, they spit on it. These players usually end up with a zone rate somewhere in the middle, simply because there isn’t one right way to pitch to them. Think Joey Votto, Alex Bregman and our topic today: Mookie Betts.

If you’re a baker, you might love the kitchen sink cookie: the cookie where you mix all kinds of goodies into the dough. Pecans and peanut butter chips? Certainly. Toffee pieces and white chocolate? The more the merrier. Betts is baseball’s version of the kitchen sink cookie, loaded with athleticism, coordination, knowledge, skill, versatility and maybe even some shredded coconut. There’s no such thing as a right way to pitch him. He has weaknesses, but he is excellent at hitting the types of pitches that are usually in those spots because he is good against any type of pitch. He’s never excelled against pitches at the top of the zone, but he destroys four-seam fastballs. If you want to beat him up there, you really have to push it to the limit, because if you miss high, he won’t swing, and if you miss low, he will beat it up. He’s also had issues low and out, but again, he’s always been solid against the breaking pitches that most right-handers try to throw out there.

This year, Betts hits leadoff ahead of reigning AL MVP and current Triple Crown candidate Shohei Ohtani and perennial MVP candidate Freddie Freeman. There’s no one in baseball with better lineup protection, so you could be forgiven for assuming he’s seen a lot more strikes this season. He does not have. In fact, his zone rate has dropped from 49.1% in 2023 to 45.4% this season. That 3.7 percentage point drop ties MJ Melendez as the second biggest among all qualified players, behind only Anthony Volpe, who went from 50% to 46.1%. That leaves Betts with a zone rate in the 13th percentile among all qualified players.

So far, 10.1% of the pitches Betts has seen have been in the waste zone, and 24.4% have been in the chase zone. Both figures are the highest he has ever recorded. Only 23% of the pitches Betts has seen this year have been in the heart zone. That’s the lowest mark he’s ever recorded, and it’s also the eighth-lowest among the 196 players who have seen at least 400 pitches this season. Pitchers are avoiding him like never before, and it’s not just that he’s seeing fewer hits. They are trying to implement a specific plan.

They’re trying to hit that outside corner. Betts sees fewer four-seamers and more sinkers and offspeed throws. Those offspeed throws, as well as the breaking balls he sees, are more concentrated on the outside edge of the plate.

Strictly speaking, this plan doesn’t work. Betts is already at a Major League-best 3.0 WAR, and his 193 wRC+ is second only to the 217 of the player theoretically protecting him in the lineup. It’s hard to argue that the league has finally found a player who is currently on pace for 12.8 WAR.

However, this plan definitely changes the shape of the production Betts puts on. First the good news: He has a career-high walk rate of 16.3% and a career-low strikeout rate of 9.6%. His 1.71 walks per strikeout is miles ahead of second-place Vinnie Pasquantino’s 1.36. Now the bad news: Betts’s number of hard-hit businesses and its 90th percentile exit rate have dropped significantly. His strikeout percentage has fallen to 32.6%, the lowest of his career and a drop of more than 13 percentage points from 2023. He hasn’t hit a home run since April 12 and an extra base hit since April 28. what that looks like in heatmap form. The map below shows Betts’ value based on Runs Above Average per 100 pitches.

If you’re a pitcher, it’s pretty clear: good outside, bad inside. Even with Ohtani and Freeman lurking, it might make sense to try and get into your spot on the outside corner and risk giving up a free run. Moreover, this plan is not without precedent. If you go back and look at the heat maps of the fields Betts has seen over the years, one stands out as being similar to this season.

In 2021, pitchers tried a similar approach, aggressively going after the outside corner. Betts finished with a 131 wRC+ – his worst mark since 2017. If you’re an opposing pitcher with no good options – meaning any pitcher within 60 feet of Mookie Betts – why not give it a try? an approach that, at least given the ridiculous curve of Betts’ stellar production, has worked before? Look how many of his hits (especially his extra-base hits) went to left field last year.

Right field is just a sea of ​​gray outs with a few green singles sprinkled in. In 2023, Betts had a .602 wOBA when he pulled the ball, .396 when he hit it straight away, and .189 when he hit it to the other side. field. Why don’t you do everything you can to prevent him from pulling the ball and encourage him to hit the ball the other way? Unfortunately for opposing pitchers, this tactic requires a high degree of precision. Betts doesn’t seem to mind taking his lead, and on the rare occasions he gets a delivery on the inside half, he makes the most of it.

However, there are a few signs that he has had to adapt to combat this approach. It looks like he’s getting closer to the plate this season. In the images below, I’ve copied and pasted a second home plate right next to the actual home plate to give a better sense of scale.

In theory, moving a few inches closer means that the innermost places that Betts usually mashes are now a little further in, which should give him less time to turn them on. Additionally, his chase rate is slightly higher than last season, and it has increased in recent weeks.

This could just be regression. Betts has put up an 83 wRC+ in his last nine games, but it’s not like he would put up a 250 wRC+ and a 12% chase rate all season. However, he’s actually chasing more – not by much, but more than in April and more than in 2023. We’ve seen him get closer to the plate, and it’s certainly possible that he’s seeing so few pitches on offense Zone has caused him to has gotten a little tired of waiting for his throw and is more likely to swing at something he shouldn’t. We’re only a fifth of the way through the season, and any numbers you’ve seen so far will likely continue to trend toward the average. Betts will likely face more pitchers brave enough to challenge him indoors (if at all). But for now, it seems like he’s still adjusting to this new approach.