As strikeouts rise again, how has Mookie Betts found a way to (almost) never whiff?

0:32 | MLB
Pirates OF Starling Marte suspended 80 games for PED use
Thursday April 20th, 2017

On Wednesday night Red Sox rightfielder Mookie Betts did something he had not done all year, something 479 players had already done this season: he struck out. Facing Blue Jays lefthander Francisco Liriano in the top of the fourth inning at Rogers Centre, the Red Sox’ rightfielder chased a 2–2 slider outside of the zone for a strikeout—his first since Sept. 12 of last year. That resulting streak of 129 trips to the plate without whiffing is the longest in the majors since Juan Pierre went 147 straight plate appearances sans strikeout back in 2004 with the Marlins.

Betts finished well shy of both Pierre’s streak and former Phillie Dave Cash’s expansion era record of 223, set in 1976. But his accomplishment is notable nonetheless, even if he himself doesn’t think much of it: “[It’s] pretty irrelevant,” he said after Tuesday night’s game in Toronto, when his streak reached 128. “An out’s an out. I don’t care about that at all.”

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What makes Betts’s performance especially impressive is that it comes in an era when strikeouts are at record numbers. Last year, the MLB strikeout rate was 21.1%, the highest rate ever recorded and one that has steadily increased since 2008 and has now topped 20% three years in a row. Hitters are swinging and missing more than they have at any point in the last 15 years (since 2002, when swing-and-miss data first became available), with the league breaking 10% for the first time in that span. And while the 2017 season is young, the league as a whole already boasts a strikeout rate of 21.6% and a swing-and-miss rate of 10.4%, both of which would be new records.

But while the rest of baseball can’t connect, Betts has gone in the opposite direction. His career whiff rate is just 11.7%, and he struck out in only 11% of his 730 plate appearances last year, a rate that ranked 11th among all qualified hitters. His swinging-strike rate, meanwhile, was a miniscule 5.2%, half of what the rest of the league averaged and good for a tie for eighth-lowest overall among qualified hitters.

Just as impressive are Betts’s contact rates. Last year, he connected with 87.3% of the balls he swung at, nearly 10% more than the league as a whole and in the top 15 among qualified hitters. He managed that despite swinging on only 41.2% of the pitches he saw, a rate five points lower than league average. That combination of numbers is rare territory, as just one other hitter who qualified for the batting title also had a swing rate, strikeout rate, contact rate and swinging-strike rate better than or equal to Betts’s: Marlins utilityman Martin Prado. Four other hitters—the Tigers' Jose Iglesias, the Giants' Joe Panik, the Red Sox' Dustin Pedroia and the Indians' Jose Ramirez—matched or beat Betts in strikeout rate, contact rate and swinging-strike rate, but all swung more often overall.

But while those players and a few others were close to Betts in swing-rate stats, none could approach his production of 135 wRC+ (Weighted Runs Created Plus, which takes Runs Created and adjusts for ballpark and era; 100 is average, so 135 is 35% above league average). That combination of offense with a low strikeout total is rare, too: Among qualified hitters, only the Nationals' Daniel Murphy and the Astros' Jose Altuve put up higher wRC+ figures last year (156 and 150, respectively) with a lower strikeout rate than Betts’s 11.0%. There isn’t necessarily a correlation between strikeout rate and production, but it’s worth noting that most of the league’s best hitters routinely strike out at rates well into the teens and 20s; Angels superstar Mike Trout, who led all of baseball with a 171 wRC+ in 2016, struck out 20.1% of the time. Betts is also part of a small group of players with elite production and low swing rates; only Trout and the Cardinals' Matt Carpenter posted higher wRC+ numbers while offering at fewer pitches than Betts.

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How does Betts do it? For starters, he was a better hitter with two strikes—posting a .249 average, a .298 on-base percentage and a .355 slugging percentage in 325 plate appearances in that situation last year—than the league as a whole, which hit .176/.246/.276. His zone profile on Brooks Baseball, meanwhile, shows a hitter who takes plenty of hacks within the strike zone and makes tons of contact when he does, rarely swings and misses at actual strikes and doesn’t offer much at pitches outside. Indeed, there’s just one quadrant where he struggled to connect when he did swing: very low and outside.

Overall, Betts’s philosophy is a simple one: Don’t swing often, but make contact when you do. That creates an incongruous and unique profile because he has the same swing and contact rates of low-power slap hitters like Iglesias or Panik but produces results closer to the likes of Trout. Betts’s ability to cover the plate and punish strikes while also driving the ball is hard to find in today’s game. So while Wednesday night saw his strikeout-less streak end, don’t be surprised if Betts also quietly started another one.

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