By Matt Dolloff, CBS Boston
BOSTON (CBS) — If you’re fully expecting Mookie Betts to easily match – or even exceed – his 31-home run output from a year ago, you may not want to hold your breath.
The Red Sox right fielder emerged as one of the American League’s most dynamic talents in 2016, but that doesn’t mean his surprising power will improve (or even continue) in 2017. His .216 ISO, which measures his raw power, was 20 percentage points above his career average and higher than more “traditional” power hitters like Bryce Harper and Wil Myers. His home run-to-fly ball rate of 13.2 percent is also likely to regress back closer to his 2014-15 rate of 8.2 percent.
But this isn’t meant to let a few advanced stats tell the whole story. It’s also not a way of saying Betts isn’t as good as you think he is. He’s just not the surefire slugger you may be expecting over the course of his career – and Betts basically said so himself.
Betts spoke to reporters on Tuesday at Red Sox spring training in Fort Myers and was asked about what he did to improve his power. The right fielder said he was never worried about hitting more homers – just hitting better in general.
“Honestly, I have no idea,” said Betts on how his sudden power surge happened, via WBZ NewsRadio 1030’s Jonny Miller. “I just kind of got up there and hit. I wasn’t really focused on [hitting for more power]. It just kind of happened, really.”
In fact, Betts isn’t familiar with the concept of any ballplayer working specifically to increase his home run totals.
“I’ve never really heard of somebody who wants to go and add more home runs and then have a whole lot of success after that,” said Betts. “Whatever you did to get to the point that you were, I think you should just continue to do that.
“I’m not going to overnight become a home run hitter, and I don’t think many people will.”
While Betts still has the talent and tools to once again be an MVP candidate in 2017, it’s reasonable to expect that he slides back to around 20 home runs rather than continuing to launch 30-plus. For a Red Sox lineup that lost the retired David Ortiz, Betts’ likely decline in power could be missed even more. Andrew Benintendi and Pablo Sandoval should give the Sox more out of the left field and third base spots – but ultimately, Betts is one of the key players whom the team will depend on to pack a punch in the heart of the order.
The ripple effect of the Red Sox’ potential offensive decline could be tremendous – the pitching staff, in particular, will need to be better overall – but the team may have made the right additions (hello, Chris Sale) to withstand the inevitable regression in Betts’ power numbers. If Benintendi can emerge as another young stud, Sandoval can deliver a solid bounceback season, and Hanley Ramirez can come close to matching his 30 home runs from last season, then Betts’ own regression may not matter all that much.
But a regression should be expected nonetheless, because even Betts himself knows he’s not a pure home run hitter.
Matt Dolloff is a writer for CBSBostonSports.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect that of CBS or 98.5 The Sports Hub. Have a news tip or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff and email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Stats according to Fangraphs