Making the case for Mookie Betts as AL’s second-best player

Boston Globe’s Alex Speier joins Baseball Central to weigh in on any Red Sox interest in Manny Machado, saying they can certainly check in on him, but they don’t have assets in order to acquire him.

Mike Trout is the best player in the American League. He was the best in 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and, if we mitigate his injuries and count on a per-game basis, 2017 too. Miguel Cabrera won the Triple Crown in 2012 … and Trout was still a better overall player than Cabrera was.

With Trout the undisputed best player in the league (and on the planet), the real fun starts when you debate number two.

Last year’s AL MVP Jose Altuve has to be in the discussion. We also can’t leave out Aaron Judge, Francisco Lindor and Jose Ramirez, who’s so hot he might actually burst into flames by season’s end. But with the Toronto Blue Jays opening a four-game set against the Boston Red Sox Thursday night, let’s make the case for the best player on the best team in baseball: Mookie Betts.

Ben Nicholson-Smith and Arden Zwelling take fans inside the Blue Jays and around MLB with news, analysis and interviews.

In late May and early June, an abdominal strain knocked Betts out of the lineup for more than two weeks. That’s left his counting stats a bit short of the numbers put up by fellow hitting stars Trout, Ramirez and J.D. Martinez. Use the same per-game/per at-bat standard applied to Trout last year, though, and one thing becomes clear: Betts has been the single best hitter in all of baseball this season.

Boston’s standout right fielder leads MLB in both batting average (.350) and slugging (.675). Only Trout can top his stellar .439 on-base percentage. By Weighted Runs Created Plus, a rate stat that considers all offensive contributions, adjusts for park factors, and spits out a final tally, Betts rates an incredible 97 per cent better than the average major league hitter this year, beating out Trout and everyone else.

At age 25, the already explosive Betts has hiked his game to another level. Already owning an incredible batting eye, he’s been even more discerning at the plate this year. Already less apt to swing at pitches out of the strike zone than most of his AL rivals, Betts has offered at just 18 per cent of pitches out of the zone in 2018, the lowest mark of his five-year career, and also the lowest in the entire junior circuit. He’s also swinging at more pitches in the zone than ever before, with a swinging strike rate that’s declined for the third straight season (and also ranks among the best in the league).

This isn’t just your garden-variety high contact rate either. Betts is hitting more flyballs and fewer groundballs than ever before. He’s also pulling the ball at a career-high rate, with a hard-hit rate that’s seen one of the biggest year-to-year jumps by any hitter in baseball. Among AL hitters, only Ramirez has pulled the ball more frequently, and only nine hitters make more frequent hard contact.

Altuve is the gold standard for small-statured hitters who do big things, of course. But at just five-foot-nine, 180 pounds, Betts is absolutely clobbering the ball in his own right. If not for his abdominal injury and a handful of other lineup absences, we might be talking about a 50-home run pace for one of the tiniest players in the majors.

If Betts were merely the best hitter in all of baseball, he would already be a star. In reality, he’s a true five-tool player. Consider:

• Since Opening Day 2015, covering each of Betts’ seasons as an everyday MLB player, he’s generated more value than any other player in the big leagues on the base paths … and it’s not even close.

• Since becoming Boston’s everyday right fielder in 2016, Betts has twice led the league in Defensive Runs Saved, saving a staggering 63 total runs more than the average right fielder across the 2016 and 2017 seasons per Baseball Info Solutions. He’s having a slight off year in 2018, dropping him all the way down in the Defensive Runs Saved standings to … fifth-best in the league. Other advanced defensive metrics, like those found in MLB’s Statcast system, are also fans of Betts’ play.

• You know how TV networks slap microphones on players during games, hoping to get something fun, only to end up with dreadfully dull results. I submit to you, one of the best mic’d-up moments of all time: ”I ain’t gettin’ this one, boys.”

So that’s what the Blue Jays are up against Thursday night: A beastly hitter, balletic fielder and blazing runner, an incredibly fun and energetic player just starting to realize the full scope of his otherworldly potential. Good luck with that.

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