Return of 2016 Mookie Betts would be Red Sox' greatest gift

Evan Drellich
NBC Sports Boston

BOSTON - Before the 2017 season, one general manager wondered whether George Springer would ever compile a season as strong as Mookie Betts' 2016. Springer did it. Now, the comparison runs in the other direction.

"I bring up George a lot because that's what he did with Houston last year, and that's what I envision with Mookie," said Alex Cora, who managed Springer in 2017. "[Betts] can do the same thing."

Indeed, he already has. But a great season is not a promise of a baseline, or of repeated success. Betts' MVP-caliber performance two years ago could have been a peak. Or, it could have been stepping stone.

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After a measly ten games and nine sterling wins for the Red Sox, there's reason to believe 2016 Betts is back. And that the 2018 version may be even better.

Not all rebound stories are created equal on the Red Sox. A focused and healthy Hanley Ramirez, whose 11 RBIs lead the team, does not compare to Betts' potential. J.D. Martinez can out-slug anyone on the Sox but doesn't bring the speed element that Betts does: stretched hits, stolen bags.

If Betts' 2016 was not his peak, if his runner-up MVP performance is closer to the norm, there's no one better in Boston. There may be only handful of players better anywhere. 

Betts has made an it-just-sounds-so-easy change in his approach by swinging earlier in the count. He's focused less on working at-bats and more on finding a pitch he can handle best. This is a team wide philosophy, ultimately, led by both Cora and hitting coach Tim Hyers, as well as the analytics folks. 

"I think it was just right after he got hired," Betts said of Cora. "I know he made his calls and called everybody, that was one of the first things he said to me. He must really pay attention to detail if it was one of the first things he said.

"He showed me numbers of my swing percentages and not necessarily scouting reports, it's just, swing more often."

By all means.

The 25-year-old went 4-for-4 with a pair of doubles and a grand slam in Tuesday night's embarrassment of the Yankees, a 14-1 win at Fenway Park. Betts added a walk for good measure and scored a career-high five runs. The last time one Sox player crossed the plate that many times was in 2015, when Jackie Bradley Jr. did it.

"With his ability, he's going to put the ball in play later on in the at-bat," Cora said. "But you can see he's ready to hit. It's not like he's taking pitches just to take. That's what we call bad takes. He was taking too many pitches right down the middle [in the past], and he can do damage with that. 

"People watch games and you scout hitters and you see video, and from personal experience, last year, he would take the first pitch - or he would take a strike - his first two at-bats, and then he'll ambush you the third at-bat, a predetermined swing the third at-bat. I mentioned it to him. He was like, ‘Well, yeah, I was doing that.' I think with what I learned from him last year being on the opposite side, and talking to him and the way other teams see him, then he started thinking, ‘Well, I can change my approach.' But the good thing with him is his ability to make contact is unreal. It's unreal. And he can do damage when he makes contact."

The numbers coming into Tuesday show remarkably rapid improvement. Betts' contact rate was 96 percent of swings, per FanGraphs, up from 86 a year ago. He swung and missed at just 1 percent of all pitches he saw, down from 5. He's chasing less, he's making more contact with strikes.

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Swinging early hasn't led to zone expansion, in part because his plate judgment has always been stellar.

"He's always been a swing at strikes first, getting his pitch to hit," Hyers said. "He understands that part. To me, it's leading him to be more aggressive, encourage him to take a few more gambles early on. It's worked in his favor so far.

"I give him credit. Remember in spring training? He came out of the chute swinging, making some quick outs. I think that was good for him. He learned maybe how to handle himself, more of getting prepared before the game. There's a few things he's been doing kind of getting ready for that first at-bat."

It feels too simple. Surely Betts is in better health than he was as last year wound down, although he had a very strong and perhaps overlooked September.

Nothing about Betts' 2018 will be overlooked if we're looking at a revival of 2016, because there's no greater development to be had for the Red Sox.

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