How Mookie Betts keeps his 'feel' at the plate: 'Play the slice'

How Mookie Betts keeps his 'feel' at the plate: 'Play the slice'

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Mookie Betts ripped a leadoff home run to left field against the Angels’ Nick Tropeano on Thursday night, the right fielder's sixth homer of the season. He added a double down the line to left in the eighth inning, making him 7-for-13 in a three-game sweep of the Angels.

On Wednesday, a day after rocking three home runs in one night, Betts was asked if he believes in the concept of entering "the zone" at the plate.

"I think it’s more of just your focus is raised and you feel good," Betts said. "Something more of that vs. like a zone. I guess you kind of get to a point where everything you hit seems to be a hit, or seems to be a home run, or what not. But I think it’s just you’re focused more, and you’re just doing the right things more, really."

The majors' best hitter to begin the 2018 season, Betts does so many things right. How he maintains his stroke is a group effort predicated on a simple idea for an otherworldy talent.

"Mookie’s an athlete. Mookie drives on feel," hitting coach Tim Hyers said. "He’s not your guy that’s like, 'I do it this way,' and he can explain, 'I do it with X, Y, Z.' He’s more of, 'I feel this way, it feels good to me.'"

Betts is pulling the ball at a particularly high rate, higher than he ever has. But pelting left field is not a new, defined approach. Both Betts and Hyers said Betts is simply reacting to pitch location. (Betts did note that he does not make his living by going the other way.)

“They’re pitching him a certain way, and he’s taking advantage of it to the pull side,” Hyers said. “Talk to me a month from now, and they might have a different approach to him."

By then, Betts’ swing will likely look a little different than it did in Anaheim. Fluidity is central to Betts’ existence in baseball, not only in his strides across the outfield, but in his daily approach in the box. Similar to a pitcher who adapts to the stuff he has on a given day, Betts moves between different versions of himself at the plate — even if the changes are slight.

“You try and be the same every day,” Betts said. “But nobody wakes up and does the same thing every day. So, you have a little tweak here and there, and if you’re just not doing something today — it’s kind of like golf. You know, you hit a slice, you’re slicing the ball today. Just for that day, play the slice. Then, the next day may change.”

That mindset is notable because it sounds counterintuitive. Hitters spend day and night in the cage to achieve some sort of ideal, or so it long appeared. Rarely, if ever, is the ideal swing described as mutable inside a given day. Hitters talk about adapting to pitchers or game situations, but not about adapting to their own feeling at the plate.

J.D. Martinez is the scientist who reverse engineers every result. Betts is the artist who knows which paints work together and which do not, but may not always know why. In 2018, Betts' understanding of his art is growing along with his output.

Teammates for two months now, Betts and Martinez chatted about their swings during batting practice on Wednesday afternoon. They talked again later that night, in the dugout after Martinez homered to the opposite field on a pitch at his ankles. (That conversation may not have been educational, however. After the game, Martinez joked he should not have swung at the pitch.)

They are as different as learners as they are batters, but Martinez and Betts have taken to each other quickly.

“What makes him so good are his hands,” Martinez said. “And I tell him that, I’m like, ‘Dude, don’t — if someone ever tells you to change your hands, tell ‘em to kick rocks. Because that’s what makes you, you.’

“He’s always asking questions, man. He’s always asking me, 'What are you trying to do with this pitch? What are you trying to do with that? How’d you get the ball this way, how do you get the ball in the air?’

“He wants to learn, which is cool, because he’s always been the guy to go up there and just hit. It’s cool, I respect that because … you’re always trying to get better, and that’s what I see in him.”

Martinez obsessively reviews video to the point that he has had to tell himself to step away. Betts reviews footage of his at-bats, but in a more deliberate fashion.

“There’s an art to watching video,” Betts said. “You have to learn how to watch video, what you’re looking for. If you’re just looking at video, looking at the big, broad picture, then you kind of get yourself in trouble. But if you kind of narrow in on certain somethings, then that’s how you kind of clean yourself up.

“Looking at just the swing. I mean, that’s pretty much it. Usually my timing is pretty close to the same all the time. I do a lot of the same movements. But the swing is different sometimes. Sometimes I swing down, sometimes I swing up, whatever.”

Martinez hasn’t exactly broken down Betts’ swing frame by frame, but he does regard Betts as somewhat atypical.

“You know, I never really got to sit there and study him and watch his swing,” Martinez said. “But being around him and seeing how athletic of a hitter he is, really, something that kind of just caught me, you look at [him] mechanically … he does a lot of things differently than most great hitters do.”

Martinez, perhaps a bit of a mad scientist — and definitely a candidate to become a hitting coach someday — didn’t elaborate at length. 

“That’s a whole ‘nother topic,” Martinez said. “Just compare him to some of the best hitters. And see what you see. 

“Just the way his legs work … His legs are really different.”

(When asked, Betts wasn’t sure exactly what Martinez was seeing, which probably speaks to their different consumption of hitting techniques more than anything else. “I’ve heard, ‘Where does the power come from?’” Betts said. “Other than that I haven’t really heard unorthodox.")

Regardless, Martinez was emphatic: the message to Betts is to stay true to himself.

When he talks to Hyers, Betts highlights the importance of his legs being “underneath” him. Betts will say that he feels calm in the batter’s box, or grounded. Or, he will say that he does not.

“And that’s his terminology,” Hyers said. “And when he keeps his stride length in order, not too far, and keeps everything underneath him, that’s when he lets the electric hands work.”

Overall, Hyers did not see Betts as unconventional as Martinez did, but Hyers noted Betts has more moving parts than some, particularly as he loads. (Watch his hands.) Betts has particularly loose shoulders, Hyers pointed out.

Either way, for a hitting coach, communicating with a “feel” hitter doesn’t sound like the easiest task. But a proclivity for “feel” does not preclude one from communicating well, and Hyers said Betts is successful conveying his thoughts.

“If he feels things get off line, just let him talk and [describe] what feels different," Hyers said. "And you just kind of start to hit those target areas where he feels uncomfortable. It’s more, we just talk through things, instead of you going, ‘OK, this is X,Y, Z.’”

Betts said Hyers does a strong job of using key words and terms, triggers to help Betts remember how he felt at a certain point in time. Baseball's best hitter to begin the 2018 season needs to do, not see.

“Always a feel for me,” Betts said. “I can look at it and mimic something, but if it doesn’t feel right, then I kind of don’t trust it."

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Drellich: These Red Sox can do no wrong

Drellich: These Red Sox can do no wrong

ANAHEIM, Calif. -- We’re not firing on all cylinders yet. The scary thing is, we’re not even playing our best. Just wait until we really get going.

You’ve heard these phrases and their variants before. They’re typically worthless.

RED SOX 9, ANGELS 0

Someone is always performing poorly. Always. That’s life in a sport where the best teams lose 40 percent of the time, where the best hitters fail 7 times out of 10, and all the other cliches.

What may be most remarkable about the Red Sox’ 15-2 run is that for an extended time, we are seeing a baseball team actually bump up against its ceiling. They have four grand slams. There are two major- league teams that have only three wins.

They are actually playing their best.

“It’s very rare,” Alex Cora said Wednesday night, after becoming the first rookie manager in history to begin his career with 15 wins in 17 games. “There’s always something that is not going with the others. But right now, defense, pitching and offense -- base running too. You know, we were aggressive today  [when Eduardo Nunez was thrown out trying to stretch a double] but we’ll take that one. We’re doing better. We’re doing a lot better. And I don’t know, man. It’s just, it’s just fun to watch.

“I know how good they are. But it’s just something about them, they make you feel confident. You show up every day to work, I enjoy it, I’m having a blast with them. Not only in the dugout, but in the clubhouse. It’s fun. It’s fun to be around them. It’s a good group, and we’re growing together, we’re learning together and you know, we’re going to keep getting better."

“All systems go” rarely has more validity as a description for a baseball team than it does the Red Sox at present.

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“I’ve been fortunate to be on some good teams and I’m sure I have [had similar stretches], but not, I don’t think, to this extent, where we’re playing good defense, we’re throwing the ball so well,” said Mitch Moreland, who homered Wednesday night in a 9-0 win over the Angels. “We’re coming up with big hits. Everybody in the clubhouse has done something to help the team win. It might just be because it’s fresh on my mind, but it stands out as good a ball as I think I’ve been a part of in the big leagues.”

Imagine how good a team can be if everyone is healthy and performing well. (By the way, the Sox are missing Xander Bogaerts.) But the best 17-game start in the 118-year history of a franchise has been inclusive of virtually everyone. Even Blake Swihart is getting some at-bats in these blowouts. 

Perhaps the bullpen feels a little left out lately, because the Sox are romping. These are thoroughly dominating performances, led by starting pitching. Rick Porcello -- who we may now more often mention won a Cy Young award two years ago -- has one walk in four starts. He’s 4-0 with a 1.40 ERA.

Rafael Devers, meanwhile, is the youngest Sox player to hit a grand slam since Tony Conigliaro in 1965.

Things will change. They’ll get ugly at some point. For now, though, there’s no waiting to see what a team looks like when everything is actually working. 

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Red Sox' refusal to trade Mookie Betts for Giancarlo Stanton, or anyone, only looks better

Red Sox' refusal to trade Mookie Betts for Giancarlo Stanton, or anyone, only looks better

ANAHEIM, Calif. — Giancarlo Stanton strikes out in his sleep while Mookie Betts has been the best hitter in baseball. On Wednesday, of all days, there’s absolutely no one in Red Sox camp who’s going to look back with regret on the little bit of history revealed by a former Marlins executive. (And no regret is going to crop up in the future either, barring something very strange.)

David Samson, former president of the Marlins, told CBS Sports that when Betts was a rising prospect in the minors, the Marlins tried to land him by dangling Hanley Ramirez — and even Stanton himself. The Red Sox looked at Betts as untouchable, and for some of the mistakes that were made under former general manager Ben Cherington’s watch, keeping prospects like Betts out of trades may have been his greatest strength.

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The Marlins, surely, aren’t the only ones who tried to pry Betts away from the Sox. Teams inquire about great talents all the time. But Betts is a much more well-rounded player. Stanton has struck out in 38.7 percent of plate appearances this season (29 in 75 trips), compared to just 9 percent for Betts (six in 67 trips).

Betts is hitting .389 with a .493 on-base percentage and .796 slugging percentage. Per one measurement that encompasses a hitter’s offensive production, weighted runs created plus (wRC+), Betts has been the top hitter across the majors. He has five home runs, three of which came Tuesday against the Angels.

One thing Betts is doing more of in 2018: pulling the ball, as noted by FanGraphs.

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