ARLINGTON, Texas — Let’s begin with a thought that has been conveyed — directly and indirectly — so often by prominent members of the Los Angeles Dodgers that it might as well be considered a statement of fact: Mookie Betts has exceeded expectations.
Now let’s consider why that seems so outrageous: Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ president of baseball operations, gushed fervently and uncharacteristically when he introduced Betts in early February. He joked that he had followed his career so closely that Betts should consider “a restraining order” and said Betts would “blush” if he heard the way Friedman talked about him.
Friedman gave up an exceedingly talented shortstop prospect and a young, controllable, promising outfielder for one season of Betts. Then he signed Betts to a 12-year, $365 million extension — the first nine-figure deal of Friedman’s tenure — before Mookie even played a game with the Dodgers, despite the bleak financial landscape facing the industry.
Then Betts exceeded expectations.
It wasn’t just the .292/.366/.562 slash line. Or the 16 home runs and 10 stolen bases in 55 games. Or the 3.0 FanGraphs wins above replacement (third highest among position players) and 2.46 win probability added (ranked fourth).
It’s that Betts went outside of himself, stood in front of a clubhouse stuffed with accomplished teammates he barely knew and stressed the importance of details before the start of spring training. It’s that he partnered with Justin Turner to huddle the team together before the National League Division Series and reminded everyone to stay together amid the challenges that awaited them. It’s that he made the mundane drills competitive, that he went out of his way to help Austin Barnes and Gavin Lux — and probably several others — with their swings, and that he set the tone for a lineup that has spent years trying to establish an identity outside of home runs.
It’s that he led in a manner that was sincere and organic, not forceful and contrived.
It’s that he backed it all up with action, seemingly every day.
Practically everyone who observed baseball in Los Angeles this summer — fans, media members, coaches, executives, even players — had one similar reaction. It went something like this: I knew Mookie Betts was good. I didn’t know he was THAT good.
“I think the day-in, day-out consistency of what he does on a baseball field separates him,” Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw said after Betts seemed to do everything in Game 1 of the World Series. “You might see one game and not really appreciate Mookie to his full potential, but now that we’ve seen it for a full — well, COVID-shortened, but a full season for us — you kind of get to appreciate it.”
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts saw Betts drive a pitch deep into the left-center-field seats during a nighttime scrimmage shortly after baseball restarted and was stunned to learn someone so small (5-foot-9) could drive baseballs so far. Third-base coach Dino Ebel, who spent a long time working closely with the Angels’ Mike Trout, has often found himself in awe of Betts as a baserunner. Several Dodgers pitchers have commented about how they have never played with a more dynamic right fielder, and some of them shared a clubhouse with Yasiel Puig.
The Dodgers already were a dominant team, the season was only 60 games, and yet Betts made a profound impact that can’t fully be captured by numbers. You had to see it, experience it, every day. Below, we identified 25 ways in which Betts has influenced games in 2020 and divided them among his plethora of tools. (Statistical notes from ESPN Stats & Information)
This postseason, Betts’ launch angle is 20.1 degrees. The league average is 12.7 degrees.
July 29: at Astros
Betts managed only five hits in his first 28 at-bats with the Dodgers. But with the score tied in the 11th inning of an emotional series in Houston, he turned on a 2-0 cutter out over the plate and drove it off the fence in deep left-center field, giving the Dodgers their second of three leads in an eventual win.
Aug. 7: vs. Giants
A swollen left middle finger kept Betts out of the starting lineup for the previous three games, but he returned in the series opener against the Giants, hit a double in the first inning and homered in the fourth, the first of four Dodgers home runs on the afternoon. It gave Betts four consecutive at-bats with an extra-base hit.
Aug. 9: vs. Giants
Leading by a run with two on and one out in the eighth, the Giants brought in right-handed reliever Shaun Anderson to face Betts. And on Anderson’s first pitch, a slider slightly outside, Betts lofted a home run over the fence in left-center field to blow open the game.
Aug. 13: vs. Padres
Roberts began the year batting Betts second against righties as a way to stagger his left-handed hitters, but Betts maintained that he felt more comfortable as a leadoff hitter. On this Thursday night, Betts returned to that spot for the first time in 11 days and hit three home runs in the first five innings, joining Johnny Mize and Sammy Sosa as the only players with six career three-homer games — and he got there a lot faster than they did. Betts never batted anywhere but leadoff again.
Sept. 13: vs. Astros
Fifth inning, one out, 0-2 count, Dodgers ahead by three runs, Betts goes inside-out on a low changeup and barely lifts it over the fence in right-center field. It was his 15th home run of the year — and his third in five at-bats against Zack Greinke to that point.
Sept. 18: at Rockies
Betts has a home run in the sixth, a two-run triple in the seventh — both with two outs — and seven or more total bases for the fourth time this season. Reminder: Betts gets at least nine games a year at Coors Field once baseball gets back to its normal schedule.
Betts ranks fourth in outfield assists over the past five seasons.
July 31: at Diamondbacks
Betts had three hits in this game, two for extra bases, but nobody remembers that. They remember The Throw. It was the first inning. Ketel Marte led off with a flare near the right-field line that looked like an easy triple. Then Betts unleashed a jaw-dropping 305-foot throw perfectly placed in Corey Seager‘s glove to nail Marte, who was covering more than 28 feet per second. Betts barely reacted. Just another day at the office.
Sept. 2: vs. Diamondbacks
Betts hit another big homer, tying the score at 1 with a drive to center field in the bottom of the ninth. After the game, though, Roberts made sure to mention his two quick throws to the infield that prevented baserunners from tagging up on fly balls — in the second inning with a man on third and in the 10th inning with the go-ahead run on second. The Dodgers won by a run.
Oct. 17: NLCS Game 6 vs. Braves
With the score tied at 1 in the top of the sixth, Braves catcher Travis d’Arnaud led off with a liner to deep right field that one-hopped the section of the wall that sits about 330 feet from home plate. It looked like a sure double. But Betts retrieved it quickly and fired a throw to second base that reached 96 mph, forcing d’Arnaud to stop in his tracks. The Braves never scored that inning.
Betts was in the 87th percentile in sprint speed this season, covering 28.3 feet/second (MLB average was 27.0 feet/second).
July 23: vs. Giants
Betts was hitless in the first two at-bats of his Dodgers debut, but he forced a bobble on a semihard grounder to the left side in the fifth inning. In the seventh, after lining a base hit to left and requesting the baseball, Betts was on third with the infield in. He broke immediately on Turner’s grounder off the end of the bat, slid headfirst to barely beat the throw from Giants second baseman Donovan Solano, and gave the Dodgers the lead, igniting a five-run inning.
July 26: vs. Giants
With Betts on base in the third inning, Giants lefty Drew Smyly threw to first four times before firing his third pitch to Max Muncy. Muncy eventually struck out as Betts swiped second anyway, prompting Smyly to pitch around Turner with first base open and bringing up reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger, who drove in Betts with an RBI single.
Aug. 22: vs. Rockies
Betts began the bottom of the first by fouling off a couple of two-strike pitches and laying off two others near the edges of the strike zone to work a walk. He went first-to-third on Seager’s sharp grounder through the left side, then immediately broke for home when Seager got caught in a rundown between first and second. The Rockies never even bothered to throw over. The Dodgers won by a run.
Sept. 3: vs. Diamondbacks
Another home run by Betts — a two-run shot in the eighth, the Dodgers’ third of the inning — and another subtle moment that probably was just as significant. With the Dodgers trailing by a run in the sixth, Betts led off with a base hit in the left-center gap and took second after an initial bobble by Rockies center fielder Kevin Pillar. On the next pitch, he scored on a single through the left side by Seager to tie the score.
Sept. 16: at Padres
The Dodgers became the first team to clinch a spot in the postseason on this Wednesday afternoon at San Diego, and Betts was a nightmare on the bases. In the first, he stole second and got to third on a fly ball. In the third, he stole second, advanced to third on a wild pitch and came an inch away from escaping a rundown on an initial break home. In the fifth, he stole second and advanced to third on an errant throw, then scored on a hit.
Sept. 19: at Rockies
This game provided the sequence that, to some on the Dodgers, defines Betts as a baserunner. He turned a tapper into an infield single, advanced to second on a wild pitch and moved to third on an errant pickoff throw from Rockies reliever Mychal Givens. Then, rather than assume the play was over, Betts kept his head up, maintained aggressiveness, and when Pillar casually threw the ball back into the infield, Betts broke for home. A run manufactured, all by himself.
Oct. 14: NLCS Game 3 vs. Braves
The Dodgers’ record-breaking 11-run first inning started with Betts, who barely legged out an infield single after the initial out call was overturned by replay. The Dodgers had a runner on to start the game while trailing the best-of-seven series 2-0. Considering they scored 10 of those 11 first-inning runs with two outs, it was a crucial one.
Oct. 20: World Series Game 1 vs. Rays
Pick any Betts moment from the World Series opener and you probably wouldn’t be wrong. Perhaps it was how he walked, stole a base — and won America a free taco! — then led a double steal in the fifth. Or maybe it was what happened immediately thereafter, when he broke home fast enough to barely beat the throw on a sharp infield grounder. Or maybe it was his opposite-field home run the following inning. As always is the case with Betts, it’s hard to choose.
This postseason, Betts is hitting .327 with a hard-hit rate of 60%, meaning balls hit 95-plus mph, good for sixth among 71 qualifiers, per Statcast.
Aug. 15: at Angels
Betts went 0-for-4 the night after his three-homer performance, then came right back and tied the score twice against the Angels — with a two-out, two-run single in the second and a leadoff homer in the seventh. The Dodgers went on to win by a run in 10 innings. Betts accumulated 21 two-out RBIs during the regular season, five shy of the major league lead.
Aug. 23: vs. Rockies
No big deal — just two homers, two stolen bases, three runs driven in and three runs scored in a rout over one of the Dodgers’ division rivals. The first homer, his 10th, came after not chasing a slider that tailed off the plate and to run the count full. Betts slugged .505 with two strikes this season, the second-highest mark in the majors. The league average: .309.
Sept. 1: vs. Diamondbacks
This marked the fourth straight game in which Betts worked a walk. He drew six of them over the course of that stretch and the Dodgers eventually scored in half of those instances — including the sixth inning of this game, which helped give the team its 27th win in 37 tries.
Oct. 6: NLDS Game 1 vs. Padres
Betts accumulated four doubles in each of his first three postseason games for the Dodgers. This one came in a 1-1 tie with one on and one out in the sixth. Betts notched the Dodgers’ first hit of the game with a ringing double down the left-field line. It forced the Padres to replace Garrett Richards with Matt Strahm and triggered the four-run inning that proved to be the difference.
In the past five seasons, Betts leads all major leaguers in defensive runs saved. He has won four straight Gold Gloves, and is a finalist again this season.
Sept. 10: at Diamondbacks
Betts started his first game at second base in six years. He came up as a middle infielder, and a couple of weeks earlier Betts told Roberts he would be happy to fill in at second base if an emergency situation presented itself in October. He was fine, as you might expect.
Oct. 16: NLCS Game 5 vs. Braves
It was the third inning. The Braves, a win away from the World Series, led 2-0 with one out and two runners in scoring position. The game was beginning to unravel for the Dodgers. Then Betts made an extremely difficult lunging catch on a sinking line drive right before it touched the grass and ended the inning with a double play because Marcell Ozuna broke from third too early. From there, the Dodgers scored seven unanswered runs.
Oct. 17: NLCS Game 6 vs. Braves
It was the fifth inning. The Dodgers, a win away from forcing Game 7, led 3-0 with one on and two outs. Ozuna drove a Walker Buehler offering to deep right field. Betts sprinted back, leapt off the warning track, twisted in the air and made a full-extension catch right up against the fence, high-stepping in jubilation shortly after coming down with it. The Dodgers didn’t score any more runs. They desperately needed that catch.
Oct. 18: NLCS Game 7 vs. Braves
It was the fifth inning. The Dodgers, a win away from their third World Series appearance in four years, trailed 3-2 with one out and Roberts already was deep into his bullpen. Freddie Freeman hit a deep drive that looked as if it would sail over the fence. But Betts ranged back, timed his jump perfectly and stuck his glove over the 8-foot fence to rob Freeman of a home run. The Dodgers ultimately came back to win by a run. It was Betts’ third game-changing defensive play in as many days. And lest you think Betts didn’t contribute offensively with the Dodgers’ season on the line — he reached base via hit or walk in half of his 14 plate appearances from Games 5-7.
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