Mookie Betts is feeling better than she has in a long time. Overcoming the nagging injuries that have hampered him over the past two seasons is reason #1. Reason #2 might seem reckless: He’s running less defensively.
That’s one of the perks of playing more infield than ever as a major league player. All those long runs from right field to dugout? Chasing all those balls in the outfield? He says it adds up and is taking its toll.
“18 times all the way there and back,” Betts said, pointing toward the Dodgers’ dugout and out into right field. “Instead of me then taking three steps to the right, backhand, boom, throw for the first time, you have to do 30 on a full sprint. That alone is an additional burden.”
Betts, 30, has attended 86 of the Dodgers’ 89 games this season. As the club’s leadoff hitter, he hit 26 homers with a .965 on-base plus slugging percentage. He became the second player in Major League Baseball history to hit ten leadoff home runs before the All-Star break. The performance surpassed his typical – he’s just nine homers shy of reaching his career peak – and has drawn most of the attention.
But Betts’ defensive versatility, while not at the unprecedented level of Shohei Ohtani, is otherwise unmatched for a player of his caliber. Just ask Ohtani, who went out of his way to compliment Betts when asked who impressed him the most in Tuesday’s All-Star Game.
“Not just today, but looking at the guys overall, I feel like Mookie Betts really impresses me,” Ohtani said after the game ended. “He’s so versatile.”
Earlier in the season, Betts had started 30 games at second base in his major league career. He had never played shortstop before. But he was a minor league infielder as a kid and always wanted to return. He pushed to play more infield — first with the Boston Red Sox, then with the Dodgers — but there was never an urgent need. That has changed this season.
Gavin Lux’s season-ending knee injury in spring training affected the Dodgers’ already shallow infield depth. Utility man Chris Taylor’s injuries and problems further complicate matters. Add to that the offensive problems of Miguel Vargas and Miguel Rojas, and the Dodgers were figuring out their best lineup against right-handed pitchers with left-handed hitters David Peralta and Jason Heyward on the corner of the outfield and Betts in the infield.
As a result, Betts has made 12 starts at shortstop and 19 at second base. He has logged a total of 254 innings in the infield. He’s played a lot more in right field — 54 starts and 482 ⅔ innings — but he’s started in infield in nine of the Dodgers’ last 13 games. According to FanGraphs, he held three defensive runs at second base and none at shortstop, suggesting he was at least average. It’s not a gimmick.
If anything, the Dodgers’ decision to opt Vargas for Triple A on Sunday means Betts could play even more infield.
“I never thought of myself as a right fielder,” Betts said. “I’m just playing on the right field. I’ve always considered myself a midfielder.”
Betts likened his season to the summer prom he grew up at. One day he would play shortstop. Another second base. Another midfield. He said it was “normal” for him. It’s just not normal for others at this level.
“He’s a lot better than I expected,” said Dodgers manager Dave Roberts. “I knew he could play second base. I didn’t know he could handle shorts that well. And of course, Shohei is the all-time MVP in baseball, but to have a man who can fill two middle infield spots, hit the leadoff, and be productive, what value does that have [is] Our ball club shouldn’t be lost for him.”
This isn’t little league. Betts wasn’t pushed outfield in the minor leagues because he was a poor defender. It happened because the Red Sox wanted to add him to their big league roster. It turned out that he was one of the few who could not only handle the change, but also shone with the change.
Betts is not the fastest player. He doesn’t run the fastest. But his athleticism is elite. His hand-eye coordination, arm strength and arm accuracy are hard to beat in this sport. He’s one of those people who seems to be good at everything.
This talent worked effectively against him. He got too good in right field to return to the infield. He has won a Gold Glove in six of the last seven seasons. How do you justify removing one of the best outfielders in the world – one you’ve committed to paying $365 million for – from the outfield?
“I understand why,” Betts said. “We had Corey [Seager]we had Trea [Turner], we had Lux. We had other infielders. That’s cool. I didn’t stumble. Also, they pay me to be an outfielder. I could have been an infielder my entire career. But that’s not how it worked out.”
Betts’ desire to play in the infield never waned. He continued his campaign and ensured he was ready for the opportunity by continuing to incorporate field work into his pre-game routine over the years.
Dino Ebel, the Dodgers’ third base and infield coach, often leads these workouts. Betts, he said, demands the routine groundballs, but he wants plays that aren’t routine. He always wants to improve his reaction. He asks Ebel to throw the ball in the dirt, up, left, right. He wants helicopters. He wants chances to get it.
Ebel said he was convinced last year that Betts could play as a shortstop in the majors. The experienced coach has been active in professional baseball since 1988. The only other player he can think of in the Betts stratosphere as a batsman who has demonstrated his level of defensive versatility is Hall of Famer Robin Yount, who started his career as a shortstop before moving to midfield.
“It’s not easy, but he makes it look easy because he’s a super athlete,” Ebel said of Betts. “He enjoys the challenge. When someone says they don’t think they can do it, they’re proving them wrong.”
Betts is often humble. When he talks about his infield skills, he’s less so.
“I told everyone I could do it,” Betts said.
Does it give him satisfaction to prove he can do it?
“No, because I believe in myself,” Betts said. “I know what I can do. If anyone doubts that, okay.”
What about the fact that his offensive numbers are significantly better this season playing in the infield? He bats .347 with seven home runs and a 1.171 OPS in 87 plate appearances as a second baseman, .304 with three home runs and a 1.039 OPS in 52 plate appearances as a shortstop, and .243 with 16 home runs and an .874 OPS in 256 plate appearances as a right fielder.
“I think that’s just coincidence,” Betts said. “I mean, I was MVP in right field.”
That’s right. He won the 2018 AL MVP with Boston and only played six innings in the infield. Five years later, he’s on his way to another win with his defensive versatility high on his list, pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in the major leagues beyond anyone not named Shohei Ohtani.