After months (more accurately years) of rumors, Twitter bickering, and a carnival of delays that seemed to put the whole off-season in danger, The Big Move has finally happened. Andrew Friedman, in a stupendous about-face from his humbling at the Winter Meetings, pulled off an unthinkable heist by acquiring Mookie Betts and David Price from the Boston Red Sox for a handful of prospects.
Especially at a time when the LeBron Lakers and Kawhi/George Clippers are soaring, it’s the kind of superstar pick up the Dodgers have needed in recent years, and makes them into a whole new team. It also comes after a tumultuous stretch when L.A. really needed some good news for a change.
After the bitter Winter Meetings, the Astros cheating revelations, and Kobe's death, this was much needed.
— Marshall Garvey has a new book. Buy it now! (@MarshallGarvey) February 5, 2020
While it’s easy (and warranted) to get swept away in the excitement, it’s important to take a moment and parse through just why it’s such a seismic transaction. Here’s a primer on Mookie Betts.
A native of Nashville, Tennessee, Betts was drafted by Boston in the fifth round in 2011. He made his MLB debut on June 29, 2014, an 8-5 win against the rival Yankees in New York.
Measuring at 5-9 and a lean 180 pounds, he is the archetypal athlete every MLB franchise dreams of. At 27 years old, he is in the absolute prime of his career. So whether he’s just a one-year rental, or signs a long-term extension, the Dodgers will be getting him at his best. His young age is especially important to note given that in his seasons aged 23-26, he ranks 11th all-time among position players in WAR for that age range. Other names on the list include the likes of Mickey Mantle, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, and Mike Trout.
In just over half a decade of play, his credentials are eye-popping: four All-Star selections (and counting), three Silver Slugger Awards, a .301 career batting average, a World Series ring, and 2018 AL Most Valuable Player. It’s mind-numbing to think what that resume will look like when he hangs up the cleats.
The most important fact to know about Markus Lynn Betts, however, is that in 2018, he became the first player in MLB history to win league MVP, a Silver Slugger, a Gold Glove, a batting title, and a World Series in the same season. That alone makes him a must-have.
From his debut in mid-2014, Betts has distinguished himself as a hitter of both finesse and power. With quick hands, strong wrists, and a fluid swing, he makes consistently great contact and is thus likely to lead off the Dodgers’ murderous lineup in 2020. He hit .291 in just 52 games with Boston in 2014, and then notched the same average for his first full season in 2015.
In 2016, he asserted himself as one of the game’s elite players, hitting .318 with 31 homers and 113 RBIs, and notching an MLB-best 359 total bases. His nimble speed led to 26 stolen bases as well. 2017 saw a dip in all of his main totals to a .264 average, 24 home runs and 102 RBIs. Both were good enough for All-Star selections.
Yet that was all just a warm-up to 2018. After being hyped as comparable to Mike Trout by several writers early in the season, Betts justified the hype in magisterial fashion. His .346 average was the best in both leagues, as was his .640 slugging percentage. While his RBI tally dipped down to 80, he socked a career-high 32 homers, and scored more runs (129) than anyone else in the game. His OPS was 1.078.
Not content to merely rake, he swiped 30 bases, giving him a 30-30 season. Another All-Star selection was obligatory, followed by winning the World Series and, of course, AL MVP.
In 2019, a year that witnessed the Red Sox as a whole take a step back, his numbers went down. And by that I mean he hit .295, still led MLB in runs scored with 135 (six more than in 2018), and got his fourth straight All-Star nod. If that’s a down year, that’s ridiculous, considering he had the exact same number of RBIs as his MVP season the year prior. And it wasn’t even his weakest year, as he posted lower average and home run totals in 2017.
It would be satisfying enough to get Betts just for his bat. But it’s a mistake to overlook what his addition means defensively for the team. Despite coming up as a second baseman and only switching to outfield just before his MLB debut, he quickly excelled in that capacity, and has won four Gold Gloves (2016-2019) and the 2016 Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award.
He was far from alone in dazzling with the webbed glove at Fenway, as he, Andrew Benintendi and Jackie Bradley Jr. made for an OF troika that hearkened back to the “Million Dollar Outfield” of Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper that forged a Boston dynasty in the 1910s.
In his primary position as a right fielder, Betts wields a .992 career fielding percentage and just 10 errors committed. Especially combined with Cody Bellinger in center and (hopefully) a healthy A.J. Pollock in left along with Joc Pederson — who’s not leaving L.A. yet — it’s not likely many opposing flyballs are going to find their intended target in 2020.
How Is He in October?
The consensus across quite a few circles is that acquiring Betts makes the Dodgers the new World Series favorites. So it begs the question: Just how good is he actually on the big stage? During his Red Sox tenure, the team advanced to the postseason three consecutive years in 2016, 2017 and 2018.
The 2016 ALDS didn’t make for much of a playoff debut, as the Red Sox were easily swept in three games by the Cleveland Indians. He didn’t help, notching just two hits in 10 at-bats without a single RBI.
The 2017 ALDS against the Houston Astros wasn’t much better. While he managed to hit .313, he didn’t drive in a single run as Boston was dropped in four games. Granted, the Sox were the first victim of Houston’s cheating-laden championship run, as their illegal sign-stealing did extend into the postseason.
After a historic MVP regular season, it would only make sense for Betts to turn in an equally nonpareil postseason in 2018. He finally got his first postseason RBIs, two as part of Boston’s 16-1 drubbing of the Yankees in game three of the ALDS. He did nothing of note offensively in the ALCS against Houston, but he still played a key role in Boston’s five-game triumph with a stunning throw to get Tony Kemp out in the white-knuckle fourth game.
The World Series against Los Angeles, however, was largely bereft of highlights for the league MVP. Boston’s relentless offense was keyed more by the likes of WS MVP Steve Pearce, Andrew Benintendi, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez, as well as pinch-hit heroics from Eduardo Nunez and Mitch Moreland. Betts didn’t do much, and even whiffed three times in the legendary 18-inning game three (including a crucial strikeout with a runner on second against Kenta Maeda in the 15th inning).
He did manage a home run in the clinching fifth game off Clayton Kershaw, but that was part of an onslaught by Pearce and Martinez, and the series was effectively over at that point anyway. Collectively, this makes for just a .227 batting average and .654 OPS in his postseason career, a far cry from the respective .301 and .893 marks he owns cumulatively in the regular season.
Altogether, his underwhelming track record in the playoffs should be a cause for concern on paper. As someone who’s inclined to judge Dodger players harshly based on October performance, I don’t think it should be the focus. October is a different beast than the regular season, as we all know, and his regular season credentials are far too superlative to let a small sample size overshadow them.