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If you want to catch a glimpse of Mookie Betts playing like arguably the best baseball player on the planet, you could hop in a time machine and go back to the summer of 2018 or the fall of 2020.
Or, you could simply watch him right now.
The Los Angeles Dodgers right fielder hasn’t officially been named the National League Player of the Month for May just yet, but he deserves nothing less after going off for a .342/.411/.746 batting line and 12 home runs during the month. With the latter, he tied Aaron Judge for the league lead and matched Roy Campanella’s club record.
Suffice it to say that Betts’ supernova May did his overall record for 2022 some good. He’s heading into June with a .298/.387/.601 slash line and NL-best marks with 15 home runs and 50 runs scored.
Betts has also accumulated 3.0 rWAR, putting him just 0.2 off the pace set by San Diego Padres rival Manny Machado.
As for whether this is the best the Dodgers have seen Betts play during his three seasons with the club, manager Dave Roberts put it this way:
“I think even in ’20 there were snippets where he was playing good baseball. But over the last 30 days, it’s as good as anyone on the planet. Yeah, it’s as good as I’ve seen him. He’s scoring runs at a crazy clip. He’s on base. He’s slugging at a ridiculous clip, too. And he’s playing Gold Glove defense, too. He’s making the game look a lot easier than it is.”
Betts was indeed mighty good back in 2020, finishing second to future teammate Freddie Freeman in the NL MVP voting and putting his fingerprints all over the Dodgers’ first World Series championship since 1988.
Offensively, however, the 133 OPS+ that he posted in his first two regular seasons with the Dodgers was essentially no different from the 134 OPS+ that he put up in six seasons with the Boston Red Sox. To this end, at least, Betts’ performance this season more so resembles his MVP-winning peak from 2018.
His 173 OPS+ isn’t far off from the 186 OPS+ that he had that year, in which he also became just the 13th position player in history to climb as high as 10.7 rWAR. That list includes luminaries like Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds, yet notably not standout contemporaries like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper or Juan Soto.
If it sounds like we’re saying that Betts is back, well, we sort of are. Yet we hesitate to explicitly call this a comeback, as it’s as much a simple reminder of what the 29-year-old is capable of when he’s healthy.
It’s Good to Be Healthy
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And healthy, of course, is something that Betts was very much not in 2021.
Not counting the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, the 122 games Betts played last year marked a new personal low dating back to his first full season in 2015. He was bothered by inflammation in his right hip that necessary trips to the injured list in July and Aug.
As Roberts later hinted as the Dodgers were gearing up for the playoffs, it’s a small miracle that Betts didn’t have to miss even more time:
Bill Plunkett @billplunkettocr
#Dodgers Dave Roberts on Mookie Betts recovery from hip issue: “You look back a couple months — I can’t believe we’re here with him playing every day.”
By extension, it’s also a miracle that Betts played as well as he did. Though last year ended up being his first full season in which he didn’t get any MVP votes, he salvaged an All-Star nod and a stat line that included a 127 OPS+, 23 home runs, 10 stolen bases and the fifth-most rWAR among NL outfielders. Heck, he even hit .319 in the postseason.
After the Dodgers fell to Atlanta in the National League Championship Series, there was a brief window in which offseason hip surgery seemed to be on the table for Betts. Yet it didn’t take long for the man himself to nix that idea.
“It feels great,” he said of his hip on Nov. 17. “I have to get a checkup one more time to make sure everything is going good, but right now, yeah, everything is going great.”
This made it possible for the Dodgers to dream about Betts getting back to his usual self in 2022, specifically to the extent that he would be able to run the bases, field his position and drive the ball better than he was as he was playing through bread in 2021.
Such lofty expectations were immediately tested after Major League Baseball returned from the lockout, as Betts struggled to the tune of a .348 OPS during spring training. So it went out of the gate after the Dodgers opened their regular season on April 8. Betts was hitting under .200 as late as April 26 and generally taking at-bats that had Roberts feeling puzzled.
“Certainly, the at-bats aren’t Mookie typical,” he told reporters on April 20. “I don’t have an answer right now on why he’s sort of scuffling.”
You might have deducted as much from what Betts has done since then, but this has changed.
It Also Helps to Be Locked In
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For his career, Betts has struck out in only 13.4 percent of his plate appearances while also walking 10.5 percent of the time. Throw in a .522 slugging percentage, and you get a numerical portrait of a hitter who chooses his swings carefully and makes the most of them when he takes them.
Roberts was therefore right to be alarmed at seeing Betts have atypical at-bats in April. But then came May, and with it, a noticeable shift in the right-handed hitter’s swing patterns. Throughout the first month of the season, Betts was doing a lot of reaching for pitches down and away from him. That’s rarely a good idea for any hitter, but especially not a 5’9″, 180-pound guy who only has so much reach.
His swings in May? Much better. There were more cuts at pitches in the middle of the zone, and the away pitches he hacked at were more up in the zone. Those are easier pitches to handle in theory, and reality bears that out.
Betts had the fourth-highest rate of contact within the strike zone in May and he punished a fair number of mistakes. For instance, take this hanging curveball from Philadelphia Phillies ace Aaron Nola on May 21:
Los Angeles Dodgers @Dodgers
That was one of seven extra base hits that Betts had against breaking balls in May, and his overall performance in that department is eye-catching. His .673 slugging percentage against breaking stuff is currently 85 points higher than his previous career-high.
At 55.9 percent, Betts also had the 10th best hard-hit rate for the month of May. And while his overall hard-hit percentage this year (46.0) is shy of the career-high he set in 2018 (50.0), he’s doing a better job of concentrating his hard-hit balls in the air.
Of the 72 batted balls that have left his bat at or over 95 mph, 51 of them have been either line drives or fly balls. That’s 70.8 percent, which is a new personal best.
Apart from his excellence in the batter’s box, Roberts is correct that Betts is also back to playing the kind of defense that won him Gold Gloves annually between 2016 and 2020.
His three defensive runs saved through 407.1 innings this year already just one away from what he had through 751.2 innings in right field last year. Statcast sees him as getting the best jumps on fly balls that he’s ever gotten, and hitters really should know not to run on him by now:
Los Angeles Dodgers @Dodgers
MARKUS LYNN BETTS. pic.twitter.com/NlCiPd8SWh
The one area where Betts isn’t yet all the way back is with his baserunning. At his peak in 2018, he stole 30 bases with an average sprint in the 76th percentile. This year, he’s stolen only four bases with sprint speed in the 56th percentile.
Yet if the Dodgers could only choose two aspects for Betts to dominate, hitting and defense would be an easy choice over hitting and baserunning or defense and baserunning. In other words, what they’re getting from Betts now is the best possible version of “good enough.”
Meanwhile, the Dodgers Are Good
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Yeah yeah. At this point, noting that the Dodgers are good is akin to remarking that it’s a day ending in Y or a year ending in a number.
They are so good, though, that even their 33-16 record—the best in the National League and second only to the New York Yankees in all of MLB—doesn’t do them proper justice.
The Dodgers’ plus-116 run differential puts their Pythagorean record at 36-13. That’s a .736 hypothetical winning percentage that’s better than they’ve had at any point during their run of excellence over the last decade, including their championship season in 2020 and their 100-win efforts of 2017, 2019 and 2021.
It’s hard to spot anything resembling a soft underbelly in a pitching staff that bears a league-best 2.76 ERA. And while Betts is such a standout that he has more than twice as many home runs as any other Dodgers hitter, the lineup as a whole is as dangerous as it comes.
Between Betts, Freeman and Trea Turner, the Dodgers are one of only three teams with three hitters who are hitting above .290 in what’s thus far been the fourth-worst season in history for batting average. More broadly, the Dodgers offense is second in MLB in both on-base and slugging percentage.
In the context of all this, the role Betts is playing is shockingly similar to the one that he played when he won the American League MVP for a Red Sox team that won 108 games and the World Series in 2018. It’s that of the best player we arguably the best team around.
If he continues to play it this well, perhaps his ultimate rewards will also be the same.
Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.