Mookie Betts can be whatever you want him to be.
That is a commodity so rare that he is worth every penny the Los Angeles Dodgers just paid him. Now, I could spend the next 1,500 words arguing just how good Betts is with analytics, but that would be boring. I could say that Betts’ 37.2 fWAR since 2014 is second only to Mike Trout, and that No. 3 on that list is a more than 10% drop, but we all know how good Betts is. After all, he beat Mike Trout out for an MVP — after being runner-up one to him two years earlier. I could spend the next 1,500 words explaining what a deal the Dodgers got by comparing Betts’ deal to Bryce Harper’s (13 years, $330 million) or Manny Machado’s (10-year, $300 million) by looking at previous performance… while snickering:
I could go the opposite route. Instead of boring you with numbers, I could use the next 1,500 words to say Betts is worth what he signed for because he can bowl a perfect game, or he can solve a Rubik’s cube, or he feeds the homeless, or because he can hit a homer off Chris Archer… then personally fly him to see where it landed. I could argue that Harper’s and Machado’s deals are already proving that no player not named Trout is worth $300+ million. I could argue that if any non-Trout player was worth that kind of scratch, it would be Betts who is just 27 and still improving by many favorable metrics (hard hit %, Contact Rate, BB%, Exit Velocity, Barrel %, XWOBA, etc.), but again, boring.
Let’s just agree that while there are numerous reasons why the 2018 AL MVP deserved the 12-year, $365 million contract extension, it is his versatility that makes him unique in the traditional sense of the word (not the way the kids use “unique” today). And I must insist it is Betts’ versatility that fits perfectly into the Dodgers GM Andrew Friedman’s future plans and really makes this contract a steal.
Betts would fit into every general manager’s future plans — except maybe the Mariners, who don’t like to win (I’m from Seattle, I earned that). Indulge me in a hypothetical to explain.
Say Major League Baseball decided to shake things up with a fresh start. The league forced all teams to terminate all of their contracts with players and hold a super draft where everyone was available. Who would be the first player picked? Now, most people would say Trout… I would say Trout. After all, he is unquestionably the game’s best overall player — and has a chance to be the best player ever. If I had the first pick though, I would have to stop for one second to consider Betts before Trout.
I feel like I have to state for the record that I am not arguing Betts is better than Trout — I’m not insane.
From a general manager’s point of view, however, I like the idea of picking a player who is great at everything offensively and so good defensively that I didn’t cross off any position. By that I mean if you pick Trout, you are crossing off center field as a position filled (or right field if you want to limit injury exposure). That’s all he played in the minors and for the Angels. If you pick Betts, however, you could cross off left field, center field, right field, second base, third base — or maybe even shortstop. What you would probably do is not cross off any position because the four-time Gold Glover can play almost anywhere, and you can figure out where you need him later. That is special.
Now, could Trout play third base? Maybe. But we know Betts can. We know because even though Betts hasn’t played third base in a professional game, in every position he has played, including the infield, he wasn’t a liability by any metric (UZR, DRS, and dWAR). To put it another way, Betts is like Ben Zobrist, if you take Zobrist’s best year (.297/.543/.948, 8.6 WAR) and make it your career average, then adjust the ceiling from being underrated to winning MVPs.
Betts isn’t only versatile defensively. Another question you don’t have to answer when you pick him is “Where is he going to hit?” Betts can hit anywhere you ask. I mean, sure, so can Trout, but that is not what we are arguing here. This isn’t a Betts vs. Trout article. If that is the debate you want to have, then conceding Betts is worth his new contract is a prerequisite, and we should actually be wondering if he is underpaid. This article is exploring what makes Betts special in the context of today’s game. Take a look at Betts’ career splits:
I’m going out of my way here to show you that it doesn’t matter where he hits, who he’s hitting against, or where he’s playing in the field, he’s the same Mookie. And Mookie is awesome.
One of the many criticisms leveled at baseball is that it’s slow to change. In many cases, that criticism holds water, but it doesn’t apply anymore when it comes to the use of analytics and having front offices filled with executives who think out of the box. We’re seeing the strategies of these new front offices play out in the past decade. Forward-thinking organizations are changing the way bullpens and starting rotations are managed, the launch angles of their prospects, discounting useless/imaginary barriers to success like height and awkward mechanics, and not giving bloated contracts to players past their primes. One of my favorite strategies, though, is player versatility. While not necessarily starting the movement, Joe Madden is probably the figurehead. He was the one who found Zobrist and gave him a shot as a super-utility at Tampa Bay. Then he went to Chicago and tried to get as many players on his roster playing multiple positions as possible. Now he’s overseeing Shohei Ohtani’s ultimate multi-use. Most teams have followed suit to one degree or another by training players to play multiple positions and even drafting two-way players and cultivating both skillsets. And the Dodgers are no exception:
A lot of teams have players who play multiple positions, but they don’t have quite this many who play both infield and outfield. Usually, all the outfielders interchange at some point in the season, and teams roster a couple of utility infielders, but the Dodgers are one of those teams that have just a handful of players who play only the infield or outfield. Could Betts be one of those players who sticks to just outfield? Sure. It would make sense that if you have literally the best player at a position, then he spends all of his time at that position, but I’m skeptical. And by skeptical, I mean I’m hopeful that the Dodgers ask Betts to pick up an infield mitt and occasionally play 2nd or 3rd, or both. We’ll find out. After all, despite being one of the best fielding first basemen in the league, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts did say early last spring that Bellinger wouldn’t play first base anymore, only to let him play more than 90 games there last season. The Dodgers know the value of a player with multiple options.
Does this mean that Betts could play six positions? No. It means that he could be asked to fill in for vacant positions simply because he is athletic and skilled enough to do so. As we’ve seen his entire career as well, he is a team player.
Player versatility isn’t the only thing MLB franchises covet. Contract flexibility is also highly sought after. Even for the Dodgers, which up until a few years ago were throwing around unheard of amounts of money, are about to enter in an age of very few financial commitments. Before Betts’ extension, the Dodgers’ only contracts on the books in 2023 were Muncy’s team option ($13 million) and A.J. Pollock’s $10 million player option. Now, they will also be in Bellinger’s final year of arbitration, as well as Walker Buehler and Julio Urias’ third year of arbitration (and a few others who aren’t notable), but that is a very enviable position.
Why am I talking about how much teams want financial freedom to justify a 12-year, $365 million commitment? Friedman traded Alex Verdugo and Jeter Downs just for a chance to get Betts for one season in Los Angeles and convince him to stay for the rest of his career, essentially doubling his team’s future commitment two years down the road as a best-case scenario. Friedman knows that his team could look very different in two years. And wouldn’t it be nice to if your best player was so flexible on the field that he could fill any hole you need him to? Or that it doesn’t matter where you hit him in the lineup? Or against who?
Seems obvious, but it’s not. The Red Sox didn’t think so.
Photo by Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis