Mookie Betts Is a Shortstop

Jonathan Hui-USA TODAY Sports

On Thursday, the internet dealt with countless cases of “Is that really who I think it is?” as Twitter removed verification checkmarks for unpaid users. Yet when baseball fans did a double-take, it wasn’t because of a spam account that looked suspiciously like Jeff Passan or Ken Rosenthal. Instead, it was because of a shortstop who looked suspiciously like Mookie Betts.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts teased fans earlier this week, revealing that Betts could play shortstop on Wednesday. Instead, it was Luke Williams who took to the field at game time. Fans got their hopes up for Betts the following day, but once again, it was Williams on the lineup card. Indeed, it wasn’t until the seventh inning of yesterday’s ballgame that Roberts finally made good on his word; he pinch-hit for Williams with Betts, and Betts would stay in the game at shortstop. Williams may have earned the nickname Captain America for his performance with the US Olympic baseball team, but Betts was the superhero – or should I say super-utility player – everyone wanted to see.

Like the hero he is, Betts raced to the ballpark on Thursday to help his team. He had spent the two days prior on the paternity list and was forced to make his own way to Wrigley Field. A timely weather delay (perhaps the work of his teammate Thor) pushed the game back by an hour, allowing Betts to arrive just in time. A little later, and his shortstop debut might have had to wait.

At long last, Betts entered the game with the score tied at two. He knocked a base hit in the seventh, turned an impressive defensive play in the eighth, and made a productive out to advance the winning run to third base in the ninth. The Dodgers would ultimately win on a grand slam by rookie James Outman, but Betts was the star of the show.

It’s easy to understand why this moment was so thrilling. It’s not so often that a 10-year major league veteran plays shortstop for the first time after 1,130 career games. It’s even less common when that player is primarily an outfielder (Betts does have 263 big league innings at second base). When he’s also a six-time All-Star and former MVP? It’s appointment viewing. In the last 20 years, only 24 qualified hitters over the age of 30 have played the outfield and shortstop in the same season. Only three played the outfield in the majority of their games: Jermaine Dye in 2005, Chris Taylor in 2021, and Betts thus far in 2023. Dye played short for a third of an inning in 2005. He had never played the position before, nor would he ever play it again. Taylor, whose oblique injury paved the way for Betts to play shortstop, was primarily a shortstop when he came up with the Mariners, but he’s been a super-utility player since 2017. Dye was never really a shortstop. Taylor has always been a shortstop. And neither is the same caliber of player as Mookie Betts.

So how did Betts actually perform at his new position? He only had one ball hit in his direction, giving us little data for evaluation. At the same time, that one ball turned into a highlight-reel play, so it’s tempting to christen Betts the next great Dodgers shortstop. (Side note: How many other teams could lose Trea Turner and Gavin Lux in the span of six months and still have an MVP playing shortstop? That’s the Dodgers for you.) In the bottom of the eighth, Patrick Wisdom chopped a high-bouncing grounder up the middle. Betts came running in, and in one fluid motion, he grabbed the ball, stepped on second, and made the throw in time to nail Wisdom at first:

Wisdom wasn’t exactly barreling down the line, but it was still a challenging play. Miguel Vargas misread the situation and found himself too far from second to help Betts turn two. Without skipping a beat, Betts ran to the base himself. His momentum forced him to take a leap so as to avoid crashing into a sliding Cody Bellinger, and his throw from mid-air still managed to beat Wisdom to the first base bag. The superhero comparison is apt indeed.

As spectacular as this was, it wasn’t a normal play; even as far as tricky plays go, it was unusual. In other words, it doesn’t reveal much about Betts’ day-to-day shortstop capabilities. We won’t know how well he can handle the position until we get a better sense of his instincts and his range on a variety of balls in play. It’s nice to see that his phenomenal athleticism can translate to the infield, but then again, we already knew it would from his experience at second base:

Betts didn’t make another play at short yesterday, but he was tangentially involved on a groundball to third base. It was a bullet off the bat from Nico Hoerner, and Betts did his job by moving to cover Max Muncy at third:

From this extra bit of evidence, I’d argue Betts needs to work on his instincts at short. His jump toward third was delayed, and he also pulled up a bit too soon. The ball was in Muncy’s glove by the time Betts landed a step in the right direction. At the same time, the novice shortstop slowed down before his teammate had complete control of the ball. I’m aware I’m nitpicking here, but an excellent shortstop would have reacted a split second sooner and taken another step or two toward third base.

All fault-finding aside, Betts doesn’t actually need to be an excellent defensive shortstop. He doesn’t even need to be good. As fun as it would be to watch him master a new position, that’s not what the Dodgers are asking him to do. Instead, they just need him to be good enough that he’s a better option than Luke Williams and his .237/.295/.310 career slashline. With no disrespect to Williams, that shouldn’t be a difficult task. Betts has a bat that can play at any position, and based on his limited experience at second base, we know he won’t be a disaster in the infield:

Last season, I wrote about why Betts would have been my choice for NL MVP. My argument was that he did absolutely everything well; there wasn’t a single hole in his game, whether it be at the plate, in the field, or on the bases. This year, that might not be the case. If Betts continues to play short while Miguel Rojas is injured, his defensive stats, and therefore his overall WAR, will likely suffer. Even so, Betts continues to prove why he’s one of the most valuable players in baseball. No matter how he performs at shortstop, he’ll be doing his part to help his team win ballgames. As an added bonus, he’s making the game more fun for everyone watching, too.





Leo is a writer for FanGraphs and MLB Trade Rumors as well as an editor for Just Baseball. His work has also been featured at Baseball Prospectus, Pitcher List, and SB Nation. You can follow him on Twitter @morgensternmlb.

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lavarnway
1 year ago

This fascinates me. It’s interesting that he was never seen as good enough to play SS as a prospect. I know teams have progressed in the last 10 years and tend to be more aggressive in defensive assignments, so that might be different if he was a prospect now.

Ivan_Grushenkomember
1 year ago
Reply to  lavarnway

By doing that BABIP should have risen but hasn’t, partly due to shift and partly due to more fly balls. SS and CF could be closer in value than Lichtman or Tango concluded all those years ago.

lavarnway
1 year ago
Reply to  Ivan_Grushenko

More strikeouts now too so fewer balls in play. 100 years ago you couldn’t afford to have a bad defender out there because pitchers were only averaging a couple strikeouts per 9.

darren
1 year ago
Reply to  lavarnway

One of the reasons he was moved off SS was his arm, which has somehow gotten much stronger. I don’t know how he did that, but he now has a good arm in RF.

mikejuntmember
1 year ago
Reply to  darren

In a way its similar to how Cody Bellinger spent his entire life as a first baseman despite just actually being capable of gold-glove level center field that no one bothered to find out about until he’d already won a rookie of the year award? Some weird stuff man

lavarnway
1 year ago
Reply to  mikejunt

Yeah haha. Do you think that might have been because of how good his bat was? He was a slugger so they treated him like a slugger.

darren
1 year ago
Reply to  mikejunt

That’s an interesting comparison but I think there’s one major difference: Betts initially played SS in the minors and was shifted to second. They got to see him making throws in the infield and decided that he belonged at 2B, and if I recall correctly, his arm was not considered very good there. Then they moved him to center and then to right, and then, boom! All of a sudden, he’s throwing out guys in the World Series.

lavarnway
1 year ago
Reply to  darren

Yeah good point. He was pretty error-prone as an infielder. We’ll see how steady he is with more innings logged.