Mookie Betts’ Postseason Tour de Force

Watching Mookie Betts on a daily basis makes it difficult to understand how his teams ever lose, though they did in Game 2 of the World Series on Wednesday night, in part because the Rays kept him in check. The 28-year-old right fielder is one of the game’s top hitters, but his contributions are hardly confined to the batter’s box, and during this postseason — as it’s been throughout his seven-year major league career — he has amply illustrated just how well-rounded his game is.

In Tuesday’s World Series-opening 8-3 victory, Betts put on a show with his baserunning, that after working a five-pitch leadoff walk against a flagging Tyler Glasnow to start the fifth inning. The Rays had just trimmed the Dodgers’ lead to 2-1, so when Betts stole second and then third base — the latter at the front end of a double steal with Corey Seager, who also walked — and then scored on a fielder’s choice thanks to a great secondary lead and a well-executed slide, it was a big deal.

Betts’ journey around the bases not only produced a run without the benefit of a base hit, it effectively tossed an anvil to Glasnow as he was trying to keep his head above water. “At that point, he was kinda not in the zone as much,” Betts told MLB Network’s Greg Amsinger afterwards. “So I knew he was going to try and slow up and get back in the zone, and I was able to take advantage of it.”

The sequence proved to be an inflection point in the game, as Glasnow continued to unravel before being chased after 4.1 innings. The Dodgers went on to score three more runs in that inning, easing the pressure on starter Clayton Kershaw and the rest of the lineup. Betts himself went on to pound reliever Josh Fleming’s first pitch for an opposite-field solo homer to start the sixth. A complementary oppo taco to go with the complimentary one he’d earned everyone from a certain fast-food chain for the Series’ first stolen base.

While that was Betts’ first homer of the 2020 postseason, and while he went 0-for-3 with a walk in Game 2, he’s hitting .308/.413/.481 through 63 PA, which, yeah, that works. He hits for power and for average, works his way on base even when he doesn’t (note that 15.9% walk rate), and once he’s there, he distracts and disrupts. His 147 postseason wRC+ is a ringer for this year’s 149 regular season wRC+ (based on a .292/.366/.562 line), which on a personal level ranked second only to his 185 mark from 2018, the year he won the AL MVP award.

Betts’ fielding has been on display this fall as well, particularly in punctuating the Dodgers’ comeback from a three-games-to-one deficit in the NLCS against the Braves. First there was his momentum-turning shoestring catch of a Dansby Swanson fly ball in Game 5, which turned into an inning-ending double play because Marcell Ozuna left third base too soon, turning that ridiculously accurate sidearm-on-the-run throw home — a reminder of his origins as a second baseman — into window dressing. Then came his theft of an extra-base hit from Ozuna in Game 6, which probably prevented Freddie Freeman from scoring from first base, and finally his robbery of a home run from Freeman in Game 7:

It’s a pity we don’t have postseason fielding metrics, because Betts has all the UZRs and all the Defensive Runs Saved, but the case for him as the game’s most complete player — to echo a title bestowed upon the late Joe Morgan — is already well-established thanks to Wins Above Replacement, which in any flavor captures the multitude of his contributions. Dating back to his first full season (2015) he’s second in the majors in terms of FanGraphs WAR at 38.4. Not only is he the only player within 10 wins of Mike Trout (46.8) in that span, but he’s nearly 10 wins ahead of third-ranked Francisco Lindor (28.9), though admittedly, the latter didn’t play his first full season until 2016. Narrow the window to 2018-20 and Betts trails Trout, whose defense has merely been average in that span, by just one win (21.0 to 20.0).

Though he’s “only” ninth in the batting runs component of WAR in the 2015-20 span (and tied for 15th in wRC+), Betts is the runaway leader in runs derived from baserunning and fielding, the “little things” that once upon a time didn’t show up in a box score:

Baserunning and Fielding Value, 2015-20
Rk Player Batting Base Running Fielding WAR Base + Field
1 Mookie Betts 161.1 43.6 76.7 38.4 120.3
2 Billy Hamilton -114.8 51.1 44.5 7.1 95.6
3 Kevin Kiermaier -17.7 23.5 63.3 16.0 86.8
4 Andrelton Simmons -22.0 -0.2 76.6 18.5 76.4
5 Yasmani Grandal 58.1 -28.4 102.4 26.6 74.0
6 Jarrod Dyson -52.3 31.7 38.9 7.4 70.6
7 Jason Heyward -5.7 16.8 47.9 13.3 64.7
8 Tyler Flowers -3.6 -7.4 65.1 14.4 57.7
9 Francisco Lindor 74.3 1.5 54.0 28.9 55.5
10 Kevin Pillar -46.0 23.3 31.4 12.7 54.7
11 Lorenzo Cain 35.6 17.9 36.2 19.9 54.1
12 Brett Gardner 15.9 32.3 21.3 15.9 53.6
13 Austin Hedges -67.5 -2.7 56.1 5.6 53.4
14 Buster Posey 51.9 -15.6 68.1 22.4 52.5
15 Byron Buxton -22.5 23.1 28.3 8.7 51.4
16 Kolten Wong -1.8 18.3 28.0 13.8 46.3
17 Martín Maldonado -59.0 -12.2 57.8 9.1 45.6
18 Ender Inciarte -24.3 19.9 25.6 11.8 45.5
19 José Ramírez 100.5 32.0 13.4 26.4 45.4
20 Matt Chapman 56.5 5.6 38.3 16.7 43.9

Betts’ advantage over the field is even wider if we throw out 2015, when he was still the Red Sox’s regular center fielder, but more or less average in that spot defensively according to UZR (0.7) if not DRS (11). Considering the 2016-20 span, he’s even further ahead of Hamilton, 113.3 runs to 75.0, with Kiermaier a distant third at 64.3. Check out the consistency with which he’s dominated the annual rankings in this area:

Baserunning and Fielding Annual Leaders, 2015-20
2016 Player Team Batting Base Running Fielding WAR Base + Field
1 Mookie Betts Red Sox 31.2 10.6 21.1 8.3 31.7
2 Buster Posey Giants 10.6 -3.3 31.7 6.7 28.4
3 Billy Hamilton Reds -12.6 13.1 11.9 2.9 25.0
4 Adam Eaton White Sox 14.5 4.5 18.9 5.9 23.4
5 Yasmani Grandal Dodgers 12.0 -5.6 28.0 5.8 22.4
2017 Player Team Batting Base Running Fielding WAR Base + Field
1 Mookie Betts Red Sox 5.8 9.2 21.5 5.3 30.7
2 Byron Buxton Twins -5.3 11.8 10.0 3.6 21.8
3 Martín Maldonado Angels -16.0 -2.7 24.2 3.1 21.5
4 Andrelton Simmons Angels 1.9 2.0 17.5 5.0 19.5
5 Billy Hamilton Reds -28.9 9.4 8.7 1.2 18.1
2018 Player Team Batting Base Running Fielding WAR Base + Field
1 Mookie Betts Red Sox 62.3 6.9 16.8 10.4 23.7
2 Andrelton Simmons Angels 5.5 1.1 19.7 5.4 20.8
3 Harrison Bader Cardinals 3.6 7.6 10.7 3.6 18.3
4 Brett Gardner Yankees -6.4 8.9 6.7 2.6 15.6
5 JaCoby Jones Tigers -17.4 3.2 12.3 1.2 15.5
2019 Player Team Batting Base Running Fielding WAR Base + Field
1 J.T. Realmuto Phillies 6.3 5.4 18.3 5.7 23.7
2 Austin Hedges Padres -24.1 0.1 20.3 1.4 20.4
3 Mookie Betts Red Sox 31.4 5.6 12.6 6.6 18.2
4 Jarrod Dyson Diamondbacks -18.4 8.9 7.9 1.3 16.8
5 Adalberto Mondesi Royals -10.4 6.7 9.1 2.4 15.8
2020 Player Team Batting Base Running Fielding WAR Base + Field
1 Kevin Kiermaier Rays -1.4 2.2 7.7 1.3 9.9
2T Mookie Betts Dodgers 15.3 3.3 5.5 3.0 8.8
Joey Gallo Rangers -6.5 2.7 6.1 0.8 8.8
4T Trevor Story Rockies 5.6 4.0 4.0 2.5 8.0
Nolan Arenado Rockies -6.2 -0.5 8.5 1.0 8.0

Not only is that three major league leads plus two league leads in that combination of categories, but no other player cracked the top five more than twice in the span. And of course none of those players has the bat that he does.

Revisiting a piece I wrote in mid-August concerning Betts’ standing in Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, his 3.4 led the NL (by FanGraphs’ version, his 3.0 was second to Freeman’s 3.4); he belongs alongside Freeman in the NL MVP discussion. What’s more, the 45.2 bWAR he’s accumulated over his first seven seasons ranks 16th among position players by that measure, that despite the fact that his span is bookended by a 52-game rookie season and then 55 games this year. Even with the shortened debut campaign, he was seventh in bWAR among position players through their first six seasons, but the pandemic knocked him down a few rungs. I’ve updated the table because damn, this is good company:

Highest bWAR in First Seven Seasons
Rk Player Years Age WAR PA WAR/650 POS Pos WAR7
1 Ted Williams+ 1939-1948* 20-29 62.5 4615 8.8 LF 41.7
2 Albert Pujols 2001-2007 21-27 54.9 4741 7.5 1B 42.7
3 Mike Trout 2011-2017 19-25 54.4 4065 8.7 CF 44.7
4 Mickey Mantle+ 1951-1957 19-25 52.6 4114 8.3 CF 44.7
5 Wade Boggs+ 1982-1988 24-30 51.7 4629 7.3 3B 43.1
6 Willie Mays+ 1951-1958* 20-27 50.9 3983 8.3 CF 44.7
7 Jackie Robinson+ 1947-1953 28-34 50.9 4518 7.3 2B 44.4
8 Barry Bonds 1986-1992 21-27 50.3 4255 7.7 LF 41.7
9 Arky Vaughan+ 1932-1938 20-26 50.3 4362 7.5 SS 43.1
10 Joe DiMaggio+ 1936-1942 21-27 50.1 4418 7.4 CF 44.7
11 Stan Musial+ 1941-1948* 20-27 49.9 4031 8.0 RF 42.4
12 Rogers Hornsby+ 1915-1921 19-25 46.9 3576 8.5 2B 44.4
13 Ty Cobb+ 1905-1911 18-24 46.8 3732 8.2 CF 44.7
14 Hank Aaron+ 1954-1960 20-26 46.7 4530 6.7 RF 42.4
15 Frank Robinson+ 1956-1962 20-26 46.0 4491 6.7 RF 42.4
16 Mookie Betts 2014-2020 21-27 45.2 3875 7.6 RF 42.4
17 Eddie Mathews+ 1952-1958 20-26 45.1 4456 6.6 3B 43.1
18 Johnny Mize+ 1936-1942 23-29 45.0 4188 7.0 1B 42.7
19 Rickey Henderson+ 1979-1985 20-26 44.1 4142 6.9 LF 41.7
20 Jeff Bagwell+ 1991-1997 23-29 43.1 4410 6.4 1B 42.7
21 Ernie Banks+ 1953-1959 22-28 42.6 3954 7.0 SS 43.1
22 Mike Schmidt+ 1972-1978 22-28 42.4 3831 7.2 3B 43.1
23 Chase Utley 2003-2009 24-30 42.2 3813 7.2 2B 44.4
24 Ralph Kiner+ 1946-1952 23-29 42.2 4557 6.0 LF 41.7
25 Home Run Baker+ 1908-1914 22-28 42.2 3853 7.1 3B 43.1
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer. * = Missed at least one full season within span due to military service. Blue cells = player’s total through seven seasons is below peak standard at position.

Betts ranked 19th when I checked in last time, and he’s passed some no-doubt Hall of Famers since, hence the update. Twenty of the top 25 players in bWAR through their seventh seasons are in the Hall, and the rest besides Betts belong there; active or retired, they’re now above the JAWS standards at their positions (the four in blue are the ones who hadn’t made it through seven seasons) and have plenty of other credentials in their favor.

Betts’ 45.2 bWAR is nearly three wins above the seven-year peak standard for Hall of Fame right fielders and ranks 11th all-time, between Reggie Jackson and Larry Walker, and again, that’s with two soft seasons (2.3 in his rookie campaign) that he should easily surpass in the coming year. Via the ZiPS projection that Dan Szymborski provided me for that piece, he projects to wind up with the seventh-highest peak score (51.0) and eighth-highest JAWS (65.1) among right fielders, a no-doubt Hall of Famer.

Another championship to go with the one he won in Boston in 2018 would certainly advance Betts’ cause, but even before a champion has been crowned, it’s worth a moment to pause and appreciate not only the skill that Betts brings to the game, but the excitement, the flair, and the joy. Trout doesn’t have the good fortune to play for a perennial contender. Betts does, and thanks to the 12-year, $365 million extension he signed with the Dodgers, will continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

Imagine being John Henry, which is to say having a net worth of a couple billion dollars, and looking at this remarkable, likable athlete with this elite collection of skills and intangibles and deciding, “Nah, the price tag is too high. Find me an executive to blow up this roster and demoralize this fan base while I put more money into European soccer — finally, I can hire Billy Beane! — and ballpark-adjacent real estate, because that’s more fun than winning with the game’s most complete player!” Henry may get the last laugh on the accountant’s ledger, but it’s the Dodgers, and everybody else captivated by Betts’ play now that he doesn’t have to worry about where that will be, who are the richer for it.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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2 years ago

Betts was not staying in Boston. He made that clear by turning down a huge offer. That’s fine, people should work where they want. But the Red Sox have Verdugo and Downs and would have had nothing when Mookie departed after this “season.”

Dave from DCmember
2 years ago
Reply to  third37

Isn’t it very much contested whether Betts got a “huge” offer from Boston? If I recall they offered $300/10, which is clearly inferior to the deal he got from LA despite the fact that he signed during a pandemic. In this case, huge is a relative term.

Sonny Lmember
2 years ago
Reply to  Dave from DC

Yeah a lot of talk around a rumored offer that Betts turned down. This is kind of Boston’s MO with free agents, work through innuendo and leaks about offers that aren’t ever formally presented as a CYA when the player leaves.

It’s John Henry’s team and his money so he can work negotiations however he wants and Betts can participate in the dance or not. Both made their choices, but don’t claim there was a formal offer made that Betts turned down. They floated a rumor to see if he’d come to the table, he declined to negotiate that way and the Sox traded him.

2 years ago
Reply to  Sonny L

John Henry owned media vehicles (the network and paper) were doing a damn good job of letting everyone know that John Henry wasn’t going to pay Betts.

2 years ago
Reply to  SirCharlesK

They knew what they were getting in Dombrowski. They got it, a title, but in the meantime they also got to be Detroit, the last team DD way overspent on top talent and let all below go to … Pawtucket.
Cherrington helped build a productive farm system of hitters. But he also signed HanRam and Panda, two disastrous moves. Also, say what you will about Xander Bogaerts, but it’s time to move to third base for him. One thing Boston’s GMs have shared since and before Theo,a lack of interest in defense at shortstop. Since Cabrera was not signed in 2005 (his D was a major reason for 2004 success), they have been lacking in that area. Stephen Drew played really well during the outre 2013 season, but Xander’s range is not good enough.

2 years ago
Reply to  third37

Third37, I support what you say completely. Short of a deal in excess of Trout’s, and I believe not even with that offer on the table, Mookie was not going to return to the Red Sox. Why we will never know. Was it some slight or the way he felt about Boston, notorious for treating black athletes poorly, just ask Bill Russell. I loved watching Mookie play, and I still do, but this blasting of John Henry, who is, by far, the best owner the Red Sox have ever had, is getting very tedious. It was an untenable situation and Verdugo and Downs are going to look a lot better in the Red Sox lineup for years to come than an empty #50 hanging in the clubhouse.

2 years ago
Reply to  bosoxforlife

I don’t think he wanted to return. But I have no reason to believe what ownership says about it.