Mookie Betts’ Versatility Has Enriched His MVP Case

Mookie Betts
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

With apologies to Matt Olson, Freddie Freeman, and Corbin Carroll, the race for the NL MVP Award has essentially boiled down to two players: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts. It’s an incredibly close one, with the pair producing such similar batting lines that they’re tied for the NL lead with a 169 wRC+. Betts has the edge in both the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference versions of WAR, Acuña has the edge in several counting stats, and each player has added some unique additional flavors into the mix.

For Acuña, those largely center around his prolific baserunning. Aided by the new rules — particularly the limits on pickoff throws — and unhindered by a drop in sprint speed in the wake of his 2021 ACL tear, he’s stolen 68 bases, the highest total in the majors since 2010. With his 40th homer coming against the Nationals on Friday, he has just the fifth 40–40 season ever, and now the most steals of any player in that club, surpassing Alex Rodriguez’s 46 from 1998 (to go with 42 homers). With one week remaining, he needs two steals to become the first player ever to combine 40 homers and 70 steals in the same campaign, in what’s arguably the greatest power-speed combo season anybody has seen.

There’s certainly value to such an accomplishment, though we’re entering the realm of intangibility. We’re already crediting the value of his homers and steals within the context of the rest of his offensive stat line, but things like wOBA, wRC+, and WAR don’t tell us how much to care about a player reaching round-numbered milestones like these, even if they’re without precedent. Even less clear-cut is the attempt to examine the extent to which Acuña’s baserunning has helped his teammates, mainly by giving them more fastballs to hit. Colleague Esteban Rivera established that yes, players do see more fastballs when he’s on first, but their performances against those fastballs wasn’t uniformly better. “Acuña is most likely helping his teammates see more heaters,” he concluded. “What they do with those pitches, though, is completely up to them.”

Betts isn’t without his own cool counting stat achievements. His two-run double off Ross Stripling on Saturday night gave him 105 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, a record (Acuña is third at 101). Meanwhile, he’s hit 12 leadoff homers, one shy of the single-season record set by Alfonso Soriano in 2003, and his career-high 39 homers are two shy of the post-World War II record for the most by a player listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter, currently held by Roy Campanella. But bigger (if more difficult to measure) impact he’s made is with his sudden burst of Zobristian versatility: In the wake of Gavin Lux tearing his right ACL in late February, Betts has started 69 games in the infield — 56 at second base and another 12 at shortstop — in his most infield play in nearly a decade.

Betts played 14 games at second base as a rookie with the Red Sox in 2014, after Dustin Pedroia suffered a season-ending injury, but added just 15 more from ’15 to ’22, some of them only for a few innings. He hadn’t played shortstop professionally since 2013, and then just 13 games in Low-A and two innings in the Arizona Fall League. Despite his lack of recent experience, the 30-year-old superstar — a six-time Gold Glove winner in right field — has looked like a natural from the outset.

To backtrack a bit, recall that after their 111-win team fizzled in the postseason, the Dodgers let shortstop Trea Turner and 15 other players depart in an exodus of free agents last winter, then stayed out of the premium free-agent pool in the name of trimming payroll. They entered this season with Lux as their likely shortstop, backed up by Miguel Rojas, a 34-year-old defense-first veteran coming off a dismal 73-wRC+ season with the Marlins. Lux’s move to shortstop put second base in the hands of 23-year-old rookie Miguel Vargas, with Max Muncy bounced to third base to replace the departed Justin Turner, and Chris Taylor part of the mix in an outfield that had lost Cody Bellinger. There the Dodgers were hoping Trayce Thompson could continue his late-2022 resurgence alongside going-on–26-year-old rookie James Outman, 34-year-old Jason Heyward, there on a minor league deal after being cut by the Cubs, and 35-year-old David Peralta, signed to a one-year deal.

Particularly when the Dodgers appeared ready to roll with Rojas as the regular shortstop, it all looked atypically shaky. Via our Depth Charts projections, we forecast the Dodgers for a second-place finish in the NL West behind the Padres with just 88 wins, their first preseason projection below 90 wins since we introduced our Playoff Odds in 2014. Still, based upon our Depth Charts, the loss of Lux only projected to cost the Dodgers about half a win. Here’s a snapshot of how we forecast those positions as of the day Lux got injured (before we made our playing time adjustments), and then again via our Positional Power Rankings just before Opening Day:

Dodgers Preseason Depth Charts Projections
Second Basemen (Late Feb) PA WAR Second Basemen (Late March) PA WAR
Miguel Vargas 413 1.9 Miguel Vargas 413 1.9
Chris Taylor 105 0.5 Mookie Betts 77 0.8
Michael Busch 63 0.2 Chris Taylor 77 0.3
Yonny Hernandez 35 0.1 Michael Busch 42 0.1
Miguel Rojas 35 0.1 Yonny Hernandez 35 0.1
Max Muncy 28 0.2 Miguel Rojas 28 0.1
Mookie Betts 21 0.2 Max Muncy 28 0.2
Total 700 3.2 Total 700 3.5
Shortstops (Late Feb) PA WAR Shortstops (Late March) PA WAR
Gavin Lux 448 2.5 Miguel Rojas 448 2.1
Miguel Rojas 217 1.0 Chris Taylor 210 1.0
Chris Taylor 28 0.1 Yonny Hernandez 42 0.1
Yonny Hernandez 7 0.0
Total 700 3.6 Total 700 3.2
Right Fielders (Late Feb) PA WAR Right Fielders (Late March) PA WAR
Mookie Betts 623 5.5 Mookie Betts 567 5.0
Jason Heyward 35 0.0 Jason Heyward 70 0.1
Chris Taylor 21 0.1 James Outman 42 0.1
James Outman 14 0.0 Chris Taylor 14 0.0
J.D. Martinez 7 0.0 J.D. Martinez 7 0.0
Total 700 5.6 Total 700 5.3

Across the three positions, the loss of Lux and the increased playing time for Rojas, Taylor, and Heyward dropped the total projected WAR from 12.4 to 12.0. That’s hardly an insurmountable loss, though the difference would have been magnified if Betts been projected for something closer to the 303 PA he’s taken as an infielder given the replacement-level expectations for Heyward and the other non-Betts alternatives in right field.

It hasn’t unfolded that way, but then projections aren’t destiny. Through the first two months of the season, Rojas was the weakest link among the moving parts, hitting for just a 45 wRC+; Vargas (99), Taylor (102), Heyward (124), and Betts (136) were more productive. Heyward’s rebound particularly emboldened manager Dave Roberts to play Betts in the infield more than expected. Through those first two months, he started at second 10 times and at shortstop six times — all with righties on the mound, to accommodate the lefty-swinging Heyward — and totaled 72 PA playing the middle infield, nearly as much as we had forecast for the entire season.

The Dodgers, who had gone just 16–13 in March and April, spent all of May atop the NL West, going 18–10. A 5–10 skid at the start of June knocked them out of first place — as far down as third, four games out — and Vargas, after a hot start to June, fell into a deep funk, at one point going 2-for-44 with six walks. Betts, who started just three games at second from June 1 to 24, started six of the last 12 games there before the All-Star break, plus another three at shortstop. Since the beginning of that stretch, he’s played more infield than outfield.

At the break, the Dodgers optioned Vargas, who had sunk to a .195/.305/.367 (85 wRC+) line, to Triple-A Oklahoma City. He hasn’t returned, as the team opted to use his roster spots for buy-low veterans obtained ahead of the trade deadline. On July 25, Dodgers reacquired the versatile Enrique Hernández in a trade with the Red Sox, and a day later added Amed Rosario from the Guardians. In effect, the latter has become Heyward’s platoon partner, playing second base against lefties.

Mookie Betts Monthly Starts by Position
Month RF 2B SS
April 17 6 3
May 20 4 3
June 14 6 4
July 6 13 2
August 12 16 0
September 7 12 0
Total 76 57 12

The move to playing more infield has coincided with Betts’ upturn in offense. Since June 25, the point at which the tide really turned, with 64% of his starts coming in the infield thereafter, he’s hit .362/.466/.681 for a major league-high 206 wRC+, six points better than Shohei Ohtani (.318/.461/.706) and 24 points better than Acuña (.344/.426/.631, 182 wRC+). In other words, for three months Betts has been the best hitter in baseball while playing out of position more often than not. His 5.7 WAR in that span is 1.2 more than the second-ranked Acuña and 2.2 more than Ohtani on the offensive side. The Dodgers, who went just 12–12 in June and 13–10 in July, blew the doors off the rest of the league in August, going 24–5, with Betts (.455/.516/.839, 264 wRC+ with 11 HR) going off the charts.

Here’s a look at the Dodgers position-by-position splits for second base, shortstop, and right field; I’ve omitted the players with fewer than 20 PA at each position, but their numbers are included in the totals:

Mookie Betts and Friends
Miguel Vargas 75 285 7 .195 .300 .361 82 0.0
Mookie Betts 59 247 14 .333 .429 .605 179 3.5
Amed Rosario 27 75 2 .205 .227 .342 51 -0.3
Enrique Hernández 11 23 0 .286 .348 .381 103 0.0
Total 661 24 0.253 0.343 0.449 116 3.3
Miguel Rojas 109 395 5 .230 .282 .321 66 0.4
Chris Taylor 28 90 5 .181 .236 .398 69 0.3
Mookie Betts 14 52 3 .304 .365 .674 172 0.6
Enrique Hernández 8 27 0 .292 .296 .375 76 0.0
Amed Rosario 10 27 1 .308 .333 .577 143 0.4
Total 599 14 .234 .283 .374 78 1.4
Mookie Betts 96 365 22 .290 .403 .571 163 4.1
Jason Heyward 80 254 11 .305 .373 .529 143 2.4
Total 666 37 .295 .390 .555 155 7.2
All statistics through September 23. Players with 20 plate appearances or fewer at a position not shown but included in totals. Games includes all appearances, not just starts.

With eight games remaining (this data doesn’t include Sunday’s game), the Dodgers have gotten 11.9 WAR from the three positions. But while the total is basically on the money from the projections, the distribution has been different. The take-home points:

  • Second base has been a wash despite Vargas’ rookie season essentially being a bust. Betts has done an exceptional job of propping up the Dodgers’ production at the keystone, freeing up Taylor to play elsewhere. To the extent that the defensive metrics from his 450 innings at second tell us anything, the reviews are pretty positive: 4 DRS, 2.0 UZR, -1 RAA.
  • Shortstop has been a problem, as you’d expect from a team losing its starter in the spring and depending upon light hitters and castoffs for most of the playing time. Taylor, it should be pointed out, has hit a respectable .237/.323/.428 (105 wRC+) overall but has struggled with the bat in his games at short, though his defense has been good.
  • Right field has been superstar level whether Betts or Heyward has played there. The latter has hit .268/.343/.482 in 356 PA overall, with only 26 coming against lefties. His 123 wRC+ is his highest full-season mark since his rookie season, the result of a simplified swing. I asked Rivera, who puzzled over the Heyward signing last December, to evaluate what he’s seen from the right fielder:

    When I initially dove into his swing in the preseason, I couldn’t stop thinking about how he and the Dodgers may set him up better to control his quick twitch. The combination of his long arms and wiggly limbs often made for a suboptimal entry into the hitting zone that looked quite choppy. In LA, he’s moved his long arms away from his body to create a quieter, more direct load. As a result, his entry is more consistent with less room for error, but he can still make the most of his quick twitch. It’s a simplification that has led to better reciprocal movements and a logical turnaround — more pulled line drives and fly balls on fastballs in the heart of the plate.

So how does it all add up? While it’s true that Betts’ versatility set the Dodgers up to put a better bat in the lineup at right field than they had on hand at second base, we have to credit Heyward for rising to the occasion, as his production is part of the reason the team has gone 39–18 (.684) in those 57 games Betts has started at second, and 10–2 (.833) in those games at shortstop. We can certainly credit Betts for outdoing his 5.8-WAR preseason projection and for making it possible for the Dodgers to gain ground elsewhere, but the credit for the execution belongs to others. That’s not to discount the value of a superstar setting an example for his team by taking on such a challenge, but he wasn’t swinging the bat for Heyward.

Still, it’s a compelling feature of the story of this race, which at this point is a dead heat in terms of the advanced stats:

Ronald Acuña Jr. vs Mookie Betts
Acuña 714 40 143 101 68 .336 .415 .595 169 5.2 66.9 -13.2 7.8 8.0
Betts 669 39 125 105 13 .309 .410 .590 169 3.1 60.6 -1.2 8.2 8.1

Betts has the advantage in both flavors of WAR thanks to the bump in positional adjustment that he gets from his versatility as well as his above-average glovework; Acuña’s defense has drawn mixed reviews (0 DRS, -2.1 UZR, -8 RAA), but we’re well within the margin for error when it comes to one player or the other having an advantage. Even given that Betts has stolen far fewer bases, Acuña’s edge in on the basepaths only amounts to about two runs because he’s been caught 13 times (Betts three), and the advancements on hits and outs has narrowed the gap. If you’re looking at Win Probability Added, the edge goes to Acuña, 6.51–5.53 (first and third in the majors, respectively), but for Championship WPA (via Baseball Reference), it’s Betts, 3.0–2.5 (second and third in the NL).

It’s a race for which there’s no obvious winner, and honestly, I’m not even sure which way I’d cast my ballot if I had one. Still, I suspect that Acuña’s early jump and the easier statistical hook of 40–70 (or at least 40–65, should he fall short), even in a year where stolen bases have increased by 41%, will resonate more with voters than the rather nuanced story of Betts’ positional flexibility, particularly given that the former has done it for the league’s best team. Both players deserve to be MVPs. It’s a shame that there will be only one award to hand out.

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, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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6 months ago

Sure, he’s a historically great player having one of his best seasons, but what about his Team Quality?