The Mookie Betts Trade Continues to Cast a Shadow on the Postseason

A year ago, the Red Sox were coming off an embarrassing face-plant of a season. They finished 24-36, missed the playoffs for the second straight year, and could only watch as Mookie Betts, the transcendent, homegrown superstar they had traded in February 2020, led the Dodgers to their first championship today in 29 years. Today, the retooled Red Sox are two wins away from another trip to the World Series thanks in part to Alex Verdugo, the most major league-ready of the three players they acquired for Betts in a deal that required restructuring — a trade at least somewhat vindicated by the team’s success thus far, whether or not they close out the ALCS, but one that still raises nettlesome issues about the way a marquee franchise has chosen to operate. Meanwhile, Betts has helped to position the Dodgers for a shot at returning to the World Series, and on Tuesday capped a four-run eighth-inning rally with an RBI double that put the Dodgers ahead to stay and enabled them to avoid a nearly-insurmountable three-games-to-none hole in the NLCS against the Braves.

Twenty months removed from one of the biggest blockbusters in recent memory, the trade continues to cast a long shadow over the postseason with the play of both Betts and Verdugo, the latter of whom has hit .324/.390/.486 in 37 PA for the Red Sox. Verdugo’s 138 wRC+ this October is fifth on the team behind the impossibly hot Kiké Hernández (269), J.D. Martinez (216), Rafael Devers (174), and Xander Bogaerts (166). Most notably, the Red Sox left fielder drove in the final three of Boston’s six runs in the AL Wild Card game against the Yankees via an RBI double and a two-run single, and plated two of Boston’s first four runs in their 14-6 Division Series Game 2 win over the Rays with a first-inning RBI single and a third-inning solo homer. He later made an over-the-wall snag of a Nelson Cruz foul ball and singled and scored the team’s ninth run.

Thus far in the ALCS against the Astros, Verdugo has gone 4-for-14 with three walks and two runs scored. On Monday, his one-out second-inning walk against José Urquidy turned into the first of the Red Sox’s six runs in the inning. In Tuesday’s loss, he finally went hitless, breaking an eight-game streak.

As for the 29-year-old Betts, he’s hit .412/.475/.529 with five stolen bases thus far this fall while sometimes seeming like a lone bat in the wilderness of a Dodgers lineup that has run hot and cold, with five games of scoring three runs or fewer. In the Wild Card game against the Cardinals and the first two games of the Division Series against the Giants, Betts collected five hits and one walk but didn’t score a run. He did drive in the Dodgers’ second run in NLDS Game 3 with a second-inning single off Kevin Gausman; that run loomed large until the Dodgers broke the game open in the sixth inning, and soon afterwards Betts made an incredible throw to third base to end a rally by cutting down Wilmer Flores. Betts went 2-for-4 with a single, a two-run homer, and a sacrifice fly in the Dodgers’ Game 4 win, and 4-for-4 with a stolen base that led to his scoring the team’s first run in Game 5.

After taking an 0-for-4 in the NLCS opener against the Braves, Betts went 1-for-3 with a pair of walks and two runs scored in their Game 2 loss. He went 2-for-3 with a pair of walks in Tuesday’s Game 3, walking and scoring a first-inning run on Corey Seager’s homer, and then driving in the winning run.

While the Dodgers were nearly pushed to the brink in their series on Tuesday, the Red Sox were close to taking over the drivers’ seat in theirs, six outs away from a three-games-to-one lead over the Astros. Even given that their lead slipped away in the late innings, their current position was difficult to imagine so soon after the sequence of events that precipitated the Betts trade.

Recall that after winning 108 games and the World Series in 2018, the year that Betts took home the AL MVP award, the Red Sox sank to 84-78 in ’19. The slide owed something to the team’s failure to adequately retool their bullpen in the wake of their championship. Craig Kimbrel and Joe Kelly departed in free agency, while extensions to Bogaerts and Chris Sale pushed the team’s payroll from $237 million to $242 million for Competitive Balance Tax purposes, $36 million above the threshold. In September 2019, owner John Henry fired president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, abruptly indicating a desire to change directions.

With Henry suddenly skittish about paying more tax (something the Red Sox did four times from 2015-19), with Martinez not opting out of the remaining three years and $62.5 million on his contract, and with Betts set to make $27 million — a record for an arbitration-eligible player — in 2020, Henry mandated that new chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom trade the superstar right fielder, who had reportedly rebuffed the team’s offer of a 10-year, $300 million extension following the 2018 season. That the Red Sox had just become the subject of a Major League Baseball investigation into allegations of illegal electronic sign-stealing activity probably accelerated the impetus to trade Betts as well; it wasn’t looking to be a banner season in Boston.

Initially, the blockbuster trade of Betts to the Dodgers was to be a three-way deal that also included the Twins. The Dodgers would get Betts, lefty David Price, and cash from the Red Sox in exchange for Verdugo; they would also send righty Kenta Maeda to the Twins, who in turn would send righty Brusdar Graterol to Boston. Separately, the Dodgers agreed to send Joc Pederson, righty swingman Ross Stripling, and outfield prospect Andy Pages to the Angels in exchange for infielder Luis Rengifo and at least one other prospect. The Red Sox’s concerns over Graterol’s medical files — he had Tommy John surgery in 2016, and missed two months of ’19 due to shoulder impingement — scuttled the original trade, and so the retooled version had the Dodgers sending two prospects, catcher Connor Wong and infielder Jeter Downs, to Boston along with Verdugo. Separately, the Dodgers sent Maeda, catching prospect Jair Camargo, and $10 million to Minnesota in exchange for Graterol, outfielder Luke Raley, and a 2020 Competitive Balance Pick, while the Angels called off the Pederson deal.

In the short term, the move obviously paid off for the Dodgers. The team signed Betts to a 12-year, $365 million extension, and within the pandemic-shortened season, he delivered handsomely, with a .292/.366/.562 (147 wRC+) line, 16 homers and 10 steals. His 2.9 WAR (a 7.8-WAR pace) tied for second in the NL, and he finished second in the NL MVP voting behind Freddie Freeman. His postseason performance provided an ongoing illustration of the multiple ways he can impact a game, with his bat, with his baserunning, and with his glove. He hit .296/.378/.493 with two homers, eight RBI and 15 runs scored in 18 games, made critical defensive plays in Games 5, 6, and 7 while helping the Dodgers overcome a three-games-to-one deficit in the NLCS against the Braves, and took epic trips around the bases in the bookend games of the World Series against the Rays. In the fifth inning of Game 1, he walked, stole second and third, and scored the tying run on a fielder’s choice; an inning later, he hit a solo homer. In Game 6, with the Dodgers down one run and Tampa Bay starter Blake Snell just departed with one out in the sixth, Betts doubled, took third on a wild pitch as Austin Barnes scored the tying run, and put the Dodgers ahead for good when he sped home on a grounder to first; he added another homer in the eighth inning, and three outs later, the Dodgers were champions.

Amid the Red Sox’s disappointing 2020, Verdugo — who previously spent parts of three seasons with the Dodgers — was a bright spot, hitting .308/.367/.478 (126 wRC+) with six homers and 1.6 WAR. He made enough of an impression that he received down-ballot consideration in the AL MVP voting, finishing 12th. His 2021 slash line was a step down; he hit .289/.351/.426 (107 wRC+) overall, but just .228/.269/.286 (48 wRC+) in 201 PA against lefties, that after hitting a robust .324/.366/.455 (119 wRC+) in 191 PA against them in 2019-20. He’s reversed that trend in this postseason, going 4-for-9 with a double against lefties; small sample, obviously, but his 94.3 mph average exit velo against lefties is well up from his 88.2 mph average during the regular season, though we are talking about just eight batted ball events for the former.

From a Statcast standpoint, Verdugo actually hit the ball much harder this year than in 2020:

Alex Verdugo Batted Ball Profile
Season GB/FB GB% EV LA Barrel% HardHit% AVG xBA SLG xSLG wOBA xwOBA
2019 1.70 48.7% 89.4 9.0 4.7% 39.0% .294 .284 .475 .451 .341 .333
2020 1.91 52.2% 87.0 5.9 6.4% 34.4% .308 .238 .478 .369 .362 .298
2021 1.74 49.7% 90.0 7.7 7.3% 43.3% .289 .283 .426 .439 .334 .340

Verdugo improved his exit velo substantially, and his barrel and hard-hit rates rose, but as noted above, his slash line declined. A closer look shows that in the shortened season, he outdid his expected batting average by 70 points and his expected slugging percentage by 109 points; the former tied with Raimel Tapia for the major league lead, while the latter ranked second only to DJ LeMahieu, as did Verdugo’s 63-point xwOBA gap.

With a larger sample size, those gaps closed in 2021. Verdugo hits the ball on the ground quite often, and somehow while doing so in 2020, he collected enough hits to have a .371 BABIP, something you don’t often see in combination with a 52% groundball rate; of the 26 players with a .370 BABIP or better in 200 or more plate appearances in any of the past three seasons, only five had groundball rates above 50%. Raise the bar to 400 PA and you’re talking about only Tim Anderson’s 2021 (.372 BABIP, 55.3% groundball rate). Verdugo’s not Tim Anderson; his BABIP sank to .327 in 2021, and his expected numbers weren’t far off from his actual ones.

Looking at it another way, nine of Verdugo’s 62 hits in 2020 were infield hits, compared to nine out of 157 hits this year. His 11.0% rate of infield hits (infield hits per groundball) placed him in the 82nd percentile last year, but with just a 4.0% rate this year, he was in the seventh percentile. Those hits dried up, and instead of having a very good season, his was just a modestly good one, with so-so defense (7 DRS in left field, -6 in center, and 1 in right field, but a cumulative UZR of -4.1, and a cumulative OAA of -7) en route to 2.0 WAR. While he’s no slouch, his 5.7 WAR in 305 games over his ages 23-25 seasons doesn’t suggest a star in the making; he’s the 50 Future Value prospect that Eric Longenhagen projected him to be circa 2019, an average everyday player whose production centers around two wins. He’ll become eligible for arbitration for the first time this winter.

As for the two prospects the Red Sox received in the trade, both took steps backwards in 2021. Downs, a 23-year-old middle infielder, hit just .190/.272/.333 (61 wRC+) and struck out 32.3% of the time at Triple-A Worcester. He entered the season at number 53 on our Top 100 Prospects list, where Longenhagen suggested he had 20-homer, 20-steal potential but expressed concerns about the way his bat head drags through the strike zone and its impact on his ability to deal with velocity. Those concerns manifested themselves, as he hit .176/.286/.235 vs. fastballs 94 mph or higher. He’ll slip out of the top 100 and from number one on the Red Sox list to somewhere in the middle in the next round of prospect reports.

Meanwhile, the 25-year-old Wong hit .256/.288/.442 (91 wRC+) at Worcester while striking out a hefty 27.9% of the time. The Red Sox recalled him on six separate occasions (not including for the AL Wild Card game) but got him into just six games, three of which were decided by 12 runs or more; he went 4-for-13. Wong’s hit tool is just 30-grade, but he still projects as a useful role player who can catch and play other positions, though he played just one game at second base and none at third after a total of 26 such games at High- and Double-A in 2019.

On the other side of the ledger, Betts dealt with numerous aches and pains during the 2021 season before landing on the injured list twice, first in late July and then again in mid-August due to inflammation in his right hip, a problem caused by a bone spur that may require offseason surgery. The outages interrupted him just when he was heating up; he hit for a 186 wRC+ in July and August, a span during which he hit nine homers in 105 PA; he had 10 homers and a 126 wRC+ in 314 PA before that, and four homers and a 100 wRC+ in 131 PA from September 1 onward. Overall, he played in just 122 games, the lowest full season total of his career, and hit .264/.367/.487 with 23 homers, a 131 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR. Not bad for a down season.

Price, after opting out in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, made a rusty return this past season as a swingman, pitching to a 4.03 ERA and 4.23 FIP in 73.2 innings, good for just 0.7 WAR. He threw just 6.1 innings in September due in part to a bout of elbow soreness, was left off both the Wild Card and NLCS rosters, and didn’t pitch in the NLDS. He has one more year under contract, with the Red Sox paying half of his $32 million salary.

As for the ancillary deal with the Twins, Maeda had a strong 2020 season, finishing second in the AL Cy Young balloting, but couldn’t replicate the magic this year, and ultimately wound up needing Tommy John surgery. Meanwhile, Graterol has turned into a useful bullpen cog if not an essential one, providing 0.7 WAR in 56.2 innings in 2020-21; this year, bouts of COVID-19 and forearm tightness limited him to just five appearances before the All-Star break, and he managed just a 4.59 ERA and 3.95 FIP. The 22-year-old righty can throw gas, averaging 100 mph with his sinker (second behind only Aroldis Chapman) and recently reaching 102.5 mph during one postseason appearance, but he’s more of a groundball specialist (58.3%) than a guy who misses bats (18% strikeout rate).

Graterol has appeared in six of the Dodgers’ nine postseason games so far, generally in a mid-to-low leverage capacity; he’s allowed one run in 5.1 innings while striking out three without a walk. That run, alas, was the decisive one in NLCS Game 2; brought into a tie game in the ninth inning instead of Kenley Jansen, he allowed a leadoff broken-bat single to Travis d’Arnaud, forced pinch-runner Cristian Pache out at second with a daring throw on Dansby Swanson’s bunt, and got one more out via a Guillermo Heredia grounder that advanced Swanson to second. Jansen came in to face Eddie Rosario and on his first pitch hit a hot shot up the middle that got past Seager for the winning run.

As for one other supporting character in the whirlwind of activity surrounding the Betts deal, Pederson continues to leave outsized footprints in October, much like Hernándeze, his former teammate. Pederson wound up spending 2020 with the Dodgers, struggling through the regular season (.190/.285/.397 in 138 PA) but coming alive in October (.382/.432/.559 with two homers and eight RBI in 37 PA). In Game 3 of the NLCS, he hit a three-run first-inning shot off the Braves’ Kyle Wright as part of a jaw-dropping 11-run inning, and in the World Series he delivered a go-ahead two-run pinch-single in the seventh inning of Game 4 that was overshadowed by the wild back-and-forth that later ensued.

After reaching free agency, Pederson signed a one-year, $7 million-plus-mutual-option deal with the Cubs in February, but scuffled before being dealt to the Braves on July 15, part of a much-needed outfield makeover that helped the team climb from below .500 to win the NL East. Bedecked in pearls and now bleach-blond, he’s homered three times and hit .389/.421/.889 in 19 PA thus far this Joctober, with pinch-hit shots in Games 1 and 3 in the Division Series against the Brewers; the latter provided all of the game’s scoring. He walloped a 454-foot game-tying two-run homer off Max Scherzer in Game 2 of the NLCS, and delivered an RBI single in the fourth-inning rally that helped chase Walker Buehler in Game 3.

Unless the Braves and Astros both finish the job of knocking out their opponents in their respective series, the Betts/Verdugo trade will remain a subject of conversation and scrutiny due to its impact on at least one of the World Series participants. Bloom and the Red Sox have done a good job of retooling on the fly while shimmying under the CBT threshold in both 2020 and ’21 (RosterResource has them at $211.4 million, $1.4 million over the threshold, but the Boston Herald’s Jason Mastrodonato reported the team’s expectation to finish around $205 million). They struck gold via their two-year deal, $14-million deal with Hernández and have gotten good bang for the buck from pickups such as Kyle Schwarber, Christian Arroyo, Nick Pivetta, and Hunter Renfroe, who have helped supplement a core that still includes many key players from their 2018 championship roster.

Would the Red Sox be better off right now paying the CBT and having Betts in right field, locked up long-term? Quite possibly, but winning tends to paper over such matters, even when the roster-building means one of the sport’s marquee franchises bloodlessly parting with a face-of-the-game-level superstar and taking steps down the road of becoming the New England Rays, a team trying to stay ahead by looking for the next expensive star whom they can trade to cut costs. Would they deal Martinez to re-sign Schwarber? Trade Bogaerts out of fear that he’ll opt out after next season? I’m spitballing here, but once a team has traded Mookie Betts, a future Hall of Famer whom they could have well afforded to keep, is anything really off limits?

With a good chunk of change coming off the books this winter, but with a projected payroll of nearly $175 million, we’ll see how Bloom spends Henry’s money this winter. In the meantime, the Red Sox are doing it their way, the Dodgers are doing it theirs. One of them might win a championship, but even then, that might not put this trade to rest.

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

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
2 years ago

Depending on which metric you use Enrique Hernandez either barely outperformed Mookie this year 4.0fwar to 3.9fwar, or by a better margin 4.9bwar to 4.2bwar. I realize that those are not too large of gaps, and obviously you cannot expect it moving forward…but it is funny to say the least.

kick me in the GO NATSmember
2 years ago
Reply to  carter

It is unlikely that Hernandez has a good a year defensively as he did this season again.

2 years ago
Reply to  carter

That’s mostly dependent on him being a good center fielder. If he’s that good of a defensive center fielder then a whole lot of people missed on him this offseason.

2 years ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

If he’s half as good as a center fielder as he’s been, I think it’s still safe to say that a whole lot ofpeople missed on him this offseason.

2 years ago
Reply to  Kervin

Its not his defense (which was always good), but his success against right-handed pitchers that distinguishes this season from, well, all the other ones.

2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

That’s part of it. But if he hits for his usual 85-90 wRC+ and is that good of a defender in CF he looks a whole lot like prime Kevin Pillar.

2 years ago
Reply to  mikejunt

He has a .690 career OPS against RHP, compared to .744 this year. I don’t think that’s the answer