A calm, objective look at the Mookie Monster

Mookie Betts about to take a low-five from third base coach Dino Ebel after his sixth-inning Game One bomb.

The Mookie Monster is catching more than a few waves of adulation and hype lately. Making three National League Championship Series-altering or sustaining catches in the final three games, then doing something even Babe Ruth never achieved in a single World Series game, does that for you.

“He does things on a baseball field that not many people can do,” says Game One winning pitcher Clayton Kershaw, “and he does it very consistently, which I think separates him from other guys.”

On Tuesday  night, Betts let a couple of other Dodgers take the defensive spotlight gladly in return for drawing one walk, stealing two bases, and hitting a home run. Ruth drew three walks, off one of which he stole second and third, in Game Two of the 1921 World Series.

This Series is only one game old, and Betts hit as many home runs Tuesday night as Ruth hit in the entire ’21 Series—one. No, we’re not comparing Mookie Betts to Babe Ruth just yet, other than to say he has something else in common with the Bambino.

Betts, too, is a former Boston Red Sox star. Betts was traded away while Red Sox Nation was still seeing him in prime time; Ruth was sold before Red Sox fans got to see his complete transition to full-time position playing and his two prime periods—in a very different game—of 1920-24 and 1926-31. And Red Sox Nation isn’t the only baseball outpost still wondering just what the Red Sox were thinking when dealing Betts.

The Ruthian mythology held for too long that then-Red Sox owner Harry Frazee dumped Ruth purely to finance his musical hit No, No, Nanette. (How a 1919 sale finances a 1925 stage production should have escaped thinking people.) Frazee did need money, but not for one of his theatrical productions. He also didn’t need the headaches that came with Ruth, behaving even then like a law unto himself.

Fast forward a century. A very different Red Sox ownership is about as financially challenged as the Saudi royal family. They’re facing Betts hitting free agency after the 2020 season and making little apparent effort to sign him. Betts himself spoke often enough about pondering his market value in that 2020 free agency class. The Red Sox didn’t want to lose him for nothing in return.

Fair enough. But why the Red Sox made no effort to keep their arguable franchise face will be debated at least as long as the old and discredited Curse of the Bambino endured. No matter what the Red Sox didn’t do otherwise last winter to keep the team from collapsing to the basement even in a pandemic-altered year, the Olde Towne Team isn’t likely to go even half as long before its next World Series triumph as they did between selling Ruth and 2004.

“The Red Sox’s payroll issues were not inconsequential,” writes The Athletic‘s Ken Rosenthal, never mind that allowing that the Red Sox doing nothing to re-tool their pitching staff probably did as much to sink them as trading Betts. “The team needed to infuse young talent. But every rational argument club officials make pales in comparison to the importance of keeping a homegrown star, a franchise player, a role model for your organization and a potential Hall of Famer.”

Their loss is the Dodgers’ gain, even if the Red Sox did get some decent young talent in return and rid themselves, while they were at it, of the rest of David Price’s contract before Price’s decline added further miseries. Betts already had a taste of World Series conquest in 2018, even though he didn’t hit well at all while playing solid defense that postseason.

“He does all the little things right,” said Dodgers center fielder Cody Bellinger to Rosenthal, Bellinger having delivered a couple of key postseason hits and defensive gems himself. “You can really learn from that when a guy’s that good and wants to win and continues to do the small things that go unnoticed by a lot of people. It’s really special.”

The guy Betts is being compared to most now hasn’t even gotten more than one quick postseason taste in his rookie season. The Los Angeles Angels aren’t exactly in the poorhouse financially. They’re in the poorhouse in baseball terms, though, since they seem almost terminally unable to build a team their franchise player and the game’s best all around, still, can be proud of.

Once the Mookie Monster cranked his act into overdrive starting in NLCS Game Five, the concurrent subject became Mike Trout, his lack of postseason credentials, and even why Trout is therefore an overrated hype. The foolishness there only begins with the roll of Hall of Famers who either never got to strut in the postseason, came up too short when they got several chances, but still shook out as their generations’ best.

It only continues with ignoring that Trout wasn’t responsible for such ultimately backfiring moves as the Albert Pujols contract—which became an albatross mostly because of Pujols’s injury issues impacting his once-unshakable plate discipline—and the utter failure to develop credible pitching on both ends of the game. That may or may not have only begun with doing little to nothing to keep Zack Greinke beyond his second-half 2012 rental.

Trout’s loyalty to the organisation that brought him forward is nothing but admirable in a business for which loyalty is and has always been a disposable commodity. The only difference between pre- and post-free agency “loyalty” is that pre-free agency teams were under no such obligation and liberal to the point of libertine when it came to “loyalty” to most of their players.

A guy doesn’t sign an extension equivalent to the economy of a small country if he thinks he’s been done dirty off the field. Even nice-guy Trout has his limits, though. He said not too subtly this year that he’s tired of the Angels losing. But when the game’s all-universe player says he’s fed up with falling short and shorter, will the Angels listen at last?

The show Betts is putting on this postseason is as staggering as the 99 Cent Store-budget Tampa Bay Rays bumping, grinding, flying, and diving their way to the American League’s best irregular season record and into the World Series in the first place. But if Betts’s partisans really want to go there with the Trout comparisons, well, you asked for it.

Betts has seven seasons in the Show. Here they are next to Trout’s first seven. First, looking conventionally:

First Seven Seasons BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+
Mookie Betts .301 .373 .522 .895 135
Mike Trout .310 .420 .579 1.000 178

Well, I tried to warn you. And, in absolute fairness, Betts’s line is astonishing for a leadoff hitter, which I’ll take a different crack at shortly.

Now—sorry, can’t resist—look at the pair using my Real Batting Average metric, which I think gives you the complete look at a player at the plate. (It also does what the traditional batting average fails to do: treats hits as they should be treated, not treating all hits as having equal value—which they don’t.) Total bases + walks + intentional walks + sacrifice flies + hit by pitches, divided by total plate appearances:

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Mike Trout 2012-2018 4538 2171 684 86 43 63 .671

Again, Betts has a remarkable profile for a leadoff hitter. But granted that distinction versus a guy who bats second much of the time and third almost as much of the time, the Mookie Monster isn’t quite the Millville Meteor just yet. (Since you went there: Betts does have a Most Valuable Player award—to Trout’s three that should have been four.)

On the other hand, it might be a lot more prudent and accurate to compare Betts to the first seven seasons of another leadoff man of certain renown.

Real Batting Average PA TB BB IBB SF HBP RBA
Mookie Betts 3875 1786 395 26 33 21 .583
Renowned Leadoff Man 4445 1639 674 24 20 23 .535

The leadoff man of certain renown is Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson. Did you figure for even one milli-second that there but for the grace of his life of crime on the bases would Henderson come up short of Betts? That the Mookie Monster in his first seven seasons is actually better at the plate than the Man of Steal?

Maybe you didn’t before, but you ought to now. Especially since Betts has a slightly better knowledge than Henderson of what to do when his bat takes unexpected time off and becomes a one-man version of the Rays’ collection of aerialists, acrobats, high-wire walkers, and tumblers.

It’s enough to make the Dodgers’ spanking new $396 million man the biggest bargain of the year. Just don’t ask Betts. All he’s ready to do is tell you the most important thing he did in Game One, and it wasn’t the jolt he hit the other way that landed in the right field seats in the bottom of the sixth. For him, it was the double steal that led to him scoring on an offline throw from first base an inning earlier.

“I think it just kept the line moving,” he told reporters. “It was a good play there, and I’ve gotta give credit to the hitters that came up after for driving in runs and keeping constant pressure. It just showed that we don’t have to hit home runs to be successful.”

Not even when it’s the aggregation that led the National League in bombs this irregular season and last full season. It ought to make for one hell of a World Series show going forward.

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