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Mookie Betts Is Playing Like An MVP — And The Dodgers Have Needed It

In 2018, then-Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts put on one of the greatest single-season performances in MLB history: En route to an American League MVP award, Betts led the majors in batting with a .346 average, hit 32 home runs, had a .438 on-base percentage, slugged an MLB-best .640, scored 129 runs and won a Gold Glove award for his defense. Overall, that season was worth 10.5 wins above replacement,1 which placed Betts among an elite pantheon of batters: Only 16 since 1901 ever broke 10.5 WAR in a season. (Betts’s contemporary, Mike Trout, is not one of the 16.) Capping it all off with a World Series victory, Betts had a year for the ages — the kind which most great players can really expect to have just once, if they have one at all.

A lot has changed in Betts’s life since the 2018 season. He became a father, was traded from Boston to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a blockbuster deal and earned the second-largest contract in baseball history. But one thing is the same: Betts is having an MVP-level, all-time great season, and he has his team looking like World Series favorites.

As of Wednesday’s games, Betts ranks third in all of baseball — including both batters and pitchers — in total value this season with 1.83 WAR, neck and neck with emerging superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres (2.01) and the surprising Mike Yastrzemski of the San Francisco Giants (1.84):

Mookie is among baseball’s very best, once again

2020 MLB leaders in wins above replacement (WAR)

Wins Above replacement
Player Team Pos Batting Pitching Total WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. SDP SS 2.01 0.00 2.01
Mike Yastrzemski SFG CF 1.84 0.00 1.84
Mookie Betts LAD RF 1.83 0.00 1.83
Brandon Lowe TBR 2B 1.74 0.00 1.74
Lance Lynn TEX P 0.00 1.54 1.54
Shane Bieber CLE P 0.00 1.48 1.48
Max Fried ATL P 0.00 1.43 1.43
Anthony Rendon LAA 3B 1.39 0.00 1.39
Trevor Bauer CIN P 0.00 1.35 1.35
Yu Darvish CHC P 0.00 1.27 1.27
Zack Greinke HOU P 0.00 1.27 1.27
Nelson Cruz MIN DH 1.24 0.00 1.24
Aaron Nola PHI P 0.00 1.22 1.22
Robbie Grossman OAK LF 1.19 0.00 1.19
Bryce Harper PHI RF 1.19 0.00 1.19

WAR is measured using JEFFBAGWELL (Joint Estimate Featuring FanGraphs and B-R Aggregated to Generate WAR, Equally Leveling Lists), which averages the metrics found at Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Putting numbers from this strange, shortened season into context is difficult. But Betts has nine home runs in 25 games — including three in a game against the Padres last week — and his on-base plus slugging (1.023) is 75 percent better than league average, eighth-best in the NL. Defensively, he’s already been worth an estimated 5.1 more runs than an average right fielder, thanks to plays like this cannon throw to nail a runner trying to take an extra base at third:

According to Statcast, that ball traveled 305 feet, the fifth-longest outfield assist in baseball since 2015. Later in the same game, Betts hit the ball 375 feet for his first home run as a Dodger; five innings after that, he sprinted hard to turn a line drive to left-center into a double. It was all a perfect encapsulation of Betts’s multifaceted baseball gifts, on display at once.

The error bars around short-season WAR are huge, and “on-pace” stats during a season usually deteriorate quickly. But on a per-162-game basis, Betts has played at an 11.4-WAR level so far this season. In other words, his value per contest in 2020 has been higher than it was even in 2018, a season that could have fairly been regarded as a once-in-a-career spectacle. That, too, is rare: Of the 16 players in our prestigious 10.5-WAR club from earlier, only seven — Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Ty Cobb and Willie Mays — ever reached the same level in a separate season. With only 60 games in which to work, Betts won’t become the eighth this season no matter how well he plays — but he could potentially finish the shortened schedule on a historic per-game pace.

Strange as it is to say about a team as loaded with talent as L.A., the Dodgers have genuinely needed Betts to replicate his 2018 performance in the early going this year. Almost all of the team’s other superstars have underachieved during the first month of the season — including reigning NL MVP Cody Bellinger, who is hitting just .178 with -0.2 WAR, and starting pitcher Walker Buehler, a trendy dark-horse Cy Young pick in the preseason who now carries a 5.21 ERA. Of the 17 members of the Dodgers with an established level2 of at least 1.0 WAR per 162 games going into 2020, eight of them have underperformed those expectations, with Bellinger, Buehler, Ross Stripling and Joc Pederson serving as the worst offenders.

Unlike some teammates, Betts has lived up to expectations

Performance vs. expectations for 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers players with an established wins above replacement level of at least 1.0 WAR

WAR/162 in season…
Player Pos 2017 2018 2019 Est. Lvl. 2020 WAR/162 Diff.
Mookie Betts RF 5.8 10.5 6.8 7.9 11.4 +3.5
Cody Bellinger CF 4.0 3.9 8.5 6.4 -1.2 -7.5
Justin Turner 3B 5.5 4.5 3.7 4.3 3.7 -0.6
Max Muncy 1B 0.0 4.6 5.2 4.2 1.1 -3.1
Clayton Kershaw P 4.9 4.1 3.2 3.8 1.2 -2.6
Walker Buehler P -0.2 3.5 3.4 2.9 -1.2 -4.0
Chris Taylor SS 4.6 3.5 1.7 2.8 3.7 +0.9
Corey Seager SS 5.6 0.4 3.3 2.7 5.4 +2.7
Joc Pederson LF 0.1 2.4 3.1 2.4 -1.2 -3.5
Enrique Hernandez 2B 1.2 2.9 1.7 2.0 3.1 +1.1
AJ Pollock LF 2.6 2.5 0.6 1.5 3.2 +1.6
Ross Stripling P 0.5 2.3 1.3 1.5 -3.1 -4.5
Blake Treinen P 1.3 3.9 -0.3 1.4 0.5 -0.9
Will Smith C 0.0 0.0 1.7 1.3 1.4 +0.1
Julio Urias P -0.1 0.1 1.5 1.1 2.4 +1.3
Kenley Jansen P 3.3 0.5 0.6 1.0 2.7 +1.7
Austin Barnes C 3.0 0.8 0.5 1.0 1.6 +0.6

A player’s established level is calculated by a weighted average of his previous three seasons, with the provision that it cannot be lower than 75 percent of his value from the most recent season.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

But with Betts playing so well, the Dodgers rank first in overall WAR this season. His hitting has carried them to the fifth-most batting WAR of any MLB team, and his defense ranks second in total value (behind only the versatile Enrique Hernandez) for the best defensive team in baseball by WAR. Without Betts’s many wins added, Los Angeles would be on an 88-win pace per 162 games according to WAR — still probably good enough to make the playoffs in this year’s expanded field, but far from a dominant season. With Betts, however, they are playing like a 99-win team, much more in keeping with their preseason expectations.3

It’s certainly likely that Bellinger and company will improve as the season goes on. And Betts may well regress to a level that more resembles last season’s good-but-not-historically-great performance, too. But a month into 2020, he has easily been the MVP of the World Series front-runner, playing at a level as high as anyone in the game right now. Although none of that is exactly unfamiliar territory for Betts, it underscores just how great he is — and how fortunate even a team as stacked as Los Angeles is to have him in the lineup every day.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data every day this season.

  2. Which looks at a player’s most recent three seasons to estimate how he could reasonably be expected to perform in the current season.

  3. We called for the Dodgers to go 37-23 in the 60-game campaign, which works out almost exactly to 100 wins per 162 games.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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