April 12, 2024

A Look Inside Mookie Betts’ Historic Start to 2024: ‘You’re the GOAT’

LOS ANGELES — It will be a daily occurrence at Dodger Stadium.

Mookie Betts is stationed on the field hours before the first pitch, doing the diligent prep work he deems necessary to thrive in his latest daunting endeavor: becoming an everyday Major League shortstop for the first time at age 31. He fields a dizzying supply of grounders at varying speeds and angles all afternoon, then spends the night spraying hits across the field at a mind-boggling speed.

“A new challenge is always something he welcomes,” said manager Dave Roberts. “I think this is probably the biggest challenge he’s ever had.”

For most people, the meticulous attention required to play a new defensive position — let alone the best spot on the infield — could come at the expense of offensive production. For Betts, it only seems to reinforce it.

The Dodgers superstar is in the midst of the best start to any season in his illustrious career.

After launching a career-high 39 home runs and finished second in the MVP voting last year, the multi-dimensional, multi-talented, multi-positional six-time Gold Glove Award winner has started the 2024 season on an even more extraordinary pace. Betts leads the majors in hits, home runs, runs, RBIs and walks and has reached base 23 times in his first 38 at-bats.

“Every time he comes in, I feel like I’m just telling him, ‘You’re the GOAT, man,’” second baseman Gavin Lux said. “I feel like you can’t get it out — and even if you do get it out, it’s a hard-hit ball.”

The Dodgers have played more games than any team other than the Padres due to their Seoul Series early in the year, which has a slight impact on the totals, but on any level it’s an otherworldly start to the year for Betts. He has single-handedly hit more home runs than ten teams and scored more runs than the White Sox, Twins and Mets. Through 5% of the season, he is on pace for more than 100 home runs.

His manager has described him as the modern-day Rickey Henderson, but it’s getting to the point where it’s difficult for Roberts to find new ways to describe what Betts does. As of Tuesday, his 1.836 OPS ranked fourth all-time through the first seven games of a season.

“Especially considering his physicality,” Roberts said, “I’m amazed at him.”

Mookie Betts hits MLB-leading fifth home run

Mookie Betts hits MLB-leading fifth home run

Ask Betts about the hot start, though, and he doesn’t point to a secret sauce.

“Just work,” Betts repeated. “I show up wanting to win ball games.”

The best explanation might be that it is simply a continuation of last year’s excellence.

After being 26% above league average by Betts’ standards in 2021 and 40% above league average in 2022, he climbed to his greatest heights since his 2018 MVP campaign last year. Betts would would have earned his second MVP award if it weren’t for Ronald Acuña Jr.’s record year.

Just in case Betts ever loses his rhythm. the Dodgers can use his swing and mechanics from last season as a blueprint.

“We have a base model that we can look at and compare it to,” coach Aaron Bates explained to FOX Sports. “You know it works.”

Last year’s jump in production started with a visit to Driveline Baseball, the renowned data-driven sports complex in Kent, Washington, which prompted Betts to add weight. The increased size — he entered last season weighing about 178 pounds, big enough to do damage with his swing, but light enough to move comfortably — plus a new bat speed program helped him achieve the highest average exit velocity of his career . He finished the year with a 163 OPS+.

Of course, that didn’t change the bitter end to the Dodgers’ season or Betts’ role in it. The superstar leadoff man went hitless with a walk in 12 postseason plate appearances as the Dodgers were swept out of the National League Division Series by the Diamondbacks. While Betts said this spring that failure drives him, he also didn’t see much point in fixating on those three games.

“I’m not one to sulk about it all day because I can’t change it,” Betts said. “All I can do is move forward and figure out how to get better next time.”

Dodgers’ Mookie Betts leads Verlander’s Team of the Week

Dodgers' Mookie Betts leads Verlander's Team of the Week

That little monster aside, Betts knew what he did last year worked. So he followed the game plan again, including the offseason visit to Driveline.

“He tries to do everything the same, as much as he can,” Bates told FOX Sports. “Obviously the defensive positioning is also pulling him in a certain direction, but he’s still getting all his work in.”

The process works. Since the start of last year, Betts has a higher slugging percentage and OPS than any leadoff hitter in baseball. This year, he’s hitting the ball even harder early on and continues to stand out with his blistering start to the 2024 season.

Can the enjoyment he gets from playing on the field and the focus needed to excel as a middle infielder contribute to the offensive revival? While some see it as more than a coincidence – Betts has a career .903 OPS in 955 games as a right fielder, a .987 OPS in 97 games as a second baseman and a 1.368 OPS in 21 games as a shortstop – neither he nor his manager would necessarily link the two.

“I think that’s an easy yes answer, but I stand by the fact that defense is defense,” Roberts said. “He puts a lot of work into defense, which he’s always done, but now it’s more specific to shortstop, and then offense is attack.”

Both are going well for Betts, evidenced by his 1.4 FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement – ​​already twice the value of the next-best position player.

Although the Dodgers are better positioned to win a World Series due to their offseason actions, it is still Betts who earned them their 6-2 record.

“He plays out of this world,” Roberts said.

Betts is tied for the league lead in defensive runs saved at shortstop while putting up one of the best eight-game offensive stretches of his career (.500/.605/1.167, 5 HR, 11 RBI , 14 R). His latest performance Tuesday night against the Giants made history.

He singled in his first at-bat against reigning NL Cy Young runner-up Logan Webb. In his second, Betts sent a changeup at the bottom of the zone, 400 feet away, into the left field pavilion. The home run was the 1,500th hit of his career – a milestone he had no idea about until Freddie Freeman congratulated him afterwards.

“That has nothing to do with winning ball games,” Betts said. “That’s all I care about.”

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the LA Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. Rowan, an LSU graduate, was born in California, raised in Texas and then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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