LOS ANGELES — Mookie Betts was returning from maternity leave when his car was stuck in Chicago freeway traffic for what seemed like an eternity and he arrived at Wrigley Field late for that night’s game.
The Los Angeles Dodgers knew in advance that Betts would miss the first pitch against the Cubs. And manager Dave Roberts has warned that when Betts arrives, he will be playing shortstop for the first time in his major league career and for the first time in a decade at any level.
So what was more disastrous for the All-Star outfielder and Most Valuable Player Betts: the fear of getting stuck in traffic at the start of a game, or playing shortstop for the first time in the majors?
“Take a cab,” Roberts speculated without missing a beat.
Roberts, who is in his ninth season as Dodgers manager, is known for his superhuman communication with his players. But on this question he flinched.
“Well, I was definitely more nervous going into the short program for the first time,” Betts said at Dodger Stadium over the weekend. There, he led the leading Dodgers to a third straight victory over the struggling San Diego Padres as a shortstop in his fifth start, with two homers, three homers and three more runs.
But Betts’ answer contained a caveat. His debut as a shortstop was more stressful, as his late arrival prevented him from hitting a ground ball before the game.
“It’s just—Burn!” Mr. Betts said.
In some cases, Betts concedes, that’s for the best. Few things in baseball’s diamonds have upset him, and a decade into his major league career, his antics and abilities no longer amaze his teammates. So for him to regularly play shortstop and second base in addition to his regular outfield duties is exactly the kind of thing they expect from him, no matter how ridiculous that sounds.
“So this guy bowls 300 pitches in the morning and comes in at night and hits a home run,” said first baseman Freddie Freeman, referring to one of Betts’ widely known hobbies. said while “That guy has a special talent. He’s a consummate team player and has already gone through three different positions in his first 37 or 38 games this year. It’s a tough job, but if anyone can handle it, it’s him.”
Betts’ use of more and more infielders is out of necessity. When Dodgers shortstop Tory Turner signed last year’s offseason with Philadelphia to an 11-year, $300 million contract, the Dodgers made a conscious decision to pay their own salary and walk out. The idea was to give prospective players like infielder Miguel Vargas and outfielder James Outman a chance without rebuilding the squad, and help them achieve their long-running wins (National League West in 10 years). 9 times).
The Dodgers opted for slots rather than cuts. Although down from last year’s league-high of $270 million, Salary $225 million In 2023, they are still ranked fifth in the major leagues.
The idea was to have Gavin Lux, a homegrown player with a promising bat, at shortstop and Vargas at second base. However, plans changed after Lux suffered a season-ending knee injury in spring training.
The Dodgers were left with Miguel Rojas, a 34-year-old veteran acquired in a trade with Miami over the winter to help Lux get used to shortstop, and Chris Chris, a utility player accustomed to the outfield. it was taylor.
Enter Betts, who has been an occasional second baseman since his rookie season in Boston. He grew up as a shortstop and dreamed of one day playing as a shortstop in the majors.
“I never thought I’d actually end up playing short, but I always said to them, ‘Hey, look, you can always do it if you need to,'” Betts said. “And push came push.”
Pushing pushes are consistent, if sometimes unwelcome, intruders into the game. In the 1968 World Series, the Tigers famously replaced regular light hitter Ray Oiler with center fielder Mickey Stanley at shortstop. Stanley had never played that position before, but he did it well and Detroit beat the Cardinals in seven games.
Detroit carved out a nasty hole again decades later in 2012 when Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee injury. Unlike Lux’s injury, Martinez’s injury occurred well before the start of the season. So the Tigers signed free agent slugger Prince Fielder and pushed the likeable but not particularly graceful Miguel Cabrera from first to third base.
Dino Eberl, who was the Angels’ third base coach that year and is now in that role with the Dodgers, teased Cabrera when the two teams met.
“He was like, ‘Yeah, I’m going to play on the left side of the diamond here again,'” Ebel said.
Betts was drafted by Boston as a shortstop in 2011 and, unlike Cabrera, had the physique to stay in that position long term. But with All-Star Dustin Pedroia established at second base in the Majors and Xander Bogaerts already in the Red Sox system, Betts moved to the outfield. Prior to his most recent cameo, he last played professionally as a shortstop in the 2013 Arizona Fall League, recording only 112 professional innings at that position.
It was his first appearance in Chicago due to injuries to Rojas (hamstring) and Taylor (oblique). However, he has now made seven appearances at this position, including five starts. He made a throwing mistake in Saturday’s game against San Diego, but was otherwise flawless in his debut in Chicago, where he landed a clever double play while jumping over a sliding baserunner. The latest stats suggest that his defensive play at shortstop, though certainly in the minority, was as close to elite as at second base and right field.
The change of position coincided with more prominence at bat, with three of his nine home runs being hit while playing shortstop.
Betts is a six-time Gold Glove winner as a right fielder, but it’s never been a secret that he’s bored in the outfield. His favorite position, he said, “if I had a choice, it would probably be shortstop or second.” To me they are very interchangeable. They have the most action and I feel that’s where my athleticism is at its best. ”
“I just told them, ‘I’m a tool, use it,'” he added. I am here. We are not fighting for the next contract. I just want to win. ”
Part of that is the comfort provided by the 12-year, $365 million ($30.4 million average) deal he signed with the Dodgers ahead of the 2020 season. The deal is pretty old, even compared to some mega-signs signed last offseason, and has outgrown Betts’ ability to seamlessly shift infield without complaint whenever teams need him. I’m here.
Even after the Dodgers’ roster is healthy, Betts has done the job of proving he can play the infield in meaningful innings, and Roberts will only start 15-20 games in the infield this season. I expect that. This number can fluctuate depending on performance and team needs.
“When I saw him catching ground balls in spring training, I knew right away that he was taking things seriously and not just playing around and having fun,” Rojas said.
For years, Betts, who hits both second baseman and shortstop every day during batting practice, frequently compares notes with Rojas, who practices with him in the early afternoon. Before Friday’s series opener against the Padres, Rojas praised Betts for using proper technique on certain backhand plays. Betts complimented Rojas on his proper positioning on the ball in front of him.
“He’s one of the best athletes I’ve ever seen,” Freeman said of Betts. “He wants to do whatever you ask him to do, but he makes it look very easy.”
That confidence seeped into the clubhouse, where a final endorsement was made ahead of the series finale in Chicago last month. Roberts considered giving Betts his first start at shortstop, but with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to start, Roberts made sure to check with the ace to get his blessing.
“He was like, ‘Go in,'” Roberts said. “So at that point, I think it freed everyone up to say, if Clayton trusts him, go ahead and do it.”
Betts exudes composure no matter where the team is positioned defensively. That’s why Roberts was convinced that driving from O’Hare Airport to Wrigley Field would be more stressful for Betts than playing shortstop in the majors.
“It’s not just the mechanics that amazes, but the heartbeat,” said Roberts. “Because if you’ve never done something in a major league game, you’d think there would be a little bit of extra anxiety. But with him, he’s nothing.”