Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, September 13, 2022 -- "Fun With Numbers: Mookie Betts"


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Last night, Mookie Betts hit a three-run homer to cap a 6-0 Dodgers win that clinched the NL West. It’s the team's ninth division title in ten years, a streak broken only by the 107-win 2021 Giants. The Dodgers, after some postseason troubles early in the run, have won three of the last five NL pennants and are the favorites to win a fourth in six years. They’ve won nine of their last 13 postseason series, a mark that would have gotten you nine championships up to 1969 and at least five in the years after that through 1993.

The Dodgers’ postseason track record, and how we judge baseball teams in general, will be a big topic in October. Today, I want to go back to that three-run homer and the player who hit it. Mookie Betts has an MVP award and two rings, and I’m not entirely sure the average fan knows how great he is. I’m not sure I did until I went digging.

Consider this list of active bWAR leaders:

Simply The Best (most bWAR, active players)

                   bWAR   Age
Albert Pujols     100.9    42
Mike Trout         81.4    30
Justin Verlander   77.0    39
Clayton Kershaw    71.6    34
Zack Greinke       70.9    38
Max Scherzer       70.2    37
Robinson Cano      68.1    39
Miguel Cabrera     67.9    39
Joey Votto         64.3    38
Evan Longoria      58.3    36
Paul Goldschmidt   58.0    34
Mookie Betts       56.3    29
Nolan Arenado      51.4    31
Manny Machado      51.0    29

Betts is three months younger than Manny Machado, making him the youngest player in baseball with at least 50 bWAR. All these players lost wins to the pandemic season, but Betts, Machado, Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado lost prime years. They’re short two to four wins of what they might otherwise have. Keep that in mind as you read this next list.

(As I’ve mentioned before, I like using 1961 as a cutoff because it is a reasonable approximation of when the leagues were fully integrated. All the following charts and analysis do so. Your mileage may vary.)

Another Hero (bWAR through age-29 season, since 1961)

Alex Rodriguez     80.6
Mike Trout         76.1
Albert Pujols      73.8
Ken Griffey Jr.    70.7
Barry Bonds        66.5
Roger Clemens      62.6
Rickey Henderson   61.4
Johnny Bench       59.5
Bert Blyleven      59.3
Clayton Kershaw    58.8
Tom Seaver         58.0
Andruw Jones       58.0
Cal Ripken Jr.     57.8
Pedro Martinez     57.3
Ron Santo          56.6
Mookie Betts       56.3

Betts is 16th on this list, at the tail end of a large cluster of players. In 2020, Betts put up 3.6 bWAR in a 60-game campaign, on pace for nearly a ten-win season. bWAR doesn’t always work that way, but you don’t have to be a family member to think that Betts would have racked up another four wins in 2020, leapfrogging that cluster to become just the eighth player in the expansion era with at least 60 bWAR before he turned 30.

That shortened campaign sticks out on his b-r page, the only “full” season in which he’s had fewer than four bWAR. Mookie Betts doesn’t have bad years. He was worth 2.3 wins in 52 games as a rookie. His “down year” in 2021 was a four-win season that most players would die to have -- .264/.367/.487 (126 OPS+), ten steals -- all while playing 122 games despite injuries to his back, forearm, and hip. Drafted out of a Nashville high school at 18, Betts did nothing but hit in the Sox system while being promoted slowly. He might reasonably have been called up sooner in 2014 and had a four-win season.

If we put our thumb on the scale and just look at players from ages 22 through 29, we find six who have been worth at least four wins in all eight years. Betts is at seven plus 3.6 bWAR in 60 games in 2020 -- I think we should give it to him.

The list of highest WAR totals by young players is dominated by ones who reached the majors at 20 and younger. That’s as it should be -- playing well in the majors at that age is a sign, in and of itself, of greatness. If we use that same thumb on that same scale to limit ourselves to players across Betts’ eight full campaigns...

Atypical Male (most bWAR, ages 22-29, since 1961)

Albert Pujols      67.3
Alex Rodriguez     66.1
Barry Bonds        62.9
Roger Clemens      60.8
Tom Seaver         58.0
Mike Trout         56.2
Ken Griffey Jr.    55.2
Mookie Betts       54.1
Pedro Martinez     54.0

Mookie Betts, since becoming a full-time player, has played like an inner-circle Hall of Famer, like some of the best players in baseball history.

Betts hit last night’s homer in a game he started and in which played all nine innings at second base. It’s not terribly unusual -- Betts was primarily a second baseman in the minors, moved off the position in deference to Dustin Pedroia. The Dodgers gave him one start at second in 2020 and five each in 2021 and 2022, looking to establish their Team Pretzel bona fides and allow Dave Roberts to get all his outfielders into the lineup.

When Betts reached the majors in 2014, he had played just 415 career innings in the outfield, all in ’14, so it’s incredible that he’s become one of the best outfielders of his era. But for coming up alongside Jackie Bradley Jr., Betts probably would have been a center fielder, though playing right field at Fenway Park is as close as a right fielder gets to having a center fielder’s defensive responsibilities. He took to the position well enough to have won five Gold Glove awards in an era when those awards have better tracked defensive performance.

There are just three active players who have at least five seasons of four offensive bWAR and one defensive bWAR. (We’ll call them “two-way seasons.”) Betts is one of them, along with Nolan Arenado and Carlos Correa. Take off the “active” tag and return to our earlier criteria, and...

Show Some Respect (4+ oWAR and 1+ dWAR seasons, by age 29, since 1961)

Johnny Bench     8
Cal Ripken Jr.   7
Alex Rodriguez   6
George Brett     6
Mike Schmidt     6
nine tied with   5

Betts is in the last group, with five two-way seasons by age 29. I hate to keep harping on this, but Betts’s 2020 season (2.6 oWAR, .09 dWAR) was certainly headed for this as well, elevating him to a tie with some of the best two-way players ever. The 2020 season will be poisoning our stats for a generation.

Running at this from a different direction, Betts’s combination of offensive and defensive value in his twenties marks him as one of the all-time two-way players.

What You Get Is What You See (40+ oWAR and 10+ dWAR before age 30, since 1961)

                   oWAR   dWAR
Alex Rodriguez     77.5   11.6
Ken Griffey Jr.    64.1   10.3
Barry Bonds        49.9   11.7
Johnny Bench       50.3   17.7
Cal Ripken Jr.     48.5   19.9
Mookie Betts       41.2   12.9
Robin Yount        51.0   12.1
Manny Machado      41.9   13.5
Mike Schmidt       40.3   12.7
Alan Trammell      41.2   14.8
Jim Fregosi        44.3   11.6

Again, this is with Betts being shorted by the 2020 season. (Manny Machado, who also lost WAR to the pandemic, is perhaps even more underrated than Mookie Betts is.)

Look, we live in the age of Mike Trout, who was so incredible in his twenties that he broke the curve. He’s the best player of his era and, if you acknowledge that baseball players are always getting better, the best player ever. Betts, though, now looks very much like the clear #2 from this era, and he has some markers Trout doesn’t have: More two-way value, more postseason performance, two rings, better durability. Over the last five years, Betts is five WAR clear of the field, even with that injury-plagued 2021 season.

The best may be yet to come. Betts, to me, is most reminiscent of a player we haven’t mentioned yet.

Two People

             PA   AVG  OBP  SLG  OPS+   SB   oWAR  dWAR
Betts      4984  .294 .370 .523  135   158   41.2  12.9
Player X   5298  .270 .384 .414  129   320   47.5   1.4

Player X played in a total dead zone for offense, and he stayed at second base rather than being moved to the outfield. He stole more bases because everyone did and, while not shown above, struck out less because everyone did.

Joe Morgan was on a Hall of Fame trajectory in his twenties. Then he put together one of the best stretches of my lifetime, a three-year run in which he hit .313/.446/.525 (171 OPS+), stole 62 bases a year with an 86% success rate, won two NL MVP awards and helped his team to two championships. He was one of the best percentage players of all time, one of the smartest players of all time, and was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame on his first ballot.

Now, baseball is played differently today, so I doubt Mookie Betts has that kind of running in his future. The rest of it, though, is within his grasp. Morgan’s 1975 season is one of just nine 11-win seasons in my lifetime, ninth-best of that group. You know who just missed? Mookie Betts in 2018, with 10.7.

Mookie Betts is the second-best player of his era, which makes him one of the very best players ever. His combination of offense and defense puts him in a rare category among players in the last 60 years, as complete a player as has played the game. His baseball intellect calls to mind that of Joe Morgan, who combined talent and experience and that intellect to play an all-time stretch of baseball in his early thirties. The best may be yet to come for Betts. 


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