Why Is Mookie Betts Playing Shortstop for the Dodgers?

LOS ANGELES — Mookie Betts was coming back from paternity depart, his automotive was caught in Chicago freeway gridlock for what appeared like an eternity and he arrived at Wrigley Field late for that evening’s recreation.

The Los Angeles Dodgers knew prematurely that Betts would miss the first pitch in opposition to the Cubs. And Manager Dave Roberts had put Betts on discover that when he arrived he was going to be taking part in shortstop for the first time in his main league profession — and for the first time at any degree in 10 years.

So which was extra harrowing for Betts, an All-Star outfielder and Most Valuable Player Award winner: the anxiousness of being caught in visitors whereas the recreation was beginning, or taking part in shortstop in the majors for the first time?

“Cab experience,” Roberts guessed with out lacking a beat.

Roberts, in his ninth season as the Dodgers’ supervisor, is understood for his superhuman-like communication along with his gamers. But on this query, he whiffed.

“Nah, man, going out to brief for the first time was undoubtedly extra nerve-racking,” Betts mentioned over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, the place he smashed two residence runs, drove in three runs, scored three extra and made his fifth begin. at shortstop whereas main the first-place Dodgers to a three-game sweep of the slumping San Diego Padres.

Betts’s reply, although, got here with a caveat: His debut at shortstop was extra irritating as a result of his late arrival prevented him from taking any floor balls earlier than the recreation.

“It was simply — bam!” Betts mentioned.

Sometimes, Betts allowed, it is best that approach. Few issues rattle him on a baseball diamond, and a decade into his huge league profession, his antics and skills not shock his teammates. So his frequently filling in at shortstop and second base, along with having his common outfield duties, is strictly the sort of factor they’d anticipate him to do, no matter how ridiculous that sounds.

“I imply, the man bowls 300s in the morning and is available in and hits residence runs at evening,” first baseman Freddie Freeman mentioned, referencing one among Betts’ extensively recognized hobbies. “The man’s a particular expertise. He’s a whole staff participant, three completely different positions already this yr in the first 37, 38 video games. Switching positions and main off each single day, it is a powerful job. But if anyone can deal with it, it is him.”

Betts’ more and more frequent infield assignments are borne out of necessity. When final yr’s Dodgers shortstop, Trea Turner, signed an 11-year, $300 million cope with Philadelphia in the low season, the Dodgers made a aware resolution to step again with their very own payroll. The concept was to reset their roster, give alternatives to prospects corresponding to infielder Miguel Vargas and outfielder James Outman and parlay their years of profitable — 9 National League West titles in 10 years — with out having to rebuild.

The Dodgers weren’t a lot slashing their payroll as selecting their spots. Although down from final yr’s determine, a league-high $270 million, their $225 million payroll in 2023 nonetheless ranks fifth in Major League Baseball.

The concept was to play Gavin Lux, a homegrown participant with a promising bat, at shortstop and Vargas at second. But when Lux suffered a season-ending knee harm in spring coaching, plans modified.

What the Dodgers have been left with was Miguel Rojas, 34, a veteran acquired in a commerce with Miami throughout the winter to assist Lux alter to shortstop, and Chris Taylor, a utility participant extra accustomed to the outfield.

Enter Betts, who had made occasional appearances at second base going all the approach again to his rookie season in Boston. He grew up taking part in shortstop and had dreamed of in the future doing so in the majors.

“I did not suppose I used to be really going to finish up taking part in brief, however I all the time informed them, like, ‘Hey, you realize, I’m accessible to do it if push ever involves shove,'” Betts mentioned. “And push got here to shove.”

Push coming to shove is a constant, if generally unwelcome, intruder in the recreation. The Tigers famously moved middle fielder Mickey Stanley to shortstop for the 1968 World Series, eradicating the light-hitting common Ray Oyler. Stanley had by no means performed the place earlier than but he managed it nicely and Detroit defeated the Cardinals in seven video games.

Decades later, in 2012, Detroit as soon as once more developed a vexing gap when Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee harm. Unlike Lux’s harm, Martinez’s occurred nicely earlier than the season began. So the Tigers signed the free agent slugger Prince Fielder and shoved an agreeable, however not significantly swish, Miguel Cabrera from first base to 3rd.

“You got here up as a shortstop, this needs to be straightforward for you,” Dino Ebel, who was the Angels’ third-base coach that yr and now has that position with the Dodgers, teased Cabrera when their groups confronted one another.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, right here I’m, taking part in the left aspect of the diamond once more,'” Ebel mentioned.

Betts was drafted as a shortstop by Boston in 2011, and in contrast to Cabrera he had the physique to remain in the place on a long-term foundation. But with the 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. Before his current cameos, he had final performed shortstop professionally in the Arizona Fall League in 2013 and had logged solely 112 skilled innings at the place.

His first look in Chicago had come as a result of Rojas (hamstring) and Taylor (indirect) have been injured. But he has now performed seven video games at the place, together with 5 begins. He dedicated a throwing error Saturday in opposition to San Diego, however he has in any other case been flawless, together with turning a slick double play whereas leaping over a sliding baserunner throughout his debut in Chicago. Advanced statistics counsel his defensive play at shortstop, in an admittedly small pattern, has been near elite, simply as it’s at second base and in proper discipline.

The change in place has coincided with some further pop at the plate as nicely: Three of his 9 homers have come whereas taking part in shortstop.

Although Betts has received six Gold Gloves for granted fielder, it has by no means been a secret that he will get bored in the outfield. His favourite place, he mentioned, “in case you might simply decide, it’d most likely be brief or second, both one. They’re very interchangeable for me. They get the most motion and I simply really feel like that is the place my athleticism sort of performs the most.”

He added: “I simply informed them, ‘I’m a device, use me.’ I’m right here. It’s not like I’m preventing for my subsequent contract. I simply need to win.”

Part of that’s the safety afforded to him by a 12-year, $365 million deal ($30.4 million common annual worth) he signed with the Dodgers forward of the 2020 season. The deal has aged nicely in comparison with a few of the megadeals handed out final low season, even past Betts’ capability to shift seamlessly, and with out grievance, to the infield at any time when the staff wants him.

Even as soon as the Dodgers’ roster will get wholesome, Betts has carried out the work to show that he’s able to taking part in the infield in a significant variety of innings, with Roberts estimating that he might get between 15 to twenty infield begins this season. That quantity might fluctuate primarily based on efficiency and staff wants.

“When I noticed him in spring coaching taking floor balls, immediately I knew he takes issues severely and he isn’t there simply to fiddle and have enjoyable,” Rojas mentioned.

Betts, who has taken every day floor balls at each second base and shortstop throughout batting observe for years, often compares notes with Rojas as they work collectively in the early afternoon. Before the collection opener with the Padres on Friday, Rojas complimented Betts on utilizing the proper approach on a specific backhand play. Betts returned a praise concerning Rojas’ correct positioning on a ball in entrance of him.

“He’s one among the greatest athletes I’ve ever seen,” Freeman mentioned of Betts. “He needs to do no matter he is requested to do, and he makes it look fairly straightforward.”

That confidence has permeated the clubhouse, with the final endorsement coming forward of the collection finale in Chicago final month. Roberts was contemplating giving Betts his first begin at shortstop, however with Clayton Kershaw scheduled to pitch, Roberts made certain to examine along with his ace to get his blessing.

“He was like, ‘I’m in,'” Roberts mentioned. “And so at that cut-off date, I believe it freed all people up that if Clayton trusts him, then let’s simply go and do it.”

Wherever the staff places him defensively, Betts exudes calm. It is why Roberts was certain the automotive experience from O’Hare Airport to Wrigley Field would have harassed Betts greater than taking part in shortstop in the majors.

“I marvel not solely at the mechanics of it, however the heartbeat of it,” Roberts mentioned. “Because if you have not carried out one thing in a serious league recreation, you’d suppose there could be somewhat bit of additional anxiousness. But with him, there’s none.”

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