Why Is Mookie Betts Playing Shortstop? Because He Can.-News

LOS ANGELES – Mookie Betts was coming home from paternity leave, his car was stuck on the freeway to Chicago for what seemed like an eternity and he arrived at Wrigley Field late for that night’s game.

The Los Angeles Dodgers knew Betts would miss the first game against the Cubs. And Manager Dave Roberts informed Betts that once he arrived he would be playing shortstop for the first time in his major league career — and the first time at any level in 10 years.

So what was more stressful for Betts, the All-Star and Most Valuable Player Award winner: the anxiety of getting caught in the road as the game begins, or playing shortstop for the first time?

“A car ride,” Roberts thought without missing a beat.

Roberts, in his ninth season as Dodgers manager, is known for his personal communication with his players. But on this question, he answered.

“No, man, losing the first time was tough,” Betts said over the weekend at Dodger Stadium, where he smashed two home runs, drove in three runs, scored three more and made his fifth start. at shortstop and lead the Dodgers to their first three-game sweep of the San Diego Padres.

Betts’ answer, however, came with a caveat: His start at shortstop was difficult because his late arrival prevented him from getting ground balls early in the game.

“It was just – bam!” Betts said.

Sometimes, betting allowed, it’s better that way. Few things bother him on the baseball diamond, and after ten years in the big leagues, his performance and ability no longer amaze his teammates. So filling in full time at shortstop and second base, in addition to having his regular duties, is what he’s expected to do, no matter how ridiculous it sounds.

“I mean, the guy eats 300s in the morning and comes in and hits a home run at night,” first baseman Freddie Freeman said, referring to one of Betts’ most famous pastimes. “The young man is very talented. He’s a complete team player, three different positions already this year in the first 37, 38 games. Changing roles and leading every day, is a tough job. But if anyone can do it, it’s him.”

Betts’ increasingly painfield careers are considered important. When last year’s Dodgers shortstop, Trea Turner, signed an 11-year, $300 million contract with Philadelphia in the offseason, the Dodgers decided to take a step back with their payroll. The idea was to revamp their roster, give infielders Miguel Vargas and outfielder James Outman a chance and reflect their best years — nine National League West titles in 10 years — without rebuilding.

The Dodgers weren’t cutting their payroll as much as choosing their location. Although down from last year’s show, a league-high $270 million, theirs $225 million salary in 2023 they are still fifth in Major League Baseball.

The idea was to play Gavin Lux, a home fielder with a promising bat, at shortstop and Vargas at second. But when Lux suffered a season-ending knee injury in spring training, plans changed.

What the Dodgers have left are Miguel Rojas, 34, a veteran who was traded to Miami this winter to help Lux adjust to shortstop, and Chris Taylor, a utility player more accustomed to the outfield.

Enter Betts, who made brief appearances in the second base going back to his rookie season in Boston. He grew up playing shortstop and dreamed of playing in the big leagues one day.

“I never thought I’d be playing a little bit, but I always tell them, like, ‘Hey, you know, I’m here to do it when push comes to shove,'” Betts said. “And push came to shove.”

Push comes to shove and is an intrusive, if sometimes unwelcome, entrant into the game. The Tigers famously moved Mickey Stanley to the 1968 World Series, replacing regular Ray Oyler. Stanley had never played in this position but he did well and Detroit defeated the Cardinals in seven games.

Decades later, in 2012, Detroit created a hole again when Victor Martinez suffered a season-ending knee injury. Unlike Lux’s injury, Martinez was fine before the season started. So the Tigers signed free agent Prince Fielder and pushed the pliant, but not gracious, Miguel Cabrera from first to third.

“You’ve come in like a piece, let this be easy for you,” Dino Ebel, who was the Angels’ third base coach that year and now has a position with the Dodgers, mocked Cabrera when their teams met.

“He was like, ‘Yeah, here I am, playing the left side of the diamond again,'” Ebel said.

Betts was drafted as a shortstop by Boston in 2011, and unlike Cabrera he had the physicality to stay at the position for a long time. 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. Before his recent arrival, he played shortstop in the Arizona Fall League in 2013 and joined only 112 major leaguers at the position.

His first appearance in Chicago came because Rojas (hamstring) and Taylor (oblique) were injured. But he has now played seven games at the position, including five starts. He committed a throwing error Saturday against San Diego, but remained error-free, including a double play when he jumped on a skid during his game at Chicago. The top numbers show that his defensive play at shortstop, in a small legal sample, has been near elite, as has been at second and in right field.

The change in position also coincides with some extras at the plate: Three of his nine home runs have come playing shortstop.

Although Betts won six Gloves as a shortstop, it was no secret that he was tiring in the outfield. His favorite spot, he said, “if you had to pick, it’d probably be shortstop or second, whatever. They’re very versatile for me. They’re very active and I just feel like that’s where my game is the most.”

He added: “I just told them, ‘I’m a tool, use me. I’m here. I’m not fighting for my next contract. I just want to win. “

Among those are the protections afforded him by the 12-year, $365 million ($30.4 million average annual value) contract he signed with the Dodgers before the 2020 season. The deal has grown in size compared to some of the megadeals offered in the past offseason, even beyond Betts’ ability to move seamlessly, and without complaint, to the infield whenever the team needs him.

Even if the Dodgers’ lineup is healthy, Betts has worked to prove that he can play in the infield in a sufficient number of innings, Roberts estimates that he could start between 15 and 20 this season. That number can vary depending on the team’s progress and team needs.

“When I saw him in spring training taking ground balls, I knew right away that he was serious and wasn’t there to mess around and have fun,” Rojas said.

Betts, who has taken daily ground balls at second base and shortstop in batting practice over the years, often compares notes with Rojas when they work together during the day. Before the opener against the Padres on Friday, Rojas praised Betts for using the right technique in one of the previous games. Betts returned the compliment about how Rojas put the ball in front of him.

“He’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen,” Freeman said of Betts. He wants to do whatever he is asked to do, and he makes it look easy.

That confidence has carried over into the clubhouse, and was acknowledged before last month’s final in Chicago. Roberts was considering giving Betts his first start at shortstop, but with Clayton Kershaw preparing to step up, Roberts made sure to check with his ace to get his blessing.

“He was like, ‘I’m in,'” Roberts said. “And at that point, I think it freed everyone up that if Clayton believed in him, let’s just do it.”

Wherever the team puts him defensively, Betts is a calm presence. That’s why Roberts was convinced that the car ride from O’Hare Airport to Wrigley Field would have motivated Betts more than a successful shortstop.

“I’m not only impressed with his mechanics, but also with his heart rate,” Roberts said. “Because if you’ve never done anything in the big league, you’d think there would be a little bit of anxiety. But with him, nothing. “

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