History is important in baseball for more than nostalgia. It also helps inform huge investments. Predicting how players will age using the Venn diagram circles of age, size, position, home ballpark, injury, mechanics and past performance is both an art and science.
Baseball finds comfort in its “comps.” For instance, Mike Trout is Mickey Mantle, Bryce Harper is Reggie Jackson and Zack Greinke is Mike Mussina. Good luck trying to find someone quite like Mookie Betts, the inimitable Boston rightfielder who is very available by trade today or by free agency after the season.
At least one team recently undertook just such an internal study of Betts. Nothing relevant came back. Betts is a terrific baserunner, a defensive wizard and a rock of dependability. Over the past five years he is fourth in the American League in games played.
Here’s what sets him apart: Betts, 27, is listed at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. At this age, Betts is the greatest small power hitter since Mel Ott, who was born in 1909. It takes quite the imagination to find much precedent in Ott, who debuted 94 years ago at the Polo Grounds with a distance of just 258 feet down the rightfield line.
“He’s small,” said one executive who has searched for Betts comps. “It’s the one thing that makes you wonder a little bit. Players typically rely more on size and strength as they age to the mid-30s and less on fast-twitch muscles. But he has such off-the-charts hand-eye coordination it’s easy to imagine him years from now with a high on-base and the quality of his at-bats holding up. He controls the three dimensions of the strike zone as well as any hitter today.
“I guess you could say Joe Morgan was one of the greatest small players. But he played second base. This is an outfielder who slugs.”
Betts already has slugged .500 more times (three) than Morgan did his entire career (two).
Of the top 27 contracts handed out in baseball history, only one has been given to a player less than six feet tall: Prince Fielder at No. 17–and he weighed 275 pounds. Betts just might wind up No. 2 on that list, between Harper and Trout.
The projected cost and performance of Betts is one reason why the Dodgers and Padres are willing, if not eager, to take Betts for one year at $27 million. An extension attached as a condition of any trade is unlikely, one team source said, because Boston doesn’t want to put its star player in limbo and because such a huge contract is difficult to pull off so quickly when the acquiring team has no history with the player.
“One year at 27 brings a lot more clubs in,” said the source.
The Red Sox should be playing out the year with Betts because they are a playoff contender with him. But as the Dodgers and Yankees have done in recent years, they are motivated to reset their luxury tax rate. They would need to cut $22.4 million from their payroll to slide under the $208 million threshold.
Trading Betts without getting below that mark makes no sense, which means they can take back no more than a net $4.6 million if they don’t send other players with Betts. (Wil Myers counts $13.8 million toward the tax, so the Padres would need to buy down that figure.)
Moreover, a trade of Betts became more likely because the firing of manager Alex Cora, which came four months after the firing of general manager Dave Dombrowski, pushed the Red Sox more toward transition mode.
With Betts, Boston is following the blueprint Arizona used to trade Paul Goldschmidt with one year of control. The Diamondbacks received two major-league ready young players (pitcher Luke Weaver and catcher Carson Kelly), a minor league infielder (Andy Young) and a draft pick. Arizona won 85 games last season, a three-game improvement. The price for Betts, the better player, is higher.
San Diego has a loaded farm system (keep an eye on catcher Luis Campusano) and is desperate to be relevant under owner Ron Fowler, who in seven seasons never has fielded a team that won more than 77 games or finished closer to first place than 16 games. Los Angeles, as it proved throughout free agency, is content with its roster and five-year outlook. Betts, however, is the kind of great player, like Gerrit Cole, that is tempting the Dodgers to make the big move.
Betts is a difference maker. In an industry that has come to over-value “controllable years”–i.e., future wins over current ones–Betts provides an opportunity to win now that only a handful of players can match.
For 2020, a club doesn’t have to worry about a 5-foot-9 outfielder holding up into his mid-30s. They are getting the prime of a player whose historical uniqueness is astonishing.
Among all players no taller than 5'9'' in the past hundred years, Betts’s adjusted OPS through age 26 ranks third (minimum 500 games)–and the best in the past 85 years. The list:
Highest OPS+ Through Age 26, Players 5'9'' or Shorter Since 1920
1. Mel Ott*
2. Paul Waner*
3. Mookie Betts
T4. Enos Slaughter*
T4. Ross Youngs*
6. Tim Raines*
7. Yogi Berra*
*Hall of Famer
His 139 homers at this height and age are second only to Ott. The list:
Most Home Runs Through Age 26, Players 5'9'' or Shorter Since 1920
1. Mel Ott*
2. Mookie Betts
3. José Ramírez
4. Iván Rodríguez*
5. Yogi Berra*
Only eight outfielders this small ever hit that many homers in their entire careers, not just through age 26.
When I first saw Betts I said he had the fastest hands I’d seen since Manny Pacquiao. In an era of soaring velocity, he is among the best fastball hitters on the planet. His hands are so fast that Betts loves to hit the ball in front of the plate, not deep as most high-average hitters prefer. That is why Fenway Park is the perfect home for Betts.
Because of the proximity of the Green Monster, which can turn fly outs to left into extra bases, Fenway rewards righthanded hitters who hit the ball out front (Nomar Garciaparra, Carlton Fisk, Dustin Pedroia) and lefthanded hitters who let the ball get deep (Wade Boggs, Rafael Devers). Betts’s OPS at Fenway is 72 points higher than on the road and his BABIP is 38 points higher. He has hit 59% of his doubles at home.
He is a deadly pull power hitter. Over his career Betts slugs .982 when he pulls the ball (with about two-thirds of his homers), .514 when it hits it up the middle, and just .308 when he goes the other way.
What should the Padres or Dodgers expect from Betts if they trade for him? A bit less power. Petco Park played as a more neutral field last season, but if you look at the five-year sample there is no doubt that a righthanded pull hitter would prefer to hit at Fenway. Here is the expected slugging for righthanded hitters in Boston, San Diego and Los Angeles from 2015-19:
Expected Slugging by Righthanded Hitters, 2015-19
You still would be talking about an elite player–maybe with a few less doubles. Goldschmidt, for example, in leaving Arizona for St. Louis, posted the lowest slugging percentage of his career (.486). But the Cardinals are thrilled to have him.
“Mookie Betts is one of the five best players in the game,” an assistant GM said. “When you have an opportunity to add a star player for one year, any team could use that kind of player. His hands are so quick he’s still going to hit at a high level in any park and give you elite defense and baserunning.
“The unknown may be down the road. You just don’t have many guys to compare him to. But one year at 27? I think it’s probably not going to happen, just because most deals this big don’t get done. And Boston doesn’t have to move him. They can wait until July if they don’t get what they want. But this is the kind of player you rarely get to acquire. He’s why you consider trading prospects.”