Why the Dodgers Went All-In on Mookie Betts

Yes, Mookie Betts is a generational talent. But L.A. has had previous opportunities to open its checkbook. So why now?
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Before the Dodgers traded for Mookie Betts, their analytics staff and pro personnel department conducted a study to gauge the aging curve of such small outfielders with power. Betts is listed at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. His career slugging percentage is .519. They found nobody like him, not unless you count Mel Ott, who debuted 94 years ago and needed to hit baseballs just 259 feet to clear the Polo Grounds wall in the right field corner.

Upon trading for Betts from Boston, and watching him first in spring training and lately in summer camp, the Dodgers came to a similar conclusion about Betts that the statistical study yielded: there is nobody like Markus Lynn Betts, the outlier with the MLB initials and now the 12-year, $365 million extension. It blows away the previous record money given to a player less than six feet tall: $214 million to Prince Fielder.

Watching Betts each day, the Dodgers discovered he was an even better player and person than they knew. The test drive sold them before they left the lot. The Dodgers knew before Opening Day they could not let him get away.

“He’s everything you want,” said one Dodgers executive. “First of all, he’s a great athlete and a gifted hitter. Watching him day to day you appreciate what he can do. He has an extraordinary ability to track pitches and square them up and he makes incredibly quick yes/no decisions on swings. He is an excellent defender with the ability over time to play four different positions and play them well.

“He works hard, studies the game, helps young hitters, comes with a positive attitude every day … he’s been a joy to have around in every way. He’s just so impressive.”

Betts and the addition of the DH to the National League could make Los Angeles one of the most destructive offensive teams since the 1999 Indians. The irony to the Betts extension is that the Dodgers initially intended to drop such a ridiculous sum of money on pitching.

For six years under Andrew Friedman the club has trimmed its payroll, built the minor league system and avoided huge future payments. The Dodgers rank in the middle of the pack among teams in future payroll commitments. Friedman had never signed a player for more than $100 million. It was not that Friedman was averse to the big-ticket item. He was waiting for the right one.

The first choice was Gerrit Cole, a free agent last winter. But the Dodgers could not overcome Cole’s desire to pitch for the New York Yankees, his favorite team as a child and the team that once drafted him. So Los Angeles pivoted to Plan B, as in Betts.

Motivated by reducing their payroll under the luxury tax threshold, and wary that they could not re-sign Betts if he reached free agency, the Red Sox put him on the trade market. The Dodgers pounced. With Betts positioned as a rental piece–$27 million for one year–the price was low, with Alex Verdugo, a decent outfielder, as the main piece. The trade looks even better today.

The contract, signed in the middle of a pandemic amid reduced revenues, proved nothing about the upcoming free agent market–other than the reminder that baseball’s Hollywood star system remains in place. The true stars get paid. Mid-level players, especially those past 30, should still be very worried.

“This isn’t about the [upcoming] free agent market,” said one club executive. “You would have to believe that the market is going to be slowing down over the next year or so, like a lot of businesses.”

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Betts is an amazing success story, the kid from Tennessee who was an all-state bowler and was overlooked as a high school player because of his size and because he didn’t venture deeply into the showcase circuit. One day in the spring of 2011 a Red Sox scout pulled Betts out of his lunch period at Overton High in Nashville to take a baseball-specific acuity test on a laptop that then Boston general manager Theo Epstein had discovered through a Cambridge, Mass., tech firm. The program measured how quickly a hitter could make determinations about a pitch–its speed, spin and location. It was a high-tech program to measure a hitter’s decision-making skills. Should I swing or not? And when do you make that call? Epstein had tried it on his major league players in spring training, so he had a baseline of how quickly and well big leaguers processed information embedded in a pitch. When Betts took the test his results astounded Epstein. As a high school senior, Betts scored at a level equal to David Ortiz, Dustin Pedroia and the very best Red Sox hitters.

Betts remained so far off the showcase grid–and at 5-foot-9 he didn’t fit the mold scouts prefer–that Epstein was able to wait until the fifth round to select him. Betts went number 172 in the draft. It’s the Boston baseball equivalent of the Patriots drafting Tom Brady in the sixth round at 199. Now Betts is in Los Angeles and Brady is in Tampa Bay. The difference is the Dodgers own the prime years of Betts.

People often make the mistake of judging long-term deals by the back end of contracts. Teams do not hand them out thinking players will be impact players into their late 30s and beyond (i.e., Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, Robinson Canó, etc.). It is amortizing the prime years. It is bookkeeping with an eye on the competitive balance tax.

What kind of player will Mookie Betts be at 39? How will a 5-foot-9, 180-pound slugger age over the wear of 12 seasons? That involves much guesswork. It is less important than what the Dodgers know for certain today, especially after being around him: Mookie Betts is one of the five best players in the game and a definitive franchise cornerstone. This is true, too: his prime years will be played with the Los Angeles Dodgers surrounded by a deep core of young talent.