Mookie Betts Dodges Free Agencyon July 22, 2020 at 10:47 pm

Mookie Betts Dodges Free Agency

One of the great unknowns in this season of great unknowns is what 2020 means for salaries. Not 2020 salaries, mind you: we’ve already figured that one out, give or take some J.A. Happ corner cases and Jacoby Ellsbury grievances. This offseason, however, is an entirely different ball of yarn. Will teams commit as much money to free agency and arbitration this year as they did last year, knowing all the while that fans in stands might be an iffy proposition in 2021? Heck, even with fans back in 2021, would teams avoid free agency to recoup the losses, real or imagined, that they suffered in 2020?

Today, the first new data point is in: per reporting by Jeff Passan, the Dodgers have signed Mookie Betts to a massive extension, totaling $392 million over 13 years. His 2020 arbitration salary ($27 million, of which he’ll receive a prorated $10 million) is in that mix; the new part of the deal is 12 years and $365 million. Per Ken Rosenthal, the deal will include salary deferrals totaling $115 million. Also per Rosenthal, there’s some financial tomfoolery on the front end; a $65 million signing bonus that confers some tax benefits and a salary structure that pays him only $17.5 million per year in 2021 and 2022, shielding the Betts from any loss due to prorating of salaries over the next two years should something unforeseen happen. Depending on how you feel about the specifics of Mike Trout‘s extension and deferred money in general, it’s either the biggest or second-biggest contract in MLB history, and it takes the biggest name out of the upcoming offseason’s free agency market.

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that money will flow like wine this offseason. The contract Betts signs doesn’t have all that much bearing on what a mid-tier veteran will get, or whether teams will be more aggressive about non-tendering arb-eligible players to save money. Top tier free agents have hardly been the ones getting pinched in free agency in the past five years.

The biggest point of interest from an economic side, in my opinion, is the length of the deal. Everyone knows that Mookie Betts is wildly valuable. Still, I wondered if he might be forced to accept a short but lucrative contract while teams sorted through the long-term fallout of the COVID-19 pandemic. Will stadiums fill to quite the same capacity ever again? Likely, but it’s no longer a certainty. Owners off-lay risk onto players wherever possible; short-term deals leave the risk of a fall in baseball revenue squarely on the guy taking the field every day. They also, of course, give the player upside should baseball’s economic fortunes improve, but that’s not at the forefront of anyone’s mind at the moment.

Forget about the numbers for a second, though. Mookie Betts just signed a 12-year deal with the Dodgers. Incredible! If there’s been one part of the financial pool the Dodgers have rarely waded into, it’s the gargantuan contract to a bona fide star. Sure, they signed Clayton Kershaw, Justin Turner, and Kenley Jansen to extensions, but only Kershaw’s initial 2014 contract exceeded $100 million in total outlay. Since then, and aside from a failed attempt to sign Gerrit Cole this offseason, they’ve focused on extracting value from arb-eligible players and medium-sized extensions and free agents signings.

That’s all true. Privately, I’m sure the Dodgers would still prefer to operate that way in general. But there simply aren’t chances to sign someone like Mookie Betts anymore. Manny Machado occupied the same general stratosphere as Betts when he signed. Anthony Rendon was older, Bryce Harper worse, and Cole remains a pitcher. ZiPS projects Betts to be one of the very best players in the game, year in and year out, until at least 2025, at which point it thinks he’ll age into being merely very good:

A thing that you might think, upon seeing these projections, is that we’re underselling Betts. After all, he’s been worth an average of 7 WAR over his six full seasons. Does ZiPS hate him or something?

Not at all. ZiPS considers Betts to be one of the very best players in baseball. It simply doesn’t think that anyone not named Mike Trout is a good bet to sustain Betts’ level of production. Here are all the players ZiPS projects to beat his output over 2021 and 2022:

Trout is Trout, but past him, Betts is in a rough seven-way tie (with Cody Bellinger just off the list at 11.3) for the second-best player in baseball, or a six-way tie for third if you want to give Bregman a tier of his own. Drafting well and developing well can give you an edge, and they can turn players from above-average to elite. But at some point, you have to get lucky and happen upon someone with the raw stuff to be a star. The Red Sox made Betts a better hitter, but they didn’t make him Mookie Betts; they simply added polish to a generational talent. Only a few players every decade turn out as well as Betts, despite teams’ best efforts to replicate greatness.

Under Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers have been one of the very best teams in baseball at accruing small advantages. They pick up Chris Taylor for cheap, find Max Muncy, sign Rich Hill and Alex Wood, and the next thing you know, they’ve got four All-Stars. They’re also excellent at developing players; Walker Buehler looks like the very best version of himself, Justin Turner went from the scrap heap to the All-Star game, and Gavin Lux has steadily climbed the prospect ranks.

Excel in these areas, and you can build a sort of perpetual motion machine. The Dodgers always have above-average players on cheap deals, because they’re one of the best in the business at finding and nurturing them. They have a huge budget, too, which gives them extra advantages. If a player develops better than expected, there’s always room to sign them to an extension. If the team needs a spare outfielder, they can sign AJ Pollock. If he doesn’t work out, it’s nothing more than a sunk cost; there’s so much value oozing out of every pore of the baseball operations division that a bad contract here or there hardly matters.

As great as that sounds, however, there are limitations to the model. Upgrade your bench all you want, deploy platoons of average players to approximate an All-Star, spin straw into gold with a wondrous pitching development program — you still can’t will your way into finding a superstar. The Dodgers have been fortunate there of late between Buehler and Bellinger, but they can hardly expect Lux and Dustin May to make the same leap. Teams can help superstars reach their potential, but the credit largely resides with the player. Cody Bellinger isn’t great because he’s a Dodger; he’s great because he’s Cody Bellinger, in much the same way that Betts was aided, but not created, by the Red Sox.

Without those keystone players to anchor a roster, the Dodgers would run the risk of becoming a West Coast version of the Rays, or a deluxe version of the Cardinals; appetizing depth everywhere, but no concentration of value to put them over the top from good to great. If you could give all of your playing time to above average players, you could construct a 90-win team every season. To reach the rarefied air of upper-90s win totals, avoiding holes isn’t enough; you have to get disproportionate value out of at least a few roster spots.

Maybe Bellinger and Buehler were enough to cover that eventuality. But in adding Betts, the Dodgers have shored up the greatest risk to their NL West hegemony. Even if Lux and May don’t pan out, even if two of Buehler, Betts, and Bellinger fade, even if Kershaw doesn’t rebound to his former self, they’ll still have a generational superstar to anchor their squad of strivers and out-performers. Betts is the best bet out of all of them to maintain that status, which makes him the most important Dodger, and thus the most important to keep on the team.

The financial terms of the deal feel about right. ZiPS has a financial engine buried down deep in the code, and it sees this contract as worth $367 million, incredibly close to the $375 million he’ll receive after accounting for 2020. The last four years of the deal are the price the Dodgers pay to keep the average annual value reasonable; think of them as a delayed signing bonus, four years and $120 million for what will likely be a part-time or bench player.

In that sense, it mirrors Bryce Harper’s contract; the money is the important part, not the years or annual value. Like Harper, Betts will probably never sign another contract for the remainder of his career. The Dodgers get an under-market superstar now and will carry some dead salary later; given their ability to churn out extra value from cheap players, however, the dead salary is probably of little concern to them at present.

All this team building and financial talk aside, Mookie Betts is an absolute delight to watch. He’s one of the best players on the field in an immediately identifiable way. He’s spectacularly confident, uncannily smooth on the bases and in the field; he plays like he spent the last three days rehearsing his routes and jumps while everyone else is seeing the script for the first time.

At the plate, his dominance is almost startling. His plate discipline gives him a high floor — walk 10.2% of the time while striking out only 12.8% of the time, as Betts has in his major league career, and it’s nearly impossible to be bad. He’s a .301 hitter with a .374 OBP despite a pedestrian .314 BABIP; even if he hit for no power at all, that would be a well above-average batting line.

Of course, that’s not all he does. He’s a power hitter, too, which feels somehow wrong coming from his 5-foot-9 frame. It’s not a brute force brand of power, but rather easy coordination that explodes into barreled line drives left and right. Looking at his Statcast metrics is almost comical; he’s in the 91st percentile for hard-hit rate, 97th for xwOBA, 98th for xBA, and 94th for xSLG. Simply put, he’s not lucking into his hits.

If there’s one place he could improve his offensive game, it’d be by becoming even more selective at the plate. His power, like that of his small-but-mighty counterpart Bregman, comes from getting his bat around on inside pitches:

ISO/BIP is a mouthful of a statistic, but it measures how many extra bases Betts accrues per ball in play. In essence, his hot zone is the entire inside half of the plate. His swing decisions, on the other hand, are largely symmetrical:

Swinging at more inside pitches doesn’t come without a cost. It entails taking more strikes away and swinging at more balls just off the plate inside. Do it the wrong way, and the costs in strikeouts and walks might exceed the power gains. And why fix what isn’t broken? A 138 wRC+, Betts’ 2019 tally, from a Gold Glove outfielder with elite baserunning is a heck of a bird in the hand.

But I wouldn’t rule it out. Throughout his career, Betts has shown a talent for using his preternatural athleticism to add new skills that talent evaluators never projected. The Dodgers have made an industry out of coaxing more power out of hitters. Mookie with more juice — 2018 Mookie reincarnate — is certainly a possibility.

At the end of the day, I believe this deal is a win for everyone involved. Betts gets the financial windfall he deserves as one of the best players in the league. The Dodgers get a foundational player, a way to focus all the efficiencies and bargains they pick up elsewhere into a year-in, year-out juggernaut. Dodgers fans get to see an outfield of Betts and Bellinger in cavernous Dodgers Stadium, a modern-day death to flying things. The MLBPA is a winner, too: they surely feared that COVID might usher in an era of short contracts for everyone, stars included.

The only losers in all of this? The Red Sox, and only indirectly. If this was what it took to secure Betts’ services, they should have paid the piper. Their initial offer was almost comically team-friendly; the AAV of a long-term deal and the years of a short-term deal. It ended up roughly $100 million short of this extension, which Betts will earn in his age 36-39 seasons. Given that no one projects to sign a $100 million deal at 36, it’s clear the Dodgers paid up a little, perhaps by $50 million after accounting for what he might otherwise make in those years.

What did the Red Sox’s hesitance to pony up that extra money get them, assuming Betts was willing to stay in Fenway if the money worked out? Some years of Alex Verdugo, a dash of Jeter Downs, and the abiding hope that one of Xander Bogaerts or Rafael Devers will develop into the player they had in Betts. If that happens for them, great! They’ll still need to pay to keep them in Boston; Bogaerts has an opt-out after 2022 and Devers enters arbitration next year.

Building around a superstar isn’t cheap. If you want to compete every year, however, and you have the requisite financial wherewithal, a Mookie Betts is the best possible money your team could spend. It should be no surprise that the Dodgers, the team that perhaps best takes advantage of its monetary resources to create success on the field, came to the same conclusion. I’d say the NL West would never be the same, but it probably will be: another run of Dodger dominance feels inevitable now.

This post has been updated to add contract details.

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