Mookie Betts Is Building a Case for Cooperstownon August 18, 2020 at 4:10 pm

Mookie Betts Is Building a Case for Cooperstown

It’s a lousy time to be the Red Sox these days, running an American League-worst 6-16 record while allowing over six runs per game. Chris Sale and Eduardo Rodriguez are out for the year, Rafael Devers and J.D. Martinez aren’t generating anything close to their usual firepower while much of the lineup wheezes, and 3,000 miles away, Mookie Betts is off to an MVP-caliber start with his new team, the Dodgers.

On Monday, Betts continued his early-season rampage, homering for the fifth time in five games. This time it was a leadoff shot against the MarinersJustin Dunn:

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That was the 21st leadoff home run of Betts’ career, a total that’s tied for seventh since 2014, his first year in the majors; George Springer leads with 36. It was Betts’ ninth homer of the season, which would have tied him for the National League lead with Fernando Tatis Jr. if the Padres prodigy hadn’t hit two against the Rangers (the second of which broke the Internet and the game’s insufferable unwritten rules). The 27-year-old right fielder is hitting .319/.374/.681 with 1.6 WAR, tied with Brandon Lowe for third in the majors behind Tatis and Mike Yastrzemski (both 1.8).

Last Thursday, while his former team was losing so badly to the Rays that they used both catcher Kevin Plawecki and infielder Jose Peraza on the mound, Betts homered three times against the Padres. It wasn’t just any three-homer game, either — and not just because his first homer, off Chris Paddack, came on a pitch off the plate and away (a rarity Ben Clemens broke down on Friday). It was the sixth three-homer game of Betts’ career, which tied the major league record:

There are some prodigious home run hitters on that list; four of the 17 players above hit at least 600 in their careers, while two more are in the 500s and three in the 400s. Betts, on the other hand, is still two homers shy of 150, and yet there he is at the top alongside Sosa (609 homers in 18 seasons) and Mize (359 homers in 15 seasons, a total suppressed by his losing three prime seasons to World War II). He’s been helped a bit by playing in a homer-heavy era, and by Fenway Park as well, in that he’s the only player with three three-homer games there, as many as Nomar Garciaparra and Ted Williams put together.

The fact that Betts unlocked that achievement while still in his age-27 season, where Mize and Rodriguez needed until their late 30s, for example, testifies not just to his talent but to his precociousness. Consider this: less than a month into his seventh major league season, before he’s reached even the most rudimentary milestones such as 1,000 hits or 200 homers, he’s already surpassed the seven-year peak of the average Hall of Fame right fielder. With 2.0 bWAR in 23 team games — a crisp 14.1-WAR pace over 162 games, by the way, and did I mention that he didn’t even bat in two of those games due to an inflamed middle finger? — he’s totaled 43.8 WAR in his career. The average Hall of Fame right fielder totaled 42.4 WAR in his best seven seasons. In other words, he needed roughly two weeks of this season to get there. By the way, Betts’ rookie season was a 52-gamer that began when he was called up by the Red Sox on June 29, 2014, meaning that two of the seven seasons in that seven-year total cover just 74 games.

Now, all of this is a bit ridiculous in that we might be 20 years from the day when Betts stands on the dais in Cooperstown in front of tens of thousands of fans, but if I can track Mike Trout‘s progress — he reached the JAWS standard for center fielders in May 2018, his eighth season, and upon debuting this year satisfied the ballot’s 10-year qualification as well — then I can track Betts’. Even though he’s got further to go to turn his election into a likelihood, he already is in the class picture for the highest WAR (in this case, the Baseball-Reference version) through his seventh season:

Not a bad list! Betts actually entered the season ranked seventh among players through their first six seasons, but has fallen because, well, we’re peeking again after just three and a half weeks more play, that while knowing he’s going to be at a disadvantage anyway given this 60-game season. Regardless, twenty of the top 25 players in bWAR through their seventh seasons are in the Hall of Fame, and the rest besides Betts belong there; active or retired, they’re now above the JAWS standards at their positions and have plenty of other credentials in their favor. The blue cells in the table above highlight the fact that through seven seasons, those players had yet to exceed what’s now the peak standard at their respective positions — not surprisingly, as that’s a very tall order — though all of them eventually got there.

It’s select company, and for an alternative that adjusts for the reality that like Betts, some of those other players had short seasons among their first seven — for example, Cobb played in just 41 games as a rookie in 1905, Mays played just 34 games in ’52 before entering the military, and Schmidt began his career with a 13-game cup of coffee in ’72 — I’ve provided each player’s bWAR per 650 plate appearances, the rankings for which you can see by sorting that column. By that measure, Betts is ninth all time.

Betts’ strong position owes to the fact that he’s already put up two seasons with at least 9.0 bWAR: 9.5 in 2016, and 10.6 in ’18. The latter of those — compiled in a year in which he played just 136 game due to an abdominal strain — is an eyelash ahead of Trout’s career-high 10.5, set in 2012 and tied in ’16. In his five full seasons, Betts’ lowest bWAR is 6.1. He’s done this despite being an excellent but not always elite hitter; his 186 OPS+ from 2018 is 52 points higher than any other season; by wRC+, the tale is nearly the same, with 185 that year and 136 his next-best not including this year’s sizzling start.

What sends Betts’ value off the charts is his elite defense. He totaled 30 DRS in both 2016 and 17, and has 118 since his arrival in 2014, second only to Kevin Kiermaier‘s 131. Considering only his time in right field, his 102 DRS leads runner-up Jason Heyward‘s 85, and in about 800 fewer innings. Sports Info Solutions’ Mark Simon explained Betts’ high DRS totals in a piece for The Athletic in April 2019:

In 2016, he led all players at the position in getting more outs than average on balls hit to the deepest part of right field. Then in 2017, he led in that stat on balls hit to the shallowest part of right field.

In 2018, he was close to equally as good at both in his MVP season.

But there’s plenty more to Betts’ game. His arm has saved five runs in the last three seasons. And he has five home-run-robbing catches, which were worth another seven runs saved.

Betts also avoids mistakes. In the last three seasons, our video scouts have dinged him only three times for bobbling a ball after a base hit. The average fielder, given Betts’ playing time, would have had a dozen such miscues. That by itself is worth four runs.

For what it’s worth Betts also leads all outfielders in UZR since his arrival with 76.0, 9.5 more than Kiermaier; limited to right field, he’s got 72.5 to Heyward’s 60.1. As UZR is the defensive input for FanGraphs’ version of WAR, his total of 38.8 isn’t quite as exceptional compared to how he stacks up via bWAR.

Anyway, back to bWAR, because Betts didn’t debut until the ripe old age of 21, he’s at a comparative disadvantage in the “Through Age 27” sweepstakes, ranking 30th all-time. Ten of the top 12 on the leaderboard, starting with Trout (72.8), all debuted in their age-18 or -19 seasons, with the other two (Aaron and Vaughan) doing so in their age-20 seasons. Among those who debuted in their age-21 seasons, Betts is fourth behind Pujols, Bonds, and DiMaggio, the details of which you can see in the previous table. He does have time to improve his standing; he’s 2.0 WAR — which suddenly feels achievable this year given his hot start — out of 25th, and 2.3 WAR from surpassing DiMaggio.

Where might Betts end up? We can get a rough estimate using his ZiPS projections both for the remainder of the season and for the rest of his career, as Dan Szymborski ran the numbers on the occasion of Betts signing his 12-year, $365 million extension in late July. His current rest-of-season projection for 1.4 WAR would take his seven-season total to 45.2, inching past Mathews for 15th above and 11th among right fielders in peak, between Reggie Jackson (46.8) and Larry Walker (44.7). His ZiPS projection for the duration of his contract adds a modest 34.0 WAR over the next 12 seasons — the back end of that deal won’t be pretty — for a career total of 79.2, which would rank eighth all-time between a pair of Tigers, Al Kaline (92.8) and Sam Crawford (75.3). The first two of those projected seasons, for 5.9 WAR in 2021 and 5.6 in ’22, would further boost his peak score to 51.1 by replacing this year and his 2014 season (2.3 WAR) among his best seven; that’s between Shoeless Joe Jackson (52.4) and Kaline (48.8). His projected JAWS of 65.1 would split the distance between Kaline and Jackson:

Amazing. Note that the ZiPS projection doesn’t even account for the ripple effect of what Betts’ 2020 performance to date does for his long-term outlook. It’s likely fairly minor, and I’m sure Szymborski will spend the winter tinkering with how much to weigh this shortened season in his long-term projections, but as you can see, a normal career progression suggests that Betts is headed for Flavor Country.

He’s still got a long ways to go on the more traditional merits, but Betts has already checked a few key boxes when it comes to Hall of Fame credentials: an MVP award, a championship, and a batting title to go with his four All-Star appearances and four Gold Gloves. It’s going to be a blast watching him fill out that resume.

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