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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

Mookie Betts, American Quiet Hero

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The Boston Red Sox are the richest franchise in Major League Baseball by a pretty substantial margin. With the lucrative television contract and several other lucrative investments, they are arguably the most profitable, too. But with their star pitcher, Chris Sale, out of the series and their leader on offense, Mookie Betts, hitting well below his incredible regular season, will this year’s Boston team be worth more than the one that won it all in 2016?

Yes, the numbers show they are. Last year, the Red Sox finished only narrowly behind the Dodgers for home-field advantage and led in every statistical category that counted. In terms of wins, however, LA prevailed by two games. This year, with LA largely the home team, it seems likely to take the title. Betts, in his junior year at the University of Washington, had produced almost identical statistics as last year (with less home runs) and was making a solid argument for being the best player in the entire game (he’s not the best-all-around player, but that’s another debate).

Betts has had the best offensive season in baseball for two straight years. His offensive numbers this year have been completely staggering (see these numbers). His WAR, an impressive statistic that takes into account not only how many wins he adds but also how many home runs and RBIs he creates, for example, this year has been one of the best in history.

How do we know that Betts’ incredible run is less likely to come to an end this year, in the World Series or not? Last year, Betts batted .346 over the last 12 games of the regular season. With that performance, he captured the league’s batting title and the series MVP. In 2016, the game was won in the ninth inning, which meant that Betts had to overcome a terrible start (he had no extra-base hits in his first 28 at-bats against the Indians) to have a chance of being MVP.

The numbers do not make Betts less of a catch: he still has a chance. But there’s something about the history of recent years and the World Series, too. In 2004, Boston had already clinched the Series but lost Game 7 on the road to the Yankees. In 2011, the Red Sox came back from a 3-0 deficit to win in seven games against the Giants. Both times, the Red Sox were close to clinching the title without playing home games at Fenway Park.

Will Betts be a thorn in the Dodgers’ side in this series? That’s an unlikely scenario, especially given the fact that the Dodgers have such a well-oiled pitching machine on their side. (The team averages 2.1 wins per game at home, and 1.9 away from home, over the course of the regular season.) Betts’ defensive prowess could hurt the Dodgers. (The Dodgers led the National League in defensive runs saved, and the Red Sox led the AL.)

Still, Betts’ offensive exploits could drag his team one game closer to the World Series. If they win that, a team that had one superstar will have two. Will that impact Betts’ off-season decisions? Or his in-season negotiation?

Mookie Betts has long held out hope that he will be selected for the Baseball Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, a move that would likely be viewed as a bit of celebration by Red Sox fans. In the meantime, as great as he has been so far, he still has plenty of work to do.

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