With apologies to Matt Olson, Freddie Freeman, and Corbin Carroll, the race for the NL MVP Award has primarily boiled down to 2 gamers: Ronald Acuña Jr. and Mookie Betts. It’s an extremely shut one, with the pair producing such comparable batting traces that they’re tied for the NL lead with a 169 wRC+. Betts has the sting in each the FanGraphs and Baseball Reference variations of WAR, Acuña has the sting in a number of counting stats, and every participant has added some distinctive further flavors into the combo.
For Acuña, these largely focus on his prolific baserunning. Aided by the brand new guidelines — notably the boundaries on pickoff throws — and unhindered by a drop in dash velocity within the wake of his 2021 ACL tear, he’s stolen 68 bases, the best whole within the majors since 2010. Along with his fortieth homer coming towards the Nationals on Friday, he has simply the fifth 40–40 season ever, and now essentially the most steals of any participant in that membership, surpassing Alex Rodriguez’s 46 from 1998 (to go together with 42 homers). With one week remaining, he wants two steals to turn out to be the primary participant ever to mix 40 homers and 70 steals in the identical marketing campaign, in what’s arguably the best power-speed combo season anyone has seen.
There’s actually worth to such an accomplishment, although we’re coming into the realm of intangibility. We’re already crediting the worth of his homers and steals throughout the context of the remainder of his offensive stat line, however issues like wOBA, wRC+, and WAR don’t inform us how a lot to care a few participant reaching round-numbered milestones like these, even when they’re with out precedent. Even much less clear-cut is the try to look at the extent to which Acuña’s baserunning has helped his teammates, primarily by giving them extra fastballs to hit. Colleague Esteban Rivera established that sure, gamers do see extra fastballs when he’s on first, however their performances towards these fastballs wasn’t uniformly higher. “Acuña is almost definitely serving to his teammates see extra heaters,” he concluded. “What they do with these pitches, although, is totally as much as them.”
Betts isn’t with out his personal cool counting stat achievements. His two-run double off Ross Stripling on Saturday night time gave him 105 RBIs out of the leadoff spot, a report (Acuña is third at 101). In the meantime, he’s hit 12 leadoff homers, one shy of the single-season report set by Alfonso Soriano in 2003, and his career-high 39 homers are two shy of the post-World Struggle II report for essentially the most by a participant listed at 5-foot-9 or shorter, at the moment held by Roy Campanella. However larger (if tougher to measure) impression he’s made is together with his sudden burst of Zobristian versatility: Within the wake of Gavin Lux tearing his proper ACL in late February, Betts has began 69 video games within the infield — 56 at second base and one other 12 at shortstop — in his most infield play in practically a decade.
Betts performed 14 video games at second base as a rookie with the Crimson Sox in 2014, after Dustin Pedroia suffered a season-ending harm, however added simply 15 extra from ’15 to ’22, a few of them just for a number of innings. He hadn’t performed shortstop professionally since 2013, after which simply 13 video games in Low-A and two innings within the Arizona Fall League. Regardless of his lack of latest expertise, the 30-year-old famous person — a six-time Gold Glove winner in proper discipline — has regarded like a pure from the outset.
To backtrack a bit, recall that after their 111-win workforce fizzled within the postseason, the Dodgers let shortstop Trea Turner and 15 different gamers depart in an exodus of free brokers final winter, then stayed out of the premium free-agent pool within the title of trimming payroll. They entered this season with Lux as their probably shortstop, backed up by Miguel Rojas, a 34-year-old defense-first veteran coming off a dismal 73-wRC+ season with the Marlins. Lux’s transfer to shortstop put second base within the palms of 23-year-old rookie Miguel Vargas, with Max Muncy bounced to 3rd base to interchange the departed Justin Turner, and Chris Taylor a part of the combo in an outfield that had misplaced Cody Bellinger. There the Dodgers have been hoping Trayce Thompson might proceed his late-2022 resurgence alongside going-on–26-year-old rookie James Outman, 34-year-old Jason Heyward, there on a minor league deal after being lower by the Cubs, and 35-year-old David Peralta, signed to a one-year deal.
Notably when the Dodgers appeared able to roll with Rojas because the common shortstop, all of it regarded atypically shaky. By way of our Depth Charts projections, we forecast the Dodgers for a second-place end within the NL West behind the Padres with simply 88 wins, their first preseason projection under 90 wins since we launched our Playoff Odds in 2014. Nonetheless, primarily based upon our Depth Charts, the lack of Lux solely projected to price the Dodgers about half a win. Right here’s a snapshot of how we forecast these positions as of the day Lux received injured (earlier than we made our taking part in time changes), after which once more by way of our Positional Energy Rankings simply earlier than Opening Day:
Dodgers Preseason Depth Charts Projections
|Second Basemen (Late Feb)||PA||WAR||Second Basemen (Late March)||PA||WAR|
|Miguel Vargas||413||1.9||Miguel Vargas||413||1.9|
|Chris Taylor||105||0.5||Mookie Betts||77||0.8|
|Michael Busch||63||0.2||Chris Taylor||77||0.3|
|Yonny Hernandez||35||0.1||Michael Busch||42||0.1|
|Miguel Rojas||35||0.1||Yonny Hernandez||35||0.1|
|Max Muncy||28||0.2||Miguel Rojas||28||0.1|
|Mookie Betts||21||0.2||Max Muncy||28||0.2|
|Gavin Lux||448||2.5||Miguel Rojas||448||2.1|
|Miguel Rojas||217||1.0||Chris Taylor||210||1.0|
|Chris Taylor||28||0.1||Yonny Hernandez||42||0.1|
|Mookie Betts||623||5.5||Mookie Betts||567||5.0|
|Jason Heyward||35||0.0||Jason Heyward||70||0.1|
|Chris Taylor||21||0.1||James Outman||42||0.1|
|James Outman||14||0.0||Chris Taylor||14||0.0|
|J.D. Martinez||7||0.0||J.D. Martinez||7||0.0|
Throughout the three positions, the lack of Lux and the elevated taking part in time for Rojas, Taylor, and Heyward dropped the whole projected WAR from 12.4 to 12.0. That’s hardly an insurmountable loss, although the distinction would have been magnified if Betts been projected for one thing nearer to the 303 PA he’s taken as an infielder given the replacement-level expectations for Heyward and the opposite non-Betts options in proper discipline.
It hasn’t unfolded that manner, however then projections aren’t future. By means of the primary two months of the season, Rojas was the weakest hyperlink among the many transferring components, hitting for only a 45 wRC+; Vargas (99), Taylor (102), Heyward (124), and Betts (136) have been extra productive. Heyward’s rebound notably emboldened supervisor Dave Roberts to play Betts within the infield greater than anticipated. By means of these first two months, he began at second 10 occasions and at shortstop six occasions — all with righties on the mound, to accommodate the lefty-swinging Heyward — and totaled 72 PA taking part in the center infield, practically as a lot as we had forecast for your entire season.
The Dodgers, who had gone simply 16–13 in March and April, spent all of Could atop the NL West, going 18–10. A 5–10 skid at the beginning of June knocked them out of first place — as far down as third, 4 video games out — and Vargas, after a sizzling begin to June, fell right into a deep funk, at one level going 2-for-44 with six walks. Betts, who began simply three video games at second from June 1 to 24, began six of the final 12 video games there earlier than the All-Star break, plus one other three at shortstop. For the reason that starting of that stretch, he’s performed extra infield than outfield.
On the break, the Dodgers optioned Vargas, who had sunk to a .195/.305/.367 (85 wRC+) line, to Triple-A Oklahoma Metropolis. He hasn’t returned, because the workforce opted to make use of his roster spots for buy-low veterans obtained forward of the commerce deadline. On July 25, Dodgers reacquired the versatile Enrique Hernández in a commerce with the Crimson Sox, and a day later added Amed Rosario from the Guardians. In impact, the latter has turn out to be Heyward’s platoon companion, taking part in second base towards lefties.
Mookie Betts Month-to-month Begins by Place
The transfer to taking part in extra infield has coincided with Betts’ upturn in offense. Since June 25, the purpose at which the tide actually turned, with 64% of his begins coming within the infield thereafter, he’s hit .362/.466/.681 for a significant league-high 206 wRC+, six factors higher than Shohei Ohtani (.318/.461/.706) and 24 factors higher than Acuña (.344/.426/.631, 182 wRC+). In different phrases, for 3 months Betts has been the perfect hitter in baseball whereas taking part in out of place as a rule. His 5.7 WAR in that span is 1.2 greater than the second-ranked Acuña and a couple of.2 greater than Ohtani on the offensive aspect. The Dodgers, who went simply 12–12 in June and 13–10 in July, blew the doorways off the remainder of the league in August, going 24–5, with Betts (.455/.516/.839, 264 wRC+ with 11 HR) going off the charts.
Right here’s a have a look at the Dodgers position-by-position splits for second base, shortstop, and proper discipline; I’ve omitted the gamers with fewer than 20 PA at every place, however their numbers are included within the totals:
Mookie Betts and Mates
All statistics via September 23. Gamers with 20 plate appearances or fewer at a place not proven however included in totals. Video games consists of all appearances, not simply begins.
With eight video games remaining (this information doesn’t embody Sunday’s recreation), the Dodgers have gotten 11.9 WAR from the three positions. However whereas the whole is principally on the cash from the projections, the distribution has been totally different. The take-home factors:
- Second base has been a wash regardless of Vargas’ rookie season primarily being a bust. Betts has achieved an distinctive job of propping up the Dodgers’ manufacturing on the keystone, liberating up Taylor to play elsewhere. To the extent that the defensive metrics from his 450 innings at second inform us something, the critiques are fairly constructive: 4 DRS, 2.0 UZR, -1 RAA.
- Shortstop has been an issue, as you’d anticipate from a workforce shedding its starter within the spring and relying upon mild hitters and castoffs for a lot of the taking part in time. Taylor, it ought to be identified, has hit a good .237/.323/.428 (105 wRC+) general however has struggled with the bat in his video games at quick, although his protection has been good.
- Proper discipline has been famous person degree whether or not Betts or Heyward has performed there. The latter has hit .268/.343/.482 in 356 PA general, with solely 26 coming towards righties. His 123 wRC+ is his highest full-season mark since his rookie season, the results of a simplified swing. I requested Rivera, who puzzled over the Heyward signing final December, to judge what he’s seen from the fitting fielder:
After I initially dove into his swing within the preseason, I couldn’t cease serious about how he and the Dodgers could set him up higher to manage his fast twitch. The mix of his lengthy arms and wiggly limbs usually made for a suboptimal entry into the hitting zone that regarded fairly uneven. In LA, he’s moved his lengthy arms away from his physique to create a quieter, extra direct load. In consequence, his entry is extra in keeping with much less room for error, however he can nonetheless profit from his fast twitch. It’s a simplification that has led to raised reciprocal actions and a logical turnaround — extra pulled line drives and fly balls on fastballs within the coronary heart of the plate.
So how does all of it add up? Whereas it’s true that Betts’ versatility set the Dodgers as much as put a greater bat within the lineup at proper discipline than that they had readily available at second base, we have now to credit score Heyward for rising to the event, as his manufacturing is a part of the explanation the workforce has gone 39–18 (.684) in these 57 video games Betts has began at second, and 10–2 (.833) in these video games at shortstop. We are able to actually credit score Betts for outdoing his 5.8-WAR preseason projection and for making it potential for the Dodgers to achieve floor elsewhere, however the credit score for the execution belongs to others. That’s to not low cost the worth of a famous person setting an instance for his workforce by taking over such a problem, however he wasn’t swinging the bat for Heyward.
Nonetheless, it’s a compelling characteristic of the story of this race, which at this level is a useless warmth by way of the superior stats:
Ronald Acuña Jr. vs Mookie Betts
Betts has the benefit in each flavors of WAR due to the bump in positional adjustment that he will get from his versatility in addition to his above-average glovework; Acuña’s protection has drawn blended critiques (0 DRS, -2.1 UZR, -8 RAA). Even on condition that Betts has stolen far fewer bases, Acuña’s edge in on the basepaths solely quantities to about two runs as a result of he’s been caught 13 occasions (Betts three), and the developments on hits and outs has narrowed the hole. When you’re taking a look at Win Likelihood Added, the sting goes to Acuña, 6.51–5.53 (first and third within the majors, respectively), however for Championship WPA (by way of Baseball Reference), it’s Betts, 3.0–2.5 (second and third within the NL).
It’s a race for which there’s no apparent winner, and actually, I’m not even certain which manner I’d forged my poll if I had one. Nonetheless, I think that Acuña’s early soar and the simpler statistical hook of 40–70 (or a minimum of 40–65, ought to he fall quick), even in a yr the place stolen bases have elevated by 41%, will resonate extra with voters than the fairly nuanced story of Betts’ positional flexibility, notably on condition that the previous has achieved it for the league’s finest workforce. Each gamers need to be MVPs. It’s a disgrace that there might be just one award at hand out.