Sports

From Gold Glove outfielder to shortstop learning on the fly? Mookie Betts has never been happier

LOS ANGELES — It’s 1 o’clock on a searing Saturday afternoon on May 13, three hours before the first pitch of a game between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Diego Padres, and Mookie Betts is already dripping sweat. He stands on the left side of the Dodger Stadium infield and peers toward home plate, then darts up the middle to snatch a ground ball. He spins, fires to first base, jogs back into the area of shortstop, and then suddenly he’s off again — ranging to his right, charging a chopper, making a backhanded play and completing another throw.

Before almost every one of his games as a Dodger, this has been his daily ritual. Betts, a star right fielder who will forever be a middle infielder at heart, takes upward of 100 ground balls at shortstop and second base, a routine that dates back to his days with the Boston Red Sox. It’s his way of maintaining athleticism, building arm strength and breaking up the monotony of a tedious season — but on this day, there’s a greater purpose.

Betts is preparing to make his fifth start at shortstop for the first-place Dodgers, the perennial juggernauts who have been scrambling at the sport’s most demanding position. Betts hadn’t played shortstop since his first full minor league season 11 years ago. And yet the man who navigates him through his pregame work, infield coach Dino Ebel, believes he’s already “better than average” at the major league level.

“This is something that is uncharted territory, really, for me, to see somebody going from the outfield, the best at his position in the game, to come up and play above-average shortstop in a major league game, in a big series,” Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said. “I just marvel at how he doesn’t get anxious or nervous taking this on. He has a way of just embracing it.”

Betts has made more than 30% of his starts at either shortstop or second base for the Dodgers this season and will probably continue to do so, unless an everyday shortstop is acquired before the end of July.

It is both a testament to Betts’ greatness and an indictment on his team’s depth at such a valuable position.

The Dodgers let Trea Turner depart via free agency last offseason and passed on all the other big-name shortstops available, partly because they wanted to try getting under the luxury tax threshold — they didn’t anyway — and partly because they wanted to give Gavin Lux an opportunity. Lux’s spring training ACL tear exposed a massive hole in the Dodgers’ vaunted player-development pipeline. Nobody was ready to come up and fill in. The Dodgers went into the season with a shortstop combination of Miguel Rojas and Chris Taylor and watched them combine for a .125/.200/.306 slash line through the first three weeks.

Betts, who famously moved from second base to the outfield in order to accommodate Dustin Pedroia in Boston, was a shortstop as a teenager at John Overton High School in Nashville, Tennessee, and has pined for opportunities to play the middle infield in Los Angeles. The Dodgers gave him 11 starts at second base from 2020 to 2022. But shortstop was never a consideration — until the middle of last month.

Lux was injured, Taylor was hurting, reinforcements were scant, and so Betts casually broached Roberts on the idea of helping out at shortstop. Within a couple of days, Roberts began to consider it. And when Rojas strained his hamstring on April 18, it became a necessity.

Betts was on paternity leave then, awaiting the arrival of his second child, but he subbed in at shortstop late on April 20 and 21 at Wrigley Field and handled two ground balls without incident. His first start was planned for April 23. Clayton Kershaw, who tends to induce a lot of grounders to the left side, was set to start, and Roberts wanted to get all three of his left-handed-hitting outfielders into the lineup against Chicago Cubs right-hander Marcus Stroman. Roberts sent Kershaw a text message revealing his plan and asking for approval. Kershaw wrote back in less than a minute.

Let’s do it.

Betts got four grounders hit in his direction that day — one up the middle, another slightly to his right and two others directly at him — and took care of them with ease. His next five ground balls over the course of three weeks went the same way. Then came his first error, in the third inning of Saturday’s game. Betts charged a two-hopper off the bat of speedy Fernando Tatis Jr. and threw so wide of first base that Freddie Freeman didn’t even bother stretching for it. But Tatis never scored, and Betts charged another grounder two innings later and handled it perfectly.

This, he believes, is where his growth shows up. These days, his mind is more at ease.

“As I’ve gotten older, I’m just trying to take on less stress and enjoy the game,” Betts said. “I’ve been playing it for so long, and I just want to enjoy it. I don’t want to stress about it.”

Getting there has been a process. Betts believes he played shortstop apprehensively in the early portion of his professional career, often afraid to make mistakes, and letting failure seep into his mind prematurely. He was unfairly hard on himself while navigating through his time with the Red Sox, despite a six-year run that included four Gold Gloves, three Silver Sluggers, an MVP and a World Series championship. Through his first three summers in L.A., he found himself “trying to live up to who he was.” It’s different now.

The 2023 season, Betts said, marks the first time he feels as if he is playing baseball with a carefree attitude, the type he believes has helped him embrace this part-time role at shortstop. He credits fatherhood, reaching his 30s, listening to audiobooks about positive thinking and heeding his wife’s advice about seeing the bigger picture.

“I’m just not the same person I was when I was 28. I’m not the same person I was when I was 29. I’ve got two kids, man, I’ve got a wife and I’ve got priorities,” Betts said. “I’m not saying baseball’s not a priority. But, you know, life — I’ve got life to attend to. It’s what I’ve become. You see how hard I work. I’m not not working hard. It’s that when the game starts, I’m not stressing. When I wake up in the morning, I’m not stressing. I’m just enjoying my time.”

Betts is in the midst of another one of his hot stretches, with five home runs and a .970 OPS in the month of May. His slash line as a shortstop or second baseman — he’s made seven appearances at short and 10 at second — sits at .320/.414/.680, and those who know him don’t see it as a coincidence. Baseball tends to come easily to Betts, regardless of whatever stress he used to tack onto it, and so he seeks stimulation wherever he can find it. It keeps him engaged. Returning to the middle infield — particularly shortstop, to him the more foreign and more demanding of the two — is currently providing it.

“If you say he can’t do something, he’s going to prove you wrong,” Ebel said. “He loves the challenge.”

Turner, now with the Philadelphia Phillies, said he believes Betts could be “as good as anybody” if he played shortstop on a regular basis. Turner used to watch the aggression with which Betts cut off base hits to prevent doubles and saw a middle infielder’s skill set translated to the corner outfield. It’s by design.

“That’s why I go in and go play short and go do things at short, because if you don’t use it you lose it,” Betts said. “Go be an athlete. And then when I go to right [field], I turn on all those athletic muscles and I can go catch those fly balls and do all those things. But if I just stood in right all the time, I might lose some of those things.”

Rojas and Taylor remain superior defenders to Betts but are nowhere near as dynamic offensively. With J.D. Martinez absorbing most of the time at designated hitter, Betts starting in a middle-infield spot — particularly shortstop, given the recent production of rookie second baseman Miguel Vargas — creates a path for Roberts to squeeze David Peralta, Jason Heyward and James Outman into the same lineup against some of the tougher right-handed pitchers.

It’s not ideal, but it’s working.

“He has certainly earned my trust,” Roberts said of Betts. “He enjoys it, and he’s good at it.”

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