Mookie Betts might be the smallest player to compete in the Home Run Derby.
It could also be the most apathetic.
Betts, the Los Angeles Dodgers star who heads into Monday’s eight-player bracket tournament in Seattle as the No. 3 seed, doesn’t want to participate in the Derby. He’s not shy about saying it either. He’s only participating because his wife, Brianna, thought he would look good on a résumé that includes an MVP award, two World Series titles, five Silver Sluggers, six Gold Gloves and seven All-Star Game appearances.
“She said, ‘You did everything you wanted to do in baseball,'” Betts recalled. “‘The only thing you’ve never done is the Derby.'”
The only problem: Betts says he doesn’t stand a chance.
“Let’s face it,” he said, “I’m not a power guy. Do I have some home runs? Sure.”
Mookieis told on the afternoon of Independence Day, You lead the Dodgers in home runs. you are already 23 [it’s actually 26 now]. He may have his fourth 30-homer season before the start of August.
“Yes,” he said, “but they all go 382 feet.”
Baseball-Reference.com lists Betts at 5-foot-9, 180 pounds. By the site’s unofficial measurements, no one has ever competed in the Derby at 5-9 or less. and 180 pounds or less. A couple of notable 5-9 players participated, Miguel Tejada, who won it in 2004, and Iván Rodríguez, who reached the final in 2005, but they were heavier, stronger, able to generate power more efficiently, and gifted of freedom. of poorly made balls that he still carried.
Betts doesn’t have that luxury. His average home run distance this season, 397 feet, ranks 168th out of 264 players. Five of his seven Derby competitors (Julio Rodríguez, Pete Alonso, Adley Rutschman, Luis Robert Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the last of whom he will face in Round 1) are at least five inches taller and 40 pounds. heavier. Triggering bonus time by hitting two home runs of at least 440 feet seems next to impossible, which means Betts will likely have to beat significantly bigger men in a power contest with 30 fewer seconds at his disposal.
bets — famous among his teammates for his harsh self-criticism, a trait some believe helped propel him to greatness — he has frequently and openly lamented the circumstances of the past few days. His fellow Dodger JD Martinez quickly got tired of hearing it.
“You have what they don’t have,” Martínez told him earlier last week.
“That?” Betts responded with a sidelong glance.
“Bat to ball”.
Martinez, who helped drain some of Betts’ power when the two first teamed up in Boston, believes that others will inevitably be affected by attempts to pulverize pitches. He wants Betts to focus solely on catching baseballs barrel-front and barely getting them over T-Mobile Park’s left-field fence, which is 331 feet from the line but can extend to 378 feet at the end. space.
“‘Your adrenaline is going to take over,'” Martinez said he told Betts. “‘All you have to do is play catch. Catch it, catch it, repeat, repeat, repeat. That’s all you have to do. Don’t try to hit the ball 700 feet because then you’re going to suck.” “
The last time the 30-year-old Betts entered a home run-hitting competition was more than two decades ago, at age 8. He was the smaller kid, but he made solid contact consistent enough to finish in second place. Eleven years later, in 2012, he was 19 with the Boston Red Sox’s Class A short-season Lowell Spinners, weighing 155 pounds with barely any muscle and not hitting a home run in 251 at-bats. He remembered jumping the fence only once.
“Double one,” Betts said. “I remember that.”
It prompted Betts to seek out former football player Deon Giddens and follow a strict weight training regimen to help unlock the strength to drive the shots. Betts hit 15 home runs at both Class A levels the following summer and, after breaking into the majors in 2014, he hit 31 home runs at the highest level in 2016, finishing second in AL MVP voting. His numbers dropped the following year, his batting average dropping from .318 to .264. He then he met Martinez.
When Martinez joined the Red Sox in 2018, he had saved his career by adopting the pitch angle principles of Craig Wallenbrock and his protégé, current Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc. The Red Sox wanted to renew their hitting philosophy and wanted Martinez to take Betts under his wing. Betts was open to feedback. Martínez had no qualms about giving it to him.
“I mean it was the first, second day of spring [training]” Betts said. “JD got there, we talked, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Bro, you’ve got really good hands. But your swing is rubbish.'”
Betts had what Martinez described as a cross-body swing that ended low, forcing him to throw off-speed pitches on the ground instead of lifting them into the air. Martinez compared Betts finishing his backswing and meeting up with someone galloping on a horse. He constantly reminded him of this and, along with former Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers, he incorporated drills that had Betts heading for pitches, dropping his hands before contact and finishing high on follow-through.
Betts won the AL MVP Award in 2018, racking up 32 home runs and slashing .346/.438/.640. He established himself as Mike Trout’s closest rival as the best player in the game, with incredible speed, dynamic defense and elite bat-to-ball skills, but also uncommon power.
Betts is now on pace to end his age-30 season with more than 250 career home runs. Among players listed by Baseball-Reference at 5-9 or less and 180 pounds or less, only Mel Ott (369) had more by then. Jimmy Rollins (146), Hank Thompson (144) and José Altuve (133) are next on the list, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
“It’s physics,” Martinez said when asked to describe how Betts generates power. “If you look at his home runs, where does he hit it? Right over the fence, in left field. He’s got a great hit to the ball, hits the ball in the barrel, swings a 33-ounce bat this many miles.” per hour, and he’s just catching it in the barrel. That’s all. Hard to do. Not everyone can do it. It is the same reason why José Altuve can do it. … I think Altuve has a little more juice than him, and he uses his legs and can go everywhere on the field. Mook can too but he has to hit it juuuuusto good.”
Clayton McCullough is committed to doing everything possible to help you. The Dodgers’ first base coach will throw to Betts during the Home Run Derby, just as he has done during batting practice every day this season, and he doesn’t want to take any chances.
Pitching the Derby has been on McCullough’s mind since June 30, when the Dodgers arrived in Kansas City for their penultimate drive of the first half and Betts asked him to pitch. McCullough began to figure out precisely how far he should pitch (Major League Baseball allows some leeway, so he settled on 12 to 12½ steps from the front of the deck to the center of the plate) and talked to Betts about the pitch. rhythm and speed. The following week, he pulled out the official Derby deck (Dodger Stadium has a save from last year’s event) and had video coordinator Pedro Montero suit up in catching gear to practice throwing to center robotically. .
Betts, however, did not plan to practice. His swing is finally in what he considers a good place, as evidenced by his 1.121 OPS since early June, so his batting practice sessions have navigated a familiar path in recent days: throwing balls to the left. and spaces between right-center field and, as McCullough put it, “control the trajectory.” He has no plans to change his swing for the Derby.
“Now,” Betts said, “if this was something I felt like I could win, then yeah, of course I’d be practicing and all.”
So you don’t really think you can win, huh?
Betts looks at his right hand and begins to point to each of his fingers.
“How am I going to beat Julio Rodríguez, Vladdy, Adl…”
You are Mookie Betts.
“They’re home run hitters,” Betts said, his voice racing. “They’re bigger guys.”
But you have more home runs than most of them.
“In the game,” he replied. “In the game. Now, start throwing balls, you saw my blood pressure!”
Okay, do you have a strategy for conserving energy? Because clearly you are going to have to work harder than others.
“Look, now you see where I’m going with that. Okay, the first three minutes, think about how many home runs I was able to hit, because I can’t hit the ball 450 feet.”
But the balls are juicy.
“I agree. But you’re telling me my best ball, in one game, with a 95 mph fastball, was 420. [it was actually 426 feet]. Now you’re giving me 40 mph, and I’m supposed to catch up with it 30 more feet?”
All fair points. Betts emphasized that he won’t be embarrassed and that he’ll do everything he can to put on a good performance, but he’s not convinced that he’s going to matter. That’s what he says, at least. Those who know him well have heard this kind of talk from him before and are quick to note that Betts has always had the right amount of second thoughts about going on. evolving. It’s what made him someone worthy of competing in an event like this in the first place.
They think he might be playing with sandbags.
“That’s his way of lowering expectations and being okay with it,” Martinez said. “But deep down, I know he wants to win.”