While the Dodgers appear destined to finish behind the Atlanta Braves for the National League’s best record, another race between the two teams is still very much in doubt.
But it shouldn’t be.
As the ballots are filed around the country, a Dodger and a Brave are sprinting neck-and-neck toward the National League Most Valuable Player award.
But the duel is already over.
The clear MVP is the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, not the Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr., period, election over, I’m calling it, and anything different would make one wonder what the voters are watching.
If they’re watching value, it’s Betts. If they’re watching versatility, it’s Betts. If they’re watching baseball, it’s Betts.
Acuña has been far more flashy, accumulating the league’s sexiest stat line in becoming the first player in baseball history to record at least 30 home runs with at least 60 stolen bases. But the larger bases and new pickoff rules have put a superfluous shine on that bling. When it comes to virtually every other important statistic, Betts rules.
He leads the league in Wins Above Replacement, nearly a full win more than Acuña.
He leads the league in on-base-plus-slugging-percentage, while Acuña is third.
He has more home runs than Acuña. He has more RBIs than Acuña.
He is, in fact, arguably having the best season of any leadoff hitter in history, having tied the record for home runs (39) and (103) leadoff spot. Acuña bats leadoff in front of one of the most powerful lineups ever, but even he can’t match Betts for sudden impact.
Then there is the clincher. Betts has played three different positions on three wildly divergent parts of the diamond, while Acuña has yet to exit right field.
Betts has been a plus defender in 73 starts in right field and 51 starts at second base, and a solid defender in a dozen starts at shortstop. Furthermore, his willingness to move to the infield has given the Dodgers the lineup flexibility that has allowed them to maximize their most depleted roster in their 10 division title seasons.
Because of Betts’ unselfishness, the Dodgers have been able to make room for an entire left-handed hitting outfield of Jason Heyward, James Outman and David Peralta, and all three have responded with nice seasons.
Because of Betts’ teamwork, the Dodgers have been able to withstand the injury to Gavin Lux and the struggles of Miguel Vargas.
Convinced yet? How can you not be?
Before Wednesday’s 6-1 loss to the San Diego Padres, I asked manager Dave Roberts for his NL MVP vote. Considering he had two legitimate candidates in his clubhouse — Freddie Freeman should finish third — he was initially understandably reluctant to pick a favorite.
“If I had a vote … I don’t know, I’m happy I don’t have a vote,” he said.
I asked about Betts.
“You’re asking me to take sides,” Roberts said.
Yes. I was. If the Dodgers don’t want Betts and Freeman to split votes, they need to take sides. As if realizing this, Roberts finally, softly, raised his hand for Betts.
“Mookie’s having a tremendous year, obviously. I think it’s hard not to say Mookie is not the most valuable player,” he said.
Roberts quickly recognized Freeman’s top five ranking in WAR, OPS, runs and batting average while on a record pace for doubles, saying, “The numbers of what Freddie is doing, the runs scored, the runs batted in, the doubles, all that he brings to our club, I’m telling you, he is right there with Mookie and anybody.”
But he acknowledged what everybody sees, that Betts’ multi-positional ability ranks him first.
“I think Mookie’s ability to come in and play on the dirt, which gave runway to Jason Heyward to play right field, I feel good about saying I can slide him in there,” he said.
When I asked if that versatility separates him from Acuña, he agreed.
“For me it does,” Roberts said. “I hope that the people who have the votes take that into account, because …It’s the statistics … and it’s also the value to the team … a guy that can come from one position to play Gold Glove at another position, to then lengthen your lineup to make your offense one of the better ones in baseball is huge value. So I hope that’s considered.”
If voters need more convincing, Betts has produced some of the more inspirational moments for a team that has fed off that fervor.
Before this season, the last time Betts played shortstop was in the Arizona Fall League in 2013, yet there he was in late April, rushing to Chicago from paternity leave in Los Angeles, showing up at Wrigley Field in time to be subbed at shortstop in the seventh inning.
An inning later, he was helping save a victory by completing a leaping double play.
“I just told Doc, I just want to win, so I’ll play wherever,” Betts told reporters.
Then there was that late August trip to Boston, a potentially distracting emotional reunion with his former fans, yet Betts was locked in.
He went seven-for-15 with four RBIs as the Dodgers won two of three games en route to completing an August that essentially clinched their division championship.
The Dodgers went 24-5 during the month while Betts was virtually unstoppable, batting .455 in the month with 11 homers and 30 RBI while entertaining the notion of winning a second MVP.
“I’d be lying if I said it wouldn’t be cool,” Betts told reporters. “But the No. 1 thing is winning the World Series, winning the division and playing well, man.”
As Betts goes, the Dodgers go. It was that way with Cody Bellinger in 2019, with Clayton Kershaw in 2014, with Kirk Gibson in 1988, with Steve Garvey in 1974 and with Sandy Koufax in 1963.
Los Angeles Dodgers MVPs, all, and Betts should soon join their club.
Why is this even a discussion?