Mookie Betts is the 2018 American League MVP, which makes this a fantastic time to discuss what makes him so damned exciting. Every MVP is, by definition, coming off an exciting season, even the ones who probably deserved to finish out of the top 10. But there’s a difference with this MVP, and it can be explained without all yer fancy statistics.
Start by making a back-of-the-envelope list of everything you love about baseball. I know that there are already a thousand jokers raising their hands because they want to say “bullpen carts” or “umpires getting hit in the beans,” and fine, those are a part of the rich mural that is baseball, but I’m talking the best parts of a really good game. There’s the immediate thrill of an obvious home run, and there’s the moment where you realize that the single might be a double, or when a double might be a triple. There’s the ball in the gap, hanging, hanging, hanging, with someone gliding underneath it, and there’s the cat-and-mouse game of a runner on first with two outs.
There’s more, of course, but regardless of your personal top-five, Mookie Betts does it all. Drag out the traditional statistics, and they’re boring numbers that turn into vignettes of exciting baseball if you let them. The expectation of a fan watching a star player bat is that he might get a hit, and Betts did it a higher clip (.347!) than anyone else. The expectation that your team might score in the coming inning is the right of every baseball fan watching a game, and Betts scored more runs than any player in baseball. Almost as impressive as the 32 home runs were the 47 doubles, that perfect mix of gap and fence power, unless the 30 steals thrill you more.
Those are just the back-of-the-baseball card stats, the ones your grampapa can relate to. They’re all telling the same story: In 2018, Betts did the things that make baseball exciting more often than anyone in baseball. Heck, more often than almost anyone who has ever played baseball. And we haven’t even brought up the defense yet.
I still think about this play often:
That’s not Justin Bour trying to stretch a single into a double. That’s a fast runner trying to stretch a should-be double into a stand-up double. There’s a school of thought that says that Kemp should get fined in kangaroo court for trying to take an extra base with a three-run deficit, but there’s another, smarter school of thought that says human beings shouldn’t make that play.
Allow me to share perhaps my favorite part of this talent cornucopia, one that reveals my bias. There are three players 5’10” or shorter who have been worth more than 10 wins in a season in the last 50 years, according to Baseball-Reference’s WAR: Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, and Mookie Betts. That is, two of the greatest baseball players ever and a wait-and-see marvel who certainly isn’t on the wrong path. Those are the players who get me all drunk on baseball. They’re the ones who help explain the physics of the game better than the big-man-hit-ball-smash sluggers.
Short players are always more fun to watch than tall players, sorry. Unless you’re going over 6’11”, but that’s a discussion for another time.
All of this makes for a neat and tidy explanation about why Betts is, perhaps, the most exciting, easiest-to-watch player in baseball. His statistical bonafides and deserved MVP only bolster that case, but he also gets me thinking about the state of baseball in 2018, which, depending on who you’re listening to, goes something like this:
Baseball is too slow. There’s too much dead time, which is pushing young people away. There are too many strikeouts. There are too many home runs. There are too many shifts. Batting average is dropping across the league. Starting pitchers are going away. There are no more complete games. Attendance is down. Ticket prices are too high.
Why don’t players bunt anymore? What happened to the small ball? Where are the stolen bases? Everything is determined by a computer. Analytics have sucked the joy out of the game.
Some of these complaints have merit. There will need to be tweaks and adjustments as the game evolves, which is something that has been true for the last 150 years. But if you get too deep in the weeds and start worrying about what’s wrong about baseball, you’ll miss what’s right. It’s a player like Betts, thriving in an era of monstrous fastballs and gargantuan opponents, who makes me wave away most of these concerns.
Baseball will be fine.
Look at this short guy who’s miles better than everyone else. Look at what he represents. Look at the skill set that allows someone to thrive in baseball and compare its inclusivity to the other major sports. While it’s technically possible for someone like Allen Iverson to thrive in the NBA, he will always be an outlier. It is a sport for the tall and only the tall. Forget about the NFL, which can use someone like Betts only in a defensive backfield, and even then he’d be picked on. (There’s also the part where kids are playing less and less football because they like their brains and cognitive abilities.)
The NHL certainly has its short moments, but they have an unspoken agreement with baseball that they’ll poach athletes from the cold places, and baseball will take the warm kids.
The rise of soccer in the United States could screw everything up. Watching you, soccer. Don’t get grabby.
But the point is that Betts is proof that baseball is a sport of reaction time and form, and it will forever value rapidly firing neurons and pitch detection as much as it values raw athleticism. When you get a near-perfect combination of neurons and muscles, like Betts, you have a super-player to celebrate. It reminds us all that more super-players will be built in the future, that the general dynamic of fast-twitch-beats-101-mph is the sports version of paper-covers-rock, and the balance will hold true even as pitchers approach the maximum limits of how hard a baseball can be thrown.
Even with all of that context stripped away, here’s Mookie Betts. He runs better than your favorite baseball player. He hits better. He catches better. He throws better. He bowls 300 games. It’s hard to watch him and think that baseball is in trouble. He’s a remarkable talent and a living brochure of what it really takes to thrive at this sport. Here’s a player who does everything — everything — well, and his existence means more than pitch clocks and climbing strikeout totals.
Just look at the dude play. This is how much fun it is to watch a player who can do everything well, and I can’t recommend it enough. Mookie Betts makes me think this baseball thing might catch on.