Why isn’t Mookie Betts leading off for the Dodgers?
When the Dodgers acquired Mookie Betts in February and signed him to a 12-year contract extension the day before opening day, the assumption was the club would plug Betts into the leadoff spot and enjoy the dividends.
There wasn’t a reason to think differently. Betts became one of the best players in the world leading off for the Boston Red Sox. He made four All-Star teams, won an MVP Award, and led the team to a championship as an everyday leadoff hitter. In spring training, Betts said he wanted to continue in that role because it’s where he felt most comfortable and where he thought his skill set shined most. The Dodgers, following suit, had Betts bat first in spring training and again during training camp.
Then the Dodgers dropped a surprise on opening day, batting Betts second against the San Francisco Giants.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts explained the team was going to have Betts bat second against right-handed starting pitchers for the “foreseeable future” to split the team’s left-handed hitters. Nearly three weeks later, it’s still happening as the Dodgers struggle to manufacture runs when they’re not slugging homers.
Betts batted second for the 10th time Tuesday in the Dodgers’ 6-2 loss to the San Diego Padres. He went one for three with a walk and reached base a third time on an error. He’s batting .281 with a .905 on-base-plus-slugging percentage on the season.
The Dodgers, who lost 6-2 to the Padres, aren’t the only team struggling offensively. The collective batting average across the majors is the lowest since 1968.
The importance of batting order is often debated and usually overstated. But why change what Betts, the best player on the team, is most comfortable doing? Before Tuesday’s game, Roberts, who constructs the lineup in conjunction with the front office, defended the decision to keep Betts in the two-hole, pointing out that the team’s offensive struggles go deeper than batting order.
“When you’re talking about one player and lineup construction, where he hits leadoff once a game, and the numbers to last year are very similar as far as production,” Roberts said Tuesday. “And now you’re taking in eight other players in a lineup that particular game that matter as well. So, when you potentially give them match-ups and make it a little more difficult for the opposing managers, I think that has some value, too.”
Betts has been one of the few offensive bright spots for the Dodgers. Meanwhile, Cody Bellinger, Joc Pederson and Max Muncy, three left-handed sluggers, are all batting below .200.
Muncy was the team’s original leadoff hitter against right-handed hitters but slumped enough for the Dodgers to drop him in the order. He went one for four with two strikeouts Tuesday and is batting .186.
Pederson, the Dodgers’ leadoff hitter against righties in recent years, replaced Muncy atop the order and is batting .196. He went one for two with a bunt single against a shift and a walk before he was replaced by a pinch-hitter.
Bellinger, last season’s National League MVP, went 0 for 4 and grounded into two double plays Tuesday. His batting average plunged to .167. His OPS is down to .485.
The Dodgers are just 18 games into the season, but 18 games in a 60-game season represents more than a quarter of the way through. Is the shortened runway putting more pressure on players than they’d typically feel 18 games into the season?
Dustin May’s immense potential was on display on Monday in the Dodgers’ 2-1 loss to the San Diego Padres.
“That’s a fair point,” Roberts said. “Our encouragement to the guys is just take at-bats to help us win baseball games. Knowing that the season isn’t as long, yeah, I understand there’s not as much time to catch up. But guys are going to struggle for a two-week period. That happens every year. But you’ve got to have the ability to focus and drown that noise, that batting average out of your head.”
Betts isn’t one of those players struggling. He’s producing. He’s just not producing out of his usual spot — at least for now.
“You talk about the leadoff hitter, the role, the spark, I absolutely understand that,” Roberts said. “But I think that you look up and down our lineup and there’s really not anyone swinging the bat considerably well. So just to have Mookie in the leadoff role I don’t think makes everybody in the order get hot. So I think that we’re still finding ways to push runs across. So, right now I like where we’re at.”
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