Are Braves trying to exploit Mookie Betts’ struggles vs. left-handers?
For all the strengths Mookie Betts has demonstrated this season, the Atlanta Braves appear poised to exploit a curious weakness.
The new three-batter rule can complicate late-inning matchups. With the score tied in the eighth inning of Monday’s National League Championship Series opener, the Dodgers had the top of their lineup coming to bat: two right-handed batters, one left-handed batter.
The Braves, nonetheless, summoned a left-handed reliever, Will Smith. First up: Betts, who bats right-handed.
Betts flied out. Smith retired the side in order. The Braves poured across four runs in the ninth inning for the 5-1 victory.
Betts went hitless in four at-bats. He batted against a left-handed pitcher each time.
The Dodgers’ bullpen implodes in the ninth inning in a 5-1 loss to the Atlanta Braves in Game 1 of the National League Championship Series.
No sense in making too much of one game, of course, but the season statistics merit a warning light.
Betts batted .200 against left-handers this season, .323 against right-handers. He did not hit a home run against left-handers all season, with a .218 slugging percentage that ranked last in the league.
Atlanta manager Brian Snitker, asked whether he considered those statistics in deploying Smith, did not mention Betts in his answer.
No reason for him to say so, whether he did or not, and he has used Smith ahead of closer Mark Melancon this season.
“I like him against both sides,” Snitker said. “Will’s been handling pretty much the eighth inning, regardless of where we’re at. I like him on the top of the order on any team that we’re going to play.”
Here’s the thing: This was a two-month season. Betts had a .531 OPS against left-handers.
In the first two months of the 2019 season, which finished so well that the Dodgers were compelled to acquire him from the Boston Red Sox and invest $392 million in him, Betts had a .542 OPS against left-handers, according to Alex Speier of the Boston Globe.
For the rest of the season, he put up a .998 OPS against left-handers.
Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he is aware of the statistical anomaly.
“A little bit at times, they’re in the crossfire,” Roberts said. “They’re trying to crowd him. And also spin him. He’s got his approach, he prepares and you’ve just got to be diligent and just capitalize on mistakes. When they make good pitches, it’s going to be tough. But I’ll still bet on that guy.”
This NLCS features two of the four primary candidates for the league’s most valuable player award. The Dodgers dispatched two of the four in the last round, sending Manny Machado and Fernando Tatis Jr. home for the winter.
That left Star vs. Star for the NLCS: Betts for the Dodgers, Freddie Freeman for the Braves.
Freeman, one of baseball’s most congenial players, happily appeared in a Fox promotional spot that aired before the game.
The Dodgers’ lack of offense in Game 1 of the NLCS against the Atlanta Braves is a worrying yet all too familiar development for the team.
“If hitting home runs is wrong,” Freeman said, “I don’t want to be right.”
In his first at-bat of this series, Freeman hit a home run, and not just any home run. This one traveled 429 feet, landing well into the right-field stands, and beyond the barrier put up to keep fans 20 feet away from players in accordance with health and safety protocols.
“That’s big,” Snitker said. “That’s what Freddie does.”
On Monday, Betts took three at-bats against left-handed starter Max Fried, then his final at-bat against Smith.
The Braves’ top remaining starters are right-handers. So is their closer.
That could be big, for Betts to do what he does, and for the Dodgers to win the series.
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