Mookie Betts Did It All in 2022 (Except Win the MVP Award)
Last week, I wrote about the overcrowded NL MVP ballot. Eight different position players finished within 1.0 WAR of the top spot on our leaderboard, more than in any other year since WAR was introduced. The MVP nearly always goes to one of the top position players by FanGraphs WAR. Thus, this past year presented us with one of the most hotly-contested MVP races in recent memory, regardless of how voters ultimately cast their ballots.
To have so many worthy choices for the award is exciting, even if we already know that Paul Goldschmidt emerged as the winner, with Manny Machado and Nolan Arenado placing second and third, respectively. As I wrote last Friday, “such a close race between so many contenders compels us to look beyond the go-to methods we might normally rely on to pick a winner. It allows us to think about how we measure value. It’s a chance to get creative.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like a fun challenge to me. Now, from the headline and the image at the top of this piece, you can already guess who I would’ve picked. But indulge me for just a moment longer so I can explain how I came to that decision. On a ballot full of deserving choices, how was I to single out one name as the most deserving of all?
Here are those top NL position players by WAR. I could see an MVP case for Trea Turner, too, so I tacked him on at the bottom of the list:
Beyond WAR, none of the traditional MVP “tiebreakers” make this decision any easier. Every candidate played for a postseason team. Each played a full season and was instrumental to his team’s success. None of them has an edge from a narrative perspective (e.g. Aaron Judge breaking the AL home run record) nor an intangible perspective (Bryce Harper persevering after a pitch to the face) either.
Some people like to use context-dependent metrics, like WPA and Clutch, as MVP tiebreakers. I considered doing so but ultimately decided that those stats weren’t going to be helpful in this particular race. Those numbers only measure performance at the plate, not defense or baserunning. They’re useful if you’re trying to pick between two similarly talented sluggers. This year, however, we know that the best hitter in the NL was Goldschmidt; it’s not really up for debate. What we need to figure out is if any other player outperformed Goldschmidt overall.
As I pored over the numbers, that word — “overall” — kept coming back into my head. There were a number of all-around talents in the NL this season, but I realized that one player, and only one, was genuinely good in every single aspect of the game. Hitting, fielding, baserunning. Power, arm strength, and stolen bases. Plate discipline, range, and avoiding double plays. I could keep going, but I think the message is clear, and there’s no point holding back his name any further. It’s Mookie Betts.
Take a look at his offensive “plus” stats and you’ll see they’re all above 100. Take a look at his defensive and baserunning metrics and you’ll won’t see anything below zero. Take a look at his Baseball Savant sliders and you won’t see a hint of blue. Betts is the only player in the NL for whom all that is true. His split stats won’t reveal even a trace of weakness either. Lefties, rights, home, away, high leverage, low leverage, all sides of the field — it doesn’t matter. Betts was good. So while there may have been plenty of all-around players in the NL this year, none were quite as “all-around” as Betts. In such a close MVP race, that’s enough to give him the edge.
NL MVP Candidates Baserunning Comparison
BRR courtesy of Baseball Prospectus
Among his fellow MVP candidates, Betts ranked fourth with 4.3 BsR. Realmuto (6.6 BsR), Turner (6.5 BsR), and Freeman (5.4 BsR) finished ahead of him. Of the three components that comprise BsR, Betts ranked third in Ultimate Baserunning (UBR), third in weighted stolen base runs (wSB), and sixth in weighted grounded into double play runs (wGDP). No one finished ahead of him in all three categories.
BRR, the baserunning metric from Baseball Prospectus, is less favorable toward Realmuto, Turner, and Freeman. By this metric, only Swanson was a more valuable baserunner than Betts. Meanwhile, Turner, Realmuto, Arenado, and Lindor all finished the year below average.
Of all the NL MVP contenders, Arenado had the most notably poor baserunning numbers. He was an excellent hitter, but he stopped doing the Cardinals any favors once he reached base. He was caught stealing on three of eight attempts and grounded into 15 double plays, and his Statcast sprint speed ranked in the 12th percentile. Arenado was a below-average baserunner in all three components of BsR and was the only candidate to finish below average in both BsR and BRR.
Summary: Betts was one of the better baserunners in the NL and arguably the best among these nine NL MVP candidates. Arenado, on the other hand, may have cost his team a run or two with his legs.
Fielding is always a tough one, since defensive stats aren’t the most reliable in a single-season sample. Be that as it may, the eye test and the numbers combine to make a pretty convincing argument for Betts. Among the nine NL MVP contenders, he ranked first in FRAA, second in DRS and UZR, fifth in OAA, and seventh in DEF, which takes positional adjustments into account. Only Betts, Realmuto, and Arenado had above-average numbers by every metric listed:
NL MVP Candidates Defense Comparison
FRAA courtesy of Baseball Prospectus
Betts also had average or better numbers by every component of DRS, UZR, and OAA. Among these nine players, only Arenado can say the same (Realmuto, being a catcher, is not evaluated by DRS or OAA):
Defensive Metrics Breakdown
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OAA breakdown courtesy of Baseball Savant
Finally, while I don’t put much stock in traditional defensive stats, they’re worth mentioning here. My ultimate point, after all, is that Betts could do no wrong in 2022. That’s reflected in his standard fielding numbers. He finished first among NL outfielders in double plays started, fifth in assists, and seventh in putouts. His fielding percentage was the third-highest among NL MVP contenders, and he made the second-fewest errors.
Summary: Betts was a great defensive player in 2022. He had no shortcomings in the field, and you could use that point to argue he was better than every NL MVP candidate not named Arenado or Realmuto. If nothing else, he had much stronger metrics — and played a more important position — than either of the first basemen in the conversation.
Betts was one of the best hitters in the NL this season. His 144 wRC+ ranked sixth among qualified batters, and he hit for average, OBP, and power. Among the NL MVP contenders, he ranks in the middle of the pack:
NL MVP Candidates Batting Comparison
I’ve already touched on Arenado’s shortcomings on the bases, as well as Goldschmidt’s and Freeman’s shortcomings in the field, so let’s focus on the other candidates — arguably the six best “all-around” players in the NL this season. Among these names, Betts and Machado stand out from the pack. Not only are they significantly better power hitters than the others, but they also have the best plate discipline to boot. Machado has the highest walk rate, while Betts has the lowest strikeout rate. Meanwhile, Realmuto, Turner, and Swanson all drew walks at a below-average rate last season. Swanson also struck out a great deal:
Walks and Strikeouts
Digging deeper, it becomes apparent Betts had stronger plate discipline than Machado and Lindor as well. Betts chased at far fewer pitches outside the zone and made contact on far more pitches inside the zone. As a result, he hardly ever whiffed. For their part, both Machado and Lindor chased more than the average hitter, and Machado whiffed more than the average hitter, too:
What’s more, Betts produced against all pitches in 2022. According to pitch value data from Baseball Savant, Pitch Info, and Sports Info Solutions, he was an above-average hitter against every pitch type except the splitter, which he faced in only a tiny sample of plate appearances. Lindor, meanwhile, struggled against sliders, and Machado was at his weakest against four-seam fastballs:
Pitch Type Value (Pitch Info)
Ultimately, the MVP is about results and overall production. The outcome of each plate appearance is more important than having a good approach at the plate. In the same vein, if a batter is hitting enough fastballs, it doesn’t matter how many breaking balls get past him. That being said, the fewer shortcomings a hitter has, the better. A pitcher’s job is to exploit the opposing batter’s weaknesses. If he doesn’t have any weaknesses, the pitcher’s job is going to be a whole lot harder. Betts makes a pitcher’s job nearly impossible.
Summary: Betts was a better hitter than Realmuto, Turner, Lindor, and Swanson. He finished with similar offensive numbers to Machado, although Machado had a slight edge in most categories. Betts, however, had some of the best plate discipline in baseball and performed well against every type of pitch he faced. His biggest strength was that he had no weakness.
The MVP Case for Mookie Betts
Whether you’re evaluating hitting, fielding, or baserunning, there wasn’t a single aspect of the game at which Betts did not succeed. Every other MVP candidate had at least one discernible weakness, however small. Arenado was a mediocre baserunner. Goldschmidt and Freeman are slow-moving, slugging first basemen who can only contribute so much with the glove. Swanson, Realmuto, and Turner lacked plate discipline. Lindor chased sliders, and Machado chased fastballs.
Betts, on the other hand, was an asset to the Dodgers in every conceivable way. If he TOOTBLAN’d on the bases, he could make up for it with a game-saving outfield assist. When he wasn’t getting pitches to hit, he could draw walks. When he did see a pitch to hit, he could send it deep into the seats. Whether the pitcher on the mound was throwing for strikeouts or contact, whether he was throwing fastballs or sliders or changeups, Betts could get the job done. There was never a situation in which you wouldn’t want him in the game.
This isn’t an infallible argument, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is. The line between Betts and Machado in particular is paper thin. But that’s kind of the point. I’m grasping at straws because I have to. The talent in the NL was that good this season, and the race was that close. At the end of the day, the all-around talent that Betts brought to the table made him stand out just enough in a historically close NL MVP race. He wasn’t the MVP this year, but he would have had my vote.