Dodgers’ Mookie Betts on skepticism at short: ‘I think the whole world doubts it’

LOS ANGELES – It’s a little past 1 p.m. on a cold, rainy day at Dodger Stadium and Mookie Betts’ shirt is drenched in sweat. Given a brief chance to catch his breath, he instead talks about doubt. Not about his ability to impact games — the Los Angeles Dodgers superstar already has an MVP award and is coming off his best season since putting on the uniform.

He talks about anyone who dares to doubt what he’s attempting.

“I think the whole world doubts it,” Betts said.

That’s because what Betts is doing is preposterous. He is a self-made outfielder with six Gold Gloves in right field. Returning to second base on a part-time basis was a feather in his cap last year, a chance to live out a dream at the position he’d played throughout his time in the minors.

But at 32, to become the everyday shortstop — a role he last had as an 18-year-old at John Overton High School in Nashville? The only thing more preposterous than the Dodgers’ idea is the fact that Betts seems like he can pull it off.

“I just don’t think that there’s any player in baseball that can do that,” manager Dave Roberts said.

Well, except the one the Dodgers are entrusting right now.

GettyImages 2126387730 scaled

Mookie Betts is obsessive about his footwork and practicing throws from different angles as he completes his conversion to shortstop. (Sean M. Haffey / Getty Images)

The Dodgers were planning this spring to make Betts their everyday second baseman but pivoted with just days to go before Opening Day in Seoul, South Korea. Gavin Lux’s defensive woes had quickly bubbled to the surface, so much so that the Dodgers pulled the plug on him at shortstop after just six spring training games. They had capable alternatives, including 35-year-old Miguel Rojas, but wanted to keep Lux’s bat in the lineup. So they settled on a swap. Betts had played shortstop for five games under extreme circumstances a year ago, an audacious proposition then. It was even crazier now, for everyone except Betts.

“It wasn’t much of a conversation,” Betts recalled of sitting in a room with Roberts and Lux this spring. In subsequent conversations, Betts stressed to Lux that swapping positions didn’t alter their ambitions, even with such a drastic change.

In taking on this challenge, first-base coach Clayton McCullough said, Betts left himself “vulnerable.” Players with the kinds of accolades Betts has just don’t make moves like this, Roberts said.

The new starting shortstop was having none of it.

“I genuinely do not care,” he said Saturday, emphasizing with his hands as beads of sweat dripped off his face. “I just want to win.”

That transformation takes place each day, even rainy ones like this. Hours before normal infield drills, there’s Betts. He’ll stand with Rojas, taking groundball after groundball from infield coach Dino Ebel, who wields a fungo bat with precision. After a while, they’ll stop and recap. How did he hit that angle? Where was his glove positioned? How much time did he have to make that throw? Should he have reset his feet, or cut it loose? What about his feet? Sometimes, special assistant Chris Woodward will chime in, too.

Then Betts goes back, sweating through one shirt before starting his hitting routine in another. By the time batting practice is over, there’s Betts again, taking more groundballs. A set of live fungos — grounders hit off thrown pitches — will replicate game speed. So will different game scenarios Ebel peppers at him before each swing. Runners on, no out. Two outs, fast runner at the plate. Third baseman in, grounder deep to his right. Each challenge must be practiced and be right by 7:10 p.m. because that’s when the excuses end.

“He’s a beast,” Ebel said, “obsessive of wanting to be the best.”

“Even I get tired watching him take ground balls,” McCullough said.

Woodward noted a few spring games this year in Betts’ first week at the position when the superstar looked fatigued by the first pitch. “But he knows that’s the price he’s gotta pay to be good at the position,” Woodward said. “He doesn’t want to be average.”

The way Betts sees it: If he weren’t tired, people would say he hasn’t worked hard enough in this transition. If he is, people will say he’s worn down by the extra reps. He’d rather at least have the latter.

“I’ve never seen a guy, my whole entire career, that is more dedicated to getting better every single day through work than him,” Rojas said.

That, of course, doesn’t make the move any less of a challenge. Betts is learning that quickly.

“The whole thing is hard,” Betts said. “There’s no shortcuts around it. There’s nothing easy about it, by any means.”

He fared fine at the position in spot duty a year ago, a tribute to his instincts, his feel for the game and his athleticism. But the intricacies — learning what he doesn’t know — have come fast and furious. There was a point early in spring when Betts took groundballs, only to realize he was still positioning his feet and angles exactly like he would at second base rather than mirror it; the balls were coming off the bat the opposite way, so his feet needed to be the other way. His first error of the season came on a chopped grounder from Cardinals speedster Victor Scott II that Betts attacked aggressively, and properly — except Betts short-armed the throw rather than let rip.

On occasion over the last couple of weeks, Rojas has brought video clips (even his own) to Betts and they break down the day’s plays at shortstop and the details of how they came together.

The knack for the details will come, as will the rewards. On this rainy day, Betts is working with Rojas on his backhand. Badgering him with questions on the angles. On how to read the hops to his right. About where to set up his feet to not waste time on the throw. When to gun it and when to take his time. Later that night, he’ll field a trio of balls to his right — each relatively routine — without much issue. They are plays that a regular shortstop should make, and ones that Betts is hoping to make just as routine. The always self-critical star even cracked a joke when asked about the plays.

“May go have a milkshake tonight because I did it,” Betts said.

If he sounds confident about the move it’s familiar territory for Betts. He recalled that in his youth baseball days, he had multiple jerseys laid out for the different travel baseball teams he’d bounce around with, waiting for a call. A team needed a second baseman one day and asked Betts. The next day, a team needed a third baseman. The next, a left fielder. The next, a shortstop.

He’s embraced this because he’s been challenged by it. His red-hot bat to start this season is just a sign of it, according to those around him.

“When he has a carrot in front of him or he has just competition, something to go compete … he does it to be excellent at it,” McCullough said.

In years past, that carrot has been a moving target. Betts’ first full season in Los Angeles was frustrating. Injuries to his hip slowed him down, so much so that it snapped his streak of consecutive Gold Gloves in right field. So come the next spring training, he brought McCullough a set of drills to run through, as well as a wide variety of tools including a tennis racket and even a football that the coach uses to this day with outfielders. He had McCullough run him through a series of trick shots — including catching balls over his head mid-sprint. Everything had to be practiced.

Betts won his sixth Gold Glove that fall.

Ebel learned about the trick shots last summer. Betts has always taken groundballs even when he only moonlighted at second base. But his first time playing there on a regular basis came with a challenge. After Betts went through his routine of groundballs, he’d have Ebel stick around for a few more. This time, he’d practice being late to second base, and the different throws and arm angles that would come with the ensuing throw to first.

“He’d make up things or he’d practice plays that nobody else could make,” Ebel said.

Now, the challenge has never been clearer. No one with the organization has pretended this transition will be simple.

But having doubts simply isn’t an option.

“For my mind, what I believe in myself, I could’ve done it any time,” Betts said. “Just needed the opportunity.”

(Top photo of Mookie Betts: Gary A. Vasquez / USA Today)

Source link

About The Author

Scroll to Top