Why Mookie Betts doesn’t think he can win the Home Run Derby

Why Mookie Betts doesn't think he can win the Home Run Derby

Mookie Betts might be the smallest player ever to compete in the Home Run Derby.

He also might be the most apathetic.

Betts, the Los Angeles Dodgers star who heads into Monday’s eight-player, bracket-style tournament in Seattle as the No. 3 seed, doesn’t want to do the Derby. He isn’t shy about saying so, either. He’s taking part only because his wife, Brianna, thought it would look good on a résumé that includes an MVP Award, two World Series titles, five Silver Sluggers, six Gold Gloves and seven All-Star Game appearances.

“She was like, ‘You’ve done everything you’ve wanted in baseball,'” Betts recalled. “‘The only thing you’ve never done is the Derby.'”

The only problem: Betts says he doesn’t stand a chance.

“Let’s be real,” he said, “I’m not a power guy. Do I have some home runs? Sure.”

Mookie, he is told on the afternoon of Independence Day, you lead the Dodgers in home runs. You already have 23 [it’s actually 26 now]. You might have your fourth 30-homer season before the start of August.

“Yeah,” he said, “but they all go 382 feet.”

Baseball-Reference.com lists Betts at 5-foot-9 and 180 pounds. Based on the site’s unofficial measurements, nobody has ever competed in the Derby at 5-9 or shorter and 180 pounds or lighter. A couple of notable 5-9 players participated — Miguel Tejada, who won it in 2004, and Ivan Rodriguez, who reached the finals in 2005 — but they were heavier, stronger, able to generate power more efficiently and gifted with the freedom of mishitting pitches that still carried.

Betts doesn’t have that luxury. His average home run distance this season, 397 feet, ranks 168th among 264 players. Five of his seven Derby competitors — Julio Rodriguez, Pete Alonso, Adley Rutschman, Luis Robert Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the latter of whom he’ll match up with in Round 1 — are at least five inches taller and 40 pounds heavier. Triggering bonus time by hitting two home runs at least 440 feet seems almost impossible, which means Betts will probably have to beat significantly larger men in a power competition with 30 fewer seconds at his disposal.

Betts — famous among teammates for harsh self-criticism, a trait some believe helped propel him to greatness — has frequently and openly lamented the circumstances in recent days. Fellow Dodger J.D. Martinez quickly grew tired of hearing it.

“You’ve got what they don’t have,” Martinez told him early last week.

“What?” Betts responded with a side-eye.


Martinez, who helped bring out some of Betts’ power when the two first teamed up in Boston, thinks the others will inevitably be hurt by attempts to pulverize pitches. He wants Betts to focus solely on catching baseballs with his barrel out front and barely lofting them over T-Mobile Park’s left-field fence, which sits 331 feet down the line but can stretch to 378 feet in the gap.

“‘Your adrenaline’s going to take over,'” Martinez said he told Betts. “‘All you gotta do is play catch. Catch it, catch it, repeat, repeat, repeat. That’s all you gotta do. Don’t try to hit the ball 700 feet because then you’re going to suck.'”

The last time Betts, 30, took part in a home run-hitting competition was more than two decades ago, at the age of 8. He was the smallest kid, but he made solid contact consistently enough to finish as the runner-up. Eleven years later, in 2012, he was 19 years old with the Boston Red Sox‘s short-season Class A Lowell Spinners, weighing 155 pounds with hardly any muscle, and didn’t homer in 251 at-bats. He recalled one-hopping the fence just once.

“One double,” Betts said. “I remember that.”

It prompted Betts to seek out former football player Deon Giddens and follow a strict weight-training regimen to help unlock the strength to drive pitches. Betts hit 15 home runs across both Class A levels the following summer and, after breaking into the majors in 2014, hit 31 homers at the highest level in 2016, finishing second in American League MVP voting. His numbers slipped the following year, his batting average dropping from .318 to .264. Then he got to know Martinez.

By the time Martinez joined the Red Sox in 2018, he had saved his career by adopting the launch-angle principles of Craig Wallenbrock and his protégé, current Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc. The Red Sox wanted to revamp their hitting philosophy, and they wanted Martinez to take Betts under his wing. Betts was open to feedback. Martinez wasn’t shy about giving it.

“I want to say it was the first, second day of spring [training],” Betts said. “J.D. got there, we talked, and one of the first things he said was, ‘Bro, you’ve got really good hands. But your swing is trash.'”

Betts had what Martinez described as a cross-body swing that finished low, forcing him to pound off-speed pitches into the ground rather than lifting them into the air. Martinez likened Betts finishing his backswing and gathering himself to someone galloping on a horse. He reminded him of it constantly and, alongside former Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers, incorporated drills that got Betts driving toward pitches, dropping his hands before contact and finishing high on his follow-through.

Betts went on to win the AL MVP Award in 2018, amassing 32 home runs while slashing .346/.438/.640. He established himself as the closest rival to Mike Trout as the game’s best player, boasting blazing speed, dynamic defense and elite bat-to-ball skills but also uncommon power.

Betts is now on pace to finish his age-30 season with more than 250 career home runs. Among players listed by Baseball-Reference at 5-9 or shorter and 180 pounds or lighter, only Mel Ott (369) had more by then. Jimmy Rollins (146), Hank Thompson (144) and Jose Altuve (133) are next on the list, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

“It’s physics,” Martinez said when asked to describe how Betts generates power. “If you look at his home runs, where does he hit them? Right over the fence, left field. He’s got great bat-to-ball, hits the ball on the barrel, swinging a 33-ounce bat at this amount of miles per hour and he’s just catching it on the barrel. That’s it. Hard to do. Not everybody can do it. It’s the same reason Jose Altuve can do it … I think Altuve’s got a little bit more juice than him, and he uses his legs and can go everywhere on the field. Mook can, too, but he’s gotta hit it juuuust right.”

Clayton McCullough is committed to doing everything he can to help him. The Dodgers’ first-base coach will throw to Betts during the Home Run Derby, just as he has during batting practice every day this season — and he isn’t taking any chances.

Throwing in the Derby has been near the forefront of McCullough’s mind since June 30, when the Dodgers arrived in Kansas City for their third-to-last series of the first half and Betts asked him to throw. McCullough began to figure out precisely what distance he should pitch from (Major League Baseball allows some leeway, so he settled on 12 to 12½ paces from the front of the platform to the center of home plate) and talked to Betts about tempo and velocity. The following week, he brought out the official Derby platform (Dodger Stadium has one stored away from last year’s event) and had video coordinator Pedro Montero dress in catcher’s gear to practice throwing middle-in robotically.

Betts, however, didn’t plan on practicing. His swing is finally in what he considers to be a good place, as evidenced by his 1.121 OPS since the start of June, and so his batting-practice sessions have navigated a familiar path in recent days — spraying balls into the left- and right-center-field gaps and, as McCullough said, “controlling the trajectory.” He has no plans to change his swing for the Derby.

“Now,” Betts said, “if this was something that I felt like I could win, then yeah, of course I’d be practicing and all that stuff.”

So you really don’t think you can win, huh?

Betts looks at his right hand and starts pointing to each of his fingers.

“How am I going to beat Julio Rodriguez, Vladdy, Adl …”

You’re Mookie Betts.

“They’re home run hitters,” Betts said, his voice picking up. “They’re bigger guys.”

But you have more home runs than most of them.

“In the game,” he countered. “In the game. Now, you start flipping balls out there — you saw my BP!”

OK, do you have a strategy for preserving energy? Because clearly you’re going to have to exert more of it than others.

“See, now you see where I’m going with it. OK, first three minutes — think about how many homers I gotta hit, ’cause I can’t hit the ball 450 feet.”

But the balls are juiced.

“I agree. But you’re telling me my best ball, in a game, with a 95 mile an hour fastball, went 420 [it was actually 426 feet]. Now you’re giving me 40 miles per hour, and I’m supposed to hit it 30 feet further?”

All fair points. Betts stressed that he isn’t going to embarrass himself and that he’ll do his best to put on a good performance, but he is not convinced it’s going to matter. That’s what he says, at least. Those who know him well have heard this kind of talk from him before and are quick to note that Betts has always carried the right amount of self-doubt to continue evolving. It’s what made him someone worthy of competing in an event like this in the first place.

They think he might be sandbagging.

“That’s his way of lowering the expectations and being OK with it,” Martinez said. “But deep down inside, I know he wants to win.”

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