Inside Mookie Betts' historic start to 2024: 'You're the GOAT'

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LOS ANGELES — It’s becoming a daily occurrence at Dodger Stadium. 

Mookie Betts is stationed on the field hours before first pitch, putting in the diligent prep work he feels necessary to thrive in his latest awe-inspiring endeavor — becoming an everyday major-league shortstop for the first time at 31 years old. He fields a dizzying supply of grounders at different speeds and angles throughout the afternoon, then spends the night spraying hits across the field at a baffling rate. 

“A new challenge is always something he welcomes,” manager Dave Roberts said. “I think this is probably the biggest challenge that he’s ever had.” 

For most people, the meticulous attention needed to play a new defensive position — let alone the premium spot on the infield — might come at a cost to offensive production. For Betts, it only appears to enhance it. 

The Dodgers superstar is in the midst of the greatest start to any season in his illustrious career. 

After launching a career-high 39 home runs and finishing second in MVP voting last year, the multidimensional, multitalented, multi-positional six-time Gold Glove Award winner has started the 2024 season on an even more extraordinary pace. Betts leads the majors in hits, homers, runs, RBIs and walks and has reached base 23 times in his first 38 plate appearances. 

“Every time he comes in, I feel like I just tell him, ‘You’re the GOAT, man,'” second baseman Gavin Lux said. “I feel like you can’t get him out — and even when you do get him out, it’s a hard-hit ball.” 

The Dodgers have played more games than any team other than the Padres due to their Seoul Series to start the year, which impacts the totals slightly, but on any level, it’s an otherworldly start to the year for Betts. He, alone, has hit more home runs than 10 teams and has scored more runs than the White Sox, Twins and Mets. Through 5% of the season, he is on pace for more than 100 homers. 

His manager has described him as the modern-day Rickey Henderson, but it’s getting to the point that it’s difficult for Roberts to find new ways to describe what Betts is doing. Entering Tuesday, his 1.836 OPS ranked fourth all-time through a team’s first seven games of a season. 

“Especially given his physicality,” Roberts said, “I marvel at him.”

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Ask Betts about the hot start, though, and he doesn’t point to any secret sauce. 

“Just work,” Betts reiterated. “I’m showing up wanting to win ballgames.” 

The best explanation might be that it’s simply a continuation of last year’s excellence. 

After hitting a relatively pedestrian 26% above league average by Betts’ standards in 2021 and 40% above league average in 2022, he ascended last year to his greatest heights since his 2018 MVP campaign. Betts would have earned his second MVP honor if not for Ronald Acuña Jr.‘s record-setting year. 

In case Betts ever gets out of rhythm. the Dodgers can use his swing and mechanics from last season as a blueprint. 

“We have a base model to kind of look at and compare it to,” hitting coach Aaron Bates explained to FOX Sports. “You know it works.”

Last year’s jump in production began with a visit to Driveline Baseball, the renowned data-driven sports complex in Kent, Washington, which prompted Betts to add weight. The increased bulk — he started last season at around 178 pounds, big enough to cause damage with his swing but light enough to move around comfortably — plus a new bat speed program helped him post the highest average exit velocity of his career. He finished the year with a 163 OPS+. 

Of course, that did not change the bitter end to the Dodgers’ season or Betts’ role in it. The superstar leadoff man went hitless with a walk in 12 postseason plate appearances as the Dodgers were swept out of the National League Division Series by the Diamondbacks. While Betts said this spring that the failure drives him, he also didn’t see much use in fixating on those three games. 

“I’m not one to sit there and sulk on it all day because I can’t change it,” Betts said. “All I can do is move forward and figure out how I’m going to get better next time.”

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Putting that small sample aside, Betts knew what he did last year worked. So, he followed the game plan again, including the offseason visit to Driveline. 

“He’s trying to do everything the same, as much as he can,” Bates told FOX Sports. “Obviously, with the defensive positioning, that pulls him a certain direction, too, but he still gets all his work in.” 

The process is working. Since the start of last year, Betts has a higher slugging percentage and OPS than any leadoff hitter in baseball. This year, he is hitting the ball even harder in the early going, continuing to separate himself with his blistering start to the 2024 season.

Could the enjoyment he gets from playing on the dirt, and the focus required to excel as a middle infielder, contribute to the offensive uptick? While some see it as more than a coincidence — Betts has a .903 career OPS in 955 games as a right fielder, a .987 OPS in 97 games as second baseman and a 1.368 OPS in 21 games as a shortstop — neither he nor his manager would necessarily correlate the two. 

“I think that’s an easy ‘yes’ answer, but I just stand by the fact that defense is defense,” Roberts said. “He’s putting a lot of work into the defense, which he always has, but now it’s more specific to shortstop, and then offense is offense.” 

Both are going well for Betts, evidenced by his 1.4 FanGraphs wins above replacement — already twice the value of the next-best position player. 

While the Dodgers’ offseason moves have them better positioned to win a World Series, it is still Betts sparking their 6-2 record. 

“He’s playing out of this world,” Roberts said. 

Betts is tied for the league lead in defensive runs saved at shortstop while putting together one of the best eight-game offensive stretches of his career. His latest feat Wednesday night versus the Giants made history. 

He singled on his first at-bat against reigning NL Cy Young runner-up Logan Webb. In his second, he sent a changeup at the bottom of the zone 407 feet out to the left field pavilion. The home run was the 1,500th hit of Betts’ career — a milestone he had no idea about until Freddie Freeman congratulated him afterward. 

“That has nothing to do with winning ballgames,” Betts said. “That’s all I care about.”

Rowan Kavner is an MLB writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the L.A. Dodgers, LA Clippers and Dallas Cowboys. An LSU grad, Rowan was born in California, grew up in Texas, then moved back to the West Coast in 2014. Follow him on Twitter at @RowanKavner.

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