When you win a World Series, everybody remembers the big home runs and the clutch pitching performances, but the little plays can be just as important. Take Game 4 of the American League Championship Series. The Boston Red Sox beat the Houston Astros 8-6 to put them one win away from the World Series. One of the key plays came in the bottom of the eighth, with the Red Sox up 8-5 at the time. Tony Kemp led off with a base hit down the right-field line and the speedster burned around first, trying for a double, only to see Mookie Betts cut the ball off and fire a strike to second base to nail him.
It wasn't the best decision by Kemp with none out and his team down three runs at the time, but Betts also made a perfect play. The Astros would score one run in the inning, but if Betts doesn't make that throw, maybe it turns into a bigger, game-turning and series-turning inning.
Here's the thing about that play. The next day, prior to Game 5, Red Sox manager Alex Cora talked about two other throws Betts made in the game. In the third inning, with Jose Altuve on second, Betts made a great throw on a deep fly ball, holding Altuve there. In the seventh inning, with Marwin Gonzalez on first base and two out, Carlos Correa doubled down the right-field line, but Betts got to the ball quickly as it bounced off the wall and delivered a perfect relay throw to hold Gonzalez at third -- where he would remain stranded.
"When Carlos hit that down the double line, [Betts] got to his spot, he got the ball, he got rid of it and they had to make a decision and they stopped Marwin at third base. So that's what it's all about, the little plays," Cora said.
Of course, Betts also made a lot of the big plays throughout the season, and that's why he was named the American League's MVP on Thursday, capping off a season in which he won a batting title, led the majors in slugging percentage, led the AL in extra-base hits and tied for the major league lead in runs scored. He also won his third consecutive Gold Glove and joined the 30/30 club with 32 home runs and 30 stolen bases. His 10.9 WAR was highest by a position player since Barry Bonds in 2002 and is tied for second-best in Red Sox history with Ted Williams' 1946 season, behind only Carl Yastrzemski's 12.5 in his Triple Crown year of 1967.
It's those little things, however, that help put a stamp on Betts' all-around brilliance.
After that ALCS game, Betts called his throw to get Kemp one of the three best of his career. "I kind of knew off the bat he was going to go to second. It was one of those plays that I practiced so many times in spring training and it just came in the game," he said.
That might sound like a cliché answer, but with Betts you can absolutely believe that he practiced that play in spring training. One of the things that makes Betts so good is the precision in everything he does on the field, like making that throw.
He's not the fastest guy in the league -- via the Statcast sprint-speed leaderboard, he ranked tied for 143rd in the majors -- yet he was 30-for-36 as base stealer, grounded into just five double plays and was credited with plus-20 defensive runs saved. Over the past three seasons, Baseball-Reference.com credits him as worth plus-24 runs above average on the basepaths (stealing bases and running the bases), the best mark in the majors -- nearly five runs better than classic speedster Billy Hamilton.
The 26-year-old Betts is certainly not the biggest or strongest guy in the league, but there he is knocking out 84 extra-base hits (and don't forget he played just 136 games, missing a couple weeks with an abdominal strain). He rarely hits home runs in batting practice -- he'll be the first one to tell you that you'll never see him in the Home Run Derby -- but his hand-eye coordination is so good that he barrels up the ball so often his average exit velocity of 92.3 mph tied for 14th-best in the majors.
He doesn't get himself out because he rarely chases out of the strike zone. His chase rate of 16 percent was third-lowest in the majors, behind only Joey Votto and Brandon Nimmo. Obviously, Betts has lightning-quick hands and superb athleticism -- he can dunk a basketball at 5-foot-9 -- but that attention to detail is why he can bowl a 300 game or solve a Rubik's Cube in 1 minute, 53 seconds. I have no doubt that whatever profession Betts had chosen -- computer programmer, astronaut, Wall Street banker -- he would have been successful at it. It's just part of his makeup. Luckily for us, he chose baseball.
Indeed, I'm reminded of something David Price told me on the eve of the World Series. I asked him how often he had seen Betts show emotion on the field. He instantly recalled just two moments, including a grand slam Betts hit off J.A. Happ earlier in the 2018 season. Yes, Betts usually plays with a poker face, but that's a reflection not just of his personality, but of his entire approach to the game, as something to be mastered as much as enjoyed. That lack of out-loud swagger doesn't make him any less exciting, though.
Even though he's a pull hitter, Betts' stats are not merely a result of lofting short fly balls over or off the Green Monster. He hit .364/.461/.657 at home with 13 home runs, but hit .331/.418/.627 with 19 home runs on the road. In his career, he's hit more home runs on the road (62 to 48), although he has hit for a higher average at Fenway Park.
One of things I read, especially when Betts got off to a start hot, was that he had been too passive at the plate in 2017. After hitting .318 with 31 home runs and finishing second in the MVP voting to Mike Trout in 2016, he hit .264 last season. He needed to swing more.
He didn't swing more. His swing rate on the first pitch was lower than 2017 (he swung at the first pitch about 10 percent of the time). He swung at 1-0 pitches at the same rate as 2017. He swung at 1-1 pitches 1 percent less often. It's hard to find evidence that he changed his approach.
Some suggested J.D. Martinez had a big influence on the entire team, stressing the importance of launch angle and getting the ball in the air. There might be something here. Betts did reduce his ground-ball rate, and his average launch angle improved from 14.1 degrees to 18.4. That led to more line drives (more so than more fly balls) and more hard-hit balls. His average on balls in play improved from .268 to .368. It's also worth noting that Betts played through some nagging injuries in 2017 that might have affected his production.
Betts and Trout have now finished 1-2 in two of the past three MVP votes. Obviously, Trout's track record of dominance is much longer -- he's finished in the top five of MVP voting in a record-tying seven consecutive seasons and has three 10-WAR seasons to Mookie's one. But Mookie's best season is now arguably better than Trout's best season.
Is Trout still the best player in the game? The man did hit .312/.460/.628 with 39 home runs, so he hardly did anything to dislodge himself from that No. 1 spot. But for the first time in his career, there's a reasonable argument to be made that he has competition in the debate. Mookie Betts is your 2018 AL MVP. Can he do it again in 2019? I wouldn't bet against him.