Earlier in spring training, Dave Roberts mentioned the Dodgers were mulling batting Mookie Betts somewhere other than leadoff in 2023. The organization seems to understand that entering a new stage in his career, for a myriad of reasons, it may be worth it to at least reconsider his spot in the order.
Betts has been the leadoff hitter for the Dodgers ever since joining the club in 2020, and previously — both when he joined the team that year, and also after Trea Turner came over at the 2021 deadline — expressed the interest to remain there, which certainly factored in the decision to keep him at the top spot.
Why it would be worth it to move Betts away from the leadoff spot
There are a few reasons why it might be beneficial for the ball club. Perhaps most important is that with a lineup that may not be quite as deep as in years past, the stable skillset of Betts may be needed in the heart of the order to be a consistent run producer.
Trea Turner, who was a massive RBI force batting second and third last season, is gone. Justin Turner is also gone, and although J.D. Martinez comes in as an adequate replacement, and quite possibly an improvement, Betts may play best at a different spot in the batting order.
2022 Dodgers with runners on
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Who do you think led Dodgers regulars in slugging percentage last season? One Mookie Betts coming in at .533, which ranked second in the National League. Next best on the team was Freddie Freeman (.511), with Trea Turner (.466) and Will Smith (.465) a fair distance behind (Editor’s note: Trayce Thompson in his three-plus months with the Dodgers slugged .537, in 400 fewer plate appearances than Betts).
Betts has been drastically cutting down on his running in recent seasons, and although the window remains open for those numbers to creep up, especially with the new bases, that hasn’t been the trend for him.
In his first four full seasons, through his MVP campaign in 2018, Betts averaged 26 stolen bases per season, topping out at 30. However, after stealing 10 bases in the shortened 2020 season with the Dodgers, Betts stole 22 total bases over the last full seasons. That’s not irrelevant, but for context, Freeman had 13 swipes last season. Betts running seems much more like a crime of opportunity rather than a core part of his game, these days.
Is it really the move to have your best pound-for-pound power bat, who doesn’t run much anymore, in the leadoff spot?
Smith has played roughly a third of his games batting cleanup, and if Martinez does anything around what he has in the past couple of years in Boston (.280/.345/.484, 123 wRC+ in 2021-22), the two would provide a more-than-adequate three-four punch, with Max Muncy in the fifth hole, or some combination of that, which would allow the team to keep Betts and Freeman at one and two.
Losing Gavin Lux for the season with an ACL injury removed an obvious candidate to fill in at leadoff if Betts moved to the middle of the order, at least part of the time.
Roberts also said #Dodgers had internal discussions about Gavin Lux leading off against certain right handed pitchers, but that has become a mute conversation with Lux's injury. Mookie Betts will be the leadoff hitter.— David Vassegh (@THEREAL_DV) March 13, 2023
However, we must acknowledge that despite probably being the best-hitting catcher in baseball, Smith is still a catcher, and will need more off days than other everyday players. J.D. Martinez experienced a decline from 2021 to 2022, going from a 128 to 117 OPS+, and although the general expectation is for a bounce back from Muncy, he did struggle for the bulk of last season.
After those three players, there are plenty of intriguing names, but no one with the track record and/or expectation to come in and be a regular at a key lineup spot.
As long as Smith, Martinez, and Muncy are all clicking, Betts in the leadoff spot will remain a very appealing option, but all three of those names have caveats which we touched on above, and in sporadic days, Roberts may need to move Betts to the heart of the order to provide some protection for Freeman and boost the team’s ability to drive in runs.