Breaking down exactly what to expect from Mookie at shortstop

Dodgers star had 46 chances at SS in 2023

March 11th, 2024

For the second time this offseason, superstar outfielder Mookie Betts is making a possibly unprecedented position change.

In December, the Dodgers stated that the six-time Gold Glove Award winner would be making a permanent move from right field to second base – a switch that we thought, at the time, made a great deal of sense, despite how surprising it seemed. As it turns out, there was a far more shocking move yet to come. At the end of last week, nearly a month into Spring Training, manager Dave Roberts said that Betts would now be his starting shortstop, thanks to the ongoing defensive struggles of Gavin Lux, who will now be switched back to second.

If the move to second was unexpected, then the move to shortstop is downright shocking and driven far more by desperation than by desire. Since the integrated era began in 1947, only 13 players have ever played 100 games at both right field and shortstop in a career, and none of them did it like this, moving into the infield at age 31. (Of the 13, most were true utility types or moved from the infield to the outfield, like Fernando Tatis Jr. The only somewhat similar move from right to shortstop was also with the Dodgers when Bill Russell did it in 1972, but the big difference is that he was 23 years old when he made the transition.)

While Betts is capable of just about any feat on a baseball field, this also isn’t exactly the plan, as evidenced both by A) how late in the spring it came and B) how rarely this has ever been attempted in modern baseball history. But what might it look like? While the 98 innings and 46 opportunities he had at shortstop in brief first-half stints last year don’t give us a whole lot to go on, it’s at least something. Forty-six is more than zero, right?

Let’s break them down with Statcast data and see what we might learn.

The easy popups (6-for-6)

Pretty much any Major League shortstop should be able to track down almost any popup that comes near them, and that might go double for an accomplished outfielder. There were six balls hit to Betts where he had at least five seconds to get there – which can only really happen on a popup – and he easily captured all six. Those ranged from extremely easy (needing to cover only 7.5 feet to collect this Cody Bellinger pop) to merely pretty easy (ranging 60.2 feet into short center to track down this Edmundo Sosa pop).

All six of these were graded as being 95% likely to be made, based on Statcast estimates of similar opportunities since tracking began. He made all six, as just about any competent fielder should. There’s not much to learn here, other than that if these plays hadn’t been made, then the rest of it wouldn't matter much.

The near-impossible plays (0-for-8)

There were eight low-probability balls – all marked as singles – that Betts had a chance to get, and he didn’t get any of them. We use "chance" lightly here -- these were all the types of plays that had a 10% or less probability of being turned into an out.

While an all-world defender might have collected one, these opportunities just don't get turned into outs by anyone very often. Does a taller shortstop collect this Patrick Wisdom liner? Perhaps. Does an elite defender like Dansby Swanson find a way to get to this Blake Sabol grounder up the middle? Maybe, on his best day. That Betts didn’t get to any of these isn’t really a problem so much as it is what was expected, and the Dodgers really aren’t going to be worried about this kind of thing so long as he can just get to what he can get to.

His best play of the year (1-for-1)

Betts' most difficult play of the year may not have looked like much, but it grades out better than you’d think. He had to come in on a slow roller, and Washington hitter Lane Thomas rates as one of the fastest players in the Majors, which is taken into account in the metrics. You might look at this and say most shortstops should make this play, but remember that we’re talking about a long-time outfielder, not most shortstops.

The easy grounders (27-for-31)

This is the meat of it, really. Approximately two-thirds of the opportunities that Betts saw were the regular, everyday kind of chances that really define whether a fielder is any good. Swanson, for example, saw more than 300 opportunities with an estimated success rate of 90% of more, and he converted 98% of those chances; for as much as we love to talk about highlight-reel plays, if we’ve learned anything about defense in the player tracking era, it’s that what matters more than anything is just making all the regular plays.

Betts converted 87% of his (89%, including the popups), though we can’t express enough how small of a sample this is, meaning just one or two miscues can take time to overcome. Many of them looked exactly like any other 6-3 you’ve watched a billion times in your baseball-viewing life, which is much more of a compliment than it seems – that Betts “looked like a shortstop,” and not “like an out-of-position outfielder,” is something of a credit to him. That’s evident in examples like when he threw out the speedy Tim Anderson, or the slow-footed catcher Chad Wallach.

He even showed an ability to turn a double play, in multiple ways. Here he is starting one on an impressive 6-4-3 against Hunter Renfroe ...

… and being in the middle of one, like when he and Freddie Freeman teamed up on a 3-6-3.

He even showed off a nice little hop on this 6-3 double play against Wisdom, when he took the ball to second on his own before firing to Freeman at first – in, it should be noted, his very first game at shortstop in the Majors.

So: what didn’t he get to?

Betts made three errors, all on plays graded at an estimated 90% success rate or more, so ones that would normally be made by most shortstops. One came when he tried to rush a throw to get Tatis and threw it wildly away. Another came when a Freddy Fermin grounder ate him up and bounced off his chest; the third came when a wide throw pulled Freeman off the bag and allowed Jake Burger to reach.

There’s not anything particularly notable about those plays; those are the normal baseball plays a shortstop is expected to make most or all of the time.

And that, really, is the game here. Betts isn’t there to make the spectacular plays; most shortstops don’t make those plays most of the time. The question is really about how many of the standard plays he can make, because if we look at those considered to be 90% likely or higher – of which a regular shortstop will see hundreds of times per year – then the margin for success is very narrow.

As we said, Swanson, who was elite last year, made 98% of those plays. Last year’s weakest-rated shortstop, Amed Rosario, converted only 91% of them. That’s still a lot – it’s nine out of 10 – and it wasn’t nearly good enough. Whether Betts can make this work depends entirely on that: if he can turn that 87% into something like 94%. The athleticism isn’t in question here; it’s the experience and consistency that is.

Because we know the skill is there – this isn’t something like asking Salvador Perez or Kyle Schwarber to play shortstop – it seems that Betts can probably be playable if unspectacular at the position. Given the situation the Dodgers are in, that’s probably good enough. (To say nothing of what the NL MVP conversation would look like if he can play the position competently while putting up his usual brand of elite offense -- that’s a conversation for another time.)

Either way, it’s probably unlikely that Betts is the regular shortstop for 162 games, because the light-hitting Miguel Rojas still has a strong glove, and if it turns out that Lux’s throwing issues prevent him from even handling second base, then Betts may yet find himself back on the right side with either Rojas or a future trade acquisition at shortstop.

Between all that and the relatively weak glove of Max Muncy at third base, the Dodgers are not likely to have a strong infield defense this year. According to the latest FanGraphs projections, which give Betts a roughly 60/20/20 split between shortstop, second base and outfield, respectively, the Dodgers are currently projected to have the fourth-weakest infield defense, ahead of only the Marlins, Tigers and Angels. (For reference, the Cubs, Padres, Guardians and Rockies are the four infield teams that stand out at the top.) It’s going to be a problem. It’s possible that Freeman is the club's only average starting infielder, much less plus, unless Rojas gets more time than expected.

Then again, that was true last year, too – the Los Angeles infield ranked 24th – and they still won 100 games. But if anything is likely to trip up what seemed like an unstoppable Dodger machine, this just might be it.