BOSTON — Mookie Betts is the best defensive outfielder in Major League Baseball, and it’s not terribly close.
The sport’s advanced defensive metrics are notoriously finicky, but consistent in their regard for the Boston Red Sox’s everyday right fielder. Betts has led all qualified big-league outfielders in UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating) in each of the last three seasons. Somewhat amazingly, he is the top rated outfielder over that span in all three components of the stat: He has the best arm, most range, and surest hands.
Since the start of the 2016 season, he has saved the Red Sox an estimated 83 runs above the average defensive outfielder — 22 more than the Tampa Bay Rays’ Kevin Kiermaier, who’s second on the list. Betts won Gold Gloves in 2016 and 2017 and will certainly win a third when the awards are announced later this year.
But when the World Series travels to Los Angeles for Game 3 later this week, Boston may be best served moving the best outfield glove in the sport elsewhere.
- World Series predictions
- More on Betts playing second base
Slugger J.D. Martinez, who served as the designated hitter in all nine of the Red Sox’s postseason games to date, needs to play the field somewhere to get his bat in the lineup, and Martinez is limited to corner outfield spots. Neither of their other outfielder regulars, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi, has played a professional game anywhere else. And Betts, before turning himself into a superlative outfield defender, came up in the Red Sox’s system playing second base.
“I know if the time comes, I’ll be ready, and just rely on all the work I put in,” Betts said Monday at Fenway Park. The 26-year-old last saw action at the keystone on Aug. 4, when he was forced into six innings there due to an in-game injury to Ian Kinsler. It was his first time at second since his rookie season in 2014, but Betts still regularly takes grounders in the infield and practiced turning double plays in workouts this week.
“It’s not like we’d throw him out there and he’d be a liability,” said injured teammate Dustin Pedroia, whose presence at second forced Betts’ move to the outfield in 2014.
“The way American League teams are built, you’re trying to get offensively your best lineup. We’re not used to having to hit our pitcher. The guy who DH’s has 40 something home runs and 130 RBI. That’s just reality, and we’re trying to make it work.”
And Betts is obviously no plodding slugger.
“I’ve learned not to doubt Mookie on anything that he does,” said Brock Holt, a Red Sox utility player who played 56 games at second in the regular season. “He’s a little shaky right now, but he’s been taking ground balls there. He turned himself into the best right fielder in baseball, but I have no doubt he can play a good second base as well.”
No one in the Red Sox’s clubhouse has more experience at the position than Kinsler, a former Gold Glover with 1,756 career regular-season games at second.
"When you’re playing second, you don’t have time for all the information that’s been put in your head," Kinsler said. "It’s reacting to the play, and having a good clock, as far as the speeds of the runners and stuff like that. And Mookie doesn’t have a problem with those things.”
The Dodgers have not set their starting rotation for the World Series beyond Game 1 starter Clayton Kershaw, and for any games against left-handers in Los Angeles, Red Sox manager Alex Cora could opt to slide Betts to center field and rest the lefty-swinging Bradley. But should the need arise, Betts is willing to play his old position if it best serves his team, and his teammates expressed little doubt about his ability to handle it.
“I just told him, ‘It’s like Little League, just catch it and throw it,’” Pedroia said. “If he has to go out there, he’ll be alright.”
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