On a game-by-game basis, this year’s American League Championship Series largely lived up to its billing. The games were mostly close, interesting, and up-for-grabs in the later innings. Ultimately, the series only went five of the possible seven games, with the Red Sox flexing some serious muscle with tremendous defense and consistent hitting through the entire order. With Houston and New York left in the dust, Boston wrapped up the American League pennant, and will take on the Dodgers in the World Series.
Boston’s offense was a well-oiled machine in both the LDS and LCS, combining home run firepower with the ability to advance players bases through singles and doubles. They received production from all parts of the lineup, with key hits from unlikely players like Christian Vazquez and Jackie Bradley Jr. Aggressiveness on the basepaths, and taking extra bases added to the litany of an offense that never stops, where the bottom of the order is just as dangerous as the rest of the lineup.
Shortly after the Red Sox defeated the Astros in the the fifth game of the ALCS, I got to wondering how their barrage of offensive firepower would translate to a National League park, one in which the designated hitter disappears.
The answer was immediately clear to me: put Mookie Betts at second base when playing on the road, in order to keep J.D. Martinez’ bat in the lineup.
There are few athletes as gifted as Betts: the guy can bowl a 300 game, solve a Rubik’s cube in less than two minutes, dunk a basketball, and makes spectacular defensive plays in the outfield. Unsurprisingly, he can also play second base, the position he played when the Red Sox drafted him in 2011. With Dustin Pedroia expected to man the position for the foreseeable future, and the lofty expectations that Betts would ascend to the Majors in relatively quick fashion, Boston had him split his time between the outfield and second base. The rest is history, as Betts has proved to be one of the best right fielders in the game.
In his 2014 rookie season, Betts played 14 games at second and 37 games in the outfield. Although he only played second base once this season, there is no reason to believe he wouldn’t be a fine substitute for Ian Kinsler or Brock Holt, who have been the fill-ins for an injured Pedroia.
Let’s break this down to make this an even easier decision, if the Red Sox put Mookie at second base, they’re essentially trading-in Kinsler / Holt’s offense for Martinez’ while sacrificing some defensive prowess.
2B Offensive Comparison
The offensive case is clear, but let’s take a look at the other side of the ball, the fielding metrics. Martinez played 57 games in the outfield this season, and by defensive runs saved, cost Boston 3 total runs over that time. By contrast, Mookie Betts saved Boston 19 runs over the course of his 120 appearances in the outfield. While Mookie added .15 runs per game, Martinez only cost Boston a barely noticeable .05 runs per game. All-in-all, this would tell us the Red Sox would sacrifice .2 runs per game by making the defensive switch, assuming Betts’ defense at second base was neutral.
It’s also worth pointing out that Brock Holt’s second base numbers were slightly below average (-3), with Ian Kinsler slightly above average (6). We’re not exactly depriving Ryne Sandberg-edque defense by making this change.
On the other side of the ball, the numbers blow the doors off the comparatively neutral defensive stats. In 150 total games in which Martinez played, he created 136 runs, nearly .91 runs per game. Based on the sacrifices we saw in defensive metrics, getting his bat in the lineup makes up for it nearly ten-fold.
While it’s obvious that Betts is the better outfielder than J.D. Martinez, two-thirds of the Dodgers offense is right-handed. With only Joc Pederson, Cody Bellinger, and Max Muncy batting left-handed. Consequently, it’s likely that the right side of the field gets less action over the course of the handful of games in Los Angeles, furthering the point that there isn’t a ton of risk using this strategy.
The positives are clearly evident when you look at the value diminished by putting out a weaker right fielder, and moving Mookie Betts to second base. Mookie’s athleticism and history at second base make this a no-brainer in a short series. Having ALCS MVP Jackie Bradley manning centerfield should assuage fears that Martinez has to cover that much ground, but either way, having his bat in the lineup every World Series game will be critical for the Red Sox success. If anyone is willing to get this creative, it’s probably Alex Cora.