161 and counting with Mookie Betts

What makes for a successful season?

Expectations vary, and the noise around the Red Sox right now includes a vocal minority (hopefully) who will be quick to point out that, without a World Series trophy at the end of the next month, than the 107 wins earned through the first 161 games will have been worthless.

These people are dicks, clearly. Because if nothing else, through those first 161 games, we’ve had the privilege of watching Mookie Betts play this game 135 times. To watch what he’s done this year and still sit cynically waiting for the bottom to drop out is beyond me. This has been incredible, and it only seems right to get it down before the moment passes.

Obviously, the stats are there and they’re ridiculous. There’s the .346 batting average and the .641 slugging percentage, both leading the league coming into today. He’s leading the league in runs at 128, too, and his 32 home runs and 30 stolen bases make him a 30-30 man that’s become so rare in the game now. Even his 80 RBIs out of the leadoff spot is nuts. And all this has taken place in about 20 fewer games than normal thanks to a mid-summer injury.

But this isn’t a stat thing. There’s only so much joy that comes out of weighing each player solely by their value-added in the quest to score more runs than the other team, at least to me. No, here it’s watching the player do their thing, and how he’s done it. And he’s done it with style.

Part of it is that he’s kind of like a realized version of how I pictured the ultimate baseball player as a kid, like a weaponized Ellis Burks. He’s not some hulking monster who strikes out and walks as often as he homers, that most boring realization of a big-league hitter. He gets all his power from balance and bat speed, turning his bat into a whip that can send a ball 400 feet back over the wall at a moment’s notice. He plays right field just about as well as anyone has, and linked with Jackie Bradley Jr. in center field and Andrew Benintendi in right, the Red Sox are basically in a “no doubles” positioning at all times.

And then there’s the speed on the base paths, culminating in those stolen bases, 47 doubles and 5 triples. And that leads to that hip-shimmy thing that he does when he pops up on second base, and suddenly the personality that was clearly always there shines through.

This might be the biggest revelation of all this season. The fact that he was this good isn’t really new — everything he’s done has just come together this year. But with J.D. Martinez filling in the power gap that David Ortiz left behind, Betts seems to have finally opened up and become the kind of leader he was meant to be. It’s different than Ortiz’s giant swagger, or Dustin Pedroia’s hyper competitiveness. It’s a joy of the game manifested, and it’s spread to the entire team this year.

And it’s spread to one fan, at least. I don’t know what happens later this week when the Sox take on the winner of the Yankees and A’s, but it’s a separate conversation from the rest of the season. Most teams don’t win the World Series, and the fun of baseball comes in its day-to-day revelations, in watching a team grow and gel and watching its individual players do weird and impressive things every day.

It’s watching Xander Bogaerts rediscover his power stroke and become a threat in the cleanup slot in the lineup. It’s watching Benintendi become a certified Yankee killer and cement his spot in front of the Green Monster. It’s watching Jackie Bradley Jr. make one insane play after another and remedy his swing midway through the year. It’s watching Brock Holt rebound from two years of injuries to become a pinch-hitting, super-utility threat and hugging everyone around him. It’s watching Mitch Moreland break out and become an All-Star after Hanley Ramirez’s surprise exit. It’s watching Alex Cora return to Boston to lead a young team to the most wins in franchise history in his first year on the job.

And it’s watching Mookie Betts lead the way and become the best player in baseball this year. This was the season we saw Betts go from just being a great player to being a generational one. That has to go down as a successful summer, no matter what happens from here.

 

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