Is there something up with Mookie Betts?
Betts already has missed 10 games for the Dodgers because of a series of minor ailments that have included a bad back, a sore left shoulder, a sore left middle finger, a deep bruise on his right arm after being hit by a pitch, and an allergic reaction that left him unable to fully open his eyes.
Manager Dave Roberts also has given Betts at least two off days as mental breaks because he was struggling at the plate.
None of that is unusual until you remember that Betts played 92 percent of the games from 2016-20 and most of those days off were when he was given no choice by the manager.
Betts had a .240 average on May 29, the lowest it has been through 50 games in his career. He bumped it up to .264 going into the weekend with an .828 OPS.
Injuries have clearly been a factor. Roberts feels Betts has had trouble getting around on high-end fastballs — which is what most pitchers seem to feature these days — and he expects that to change over time.
Why? Because Betts is not striking out more often than usual and he’s still drawing walks. The contact has been there.
The numbers bear it out. Betts punished fastballs in 2018 (.375 with a .667 slugging percentage), 2019 (.303/.670), and 2020 (.324/.625).
This year, he has hit .300 with a .545 slugging percentage on fastballs.
“I don’t have any excuses. Sometimes you just don’t play well,” Betts told reporters. “I’m not here to say this is why, that it’s this, that, and the other.”
Betts’s outfield defense, usually the best in the game, has been just OK based on the metrics and what scouts have seen. He’s on pace for six Defensive Runs Saved, which isn’t bad but well below the 20 he had in 2019.
Betts has started 13 games in center field and 31 in right. It’s the most he has played center field since 2015.
“They’ve had so many lineups because of injuries. I don’t feel like he’s been in a rhythm defensively,” one scout noted. “Now that [Cody] Bellinger is back in center, that will get better.”
That’s a central theme for the Dodgers, that they will improve as they get their core players back together.
“You look around our clubhouse, these are the guys we envisioned being on our club,” Roberts said. “When you’re playing our club and you see Bellinger in there, Betts in there, it matters.”
Betts, who is in the first year of a 12-year, $365 million contract, isn’t breaking down. He was just beaten up a little and Roberts has been careful with him with the long term in mind.
The arrival of Albert Pujols has helped. Betts, who has always valued the counsel of older players, has found a new mentor.
“He’s like a joy, that bright spot that came in,” Betts said. “For me personally, it’s kind of shown me to just really enjoy the game. He’s toward the end of his career and I just look at someone who’s been through 20 years of playing and you kind of just look at how much he enjoys just being here.
“I want that joy for my whole career, not just the tail end of it.”
So far this season, it’s been a grind. Expect that to change.
“He’s going to be Mookie Betts,” Roberts said.
OFF THE TOP
Red Sox in need of a leading man
Lineup construction shouldn’t be a riddle. You want your best hitters to get the most at-bats. Most everything else is secondary.
Which is why it’s getting harder to understand why Kiké Hernández is still batting leadoff for the Red Sox.
Hernández went into the weekend with a .284 on-base percentage, sixth-best among the nine Sox players who have a qualifying number of plate appearances. His .667 OPS also was sixth-best.
Yet Hernández batted first 39 times in the first 57 games. He has scored a run in the first inning six times, two times fewer than the other hitters who have led off.
Manager Alex Cora likes the idea of Hernández being an extra-base threat to start the game. But so far that’s happened twice. He doubled on May 6 and homered on April 19.
The Sox have the fifth-lowest OBP from the leadoff spot in the American League. One thought would be to hit Alex Verdugo first, which Cora rejected by saying he doesn’t want J.D. Martinez hitting second.
But why not Verdugo, Xander Bogaerts, Martinez, and Rafael Devers (who should be hitting higher than fifth).
That should create more RBI opportunities for Martinez.
Verdugo would prefer not to lead off. But he did it 33 times last season and had a .362 OBP.
A few other observations about the Red Sox:
▪ In discussing particular players, Cora will often mention that he is “doing a good job in the trainer’s room.”
So what does that mean? It wouldn’t seem like much of an achievement to be patient while getting treatment. Here is how Cora explained it:
“We want them to be in the training room. I know some organizations think the other way around: Don’t go to the training room unless you’re hurt. As far as preparation, everything that they do arm-wise with the pitchers, I do believe we do an outstanding job preventing injuries. We’ve been very diligent, very responsible with this. That’s probably one of the keys with us being healthy.
“You look around the league and it’s been tough. To keep guys healthy has been a challenge. Right now I think our medical staff has done an amazing job.”
▪ According to Baseball America, the Sox have the same number of scouts now that they did in 2019.
Five teams have added to their scouting staff with the Sox and Mets staying the same. The other 23 cut back with the Angels, Cubs, and Mariners dropping by 20 or more.
▪ It was good to see Sandy Leon back at Fenway Park recently. The 32-year-old catcher is a study in perseverance, having been in pro ball since 2007 and now with his fourth organization.
Leon is a spotty hitter but such a reliable presence behind the plate that teams value his presence. The Marlins had a 3.89 team ERA before he joined their roster this season, and it has since dropped to 3.47.
The Sox purchased Leon from the Nationals in 2015 because they were desperate for a catcher after a series of injuries. He played five seasons for the Sox and appeared in 15 playoff games, 10 during the run in 2018.
“A lot of dreams came true winning that World Series,” Leon said. “I feel like I’m so blessed.”
Backup catchers don’t usually get a lot of attention. But Sox fans appreciated Leon.
“They knew who I was outside the ballpark,” he said. “[Out] eating, grocery shopping, they knew who I was. As a player you feel grateful.”
Catching up with Clemens
Roger Clemens is 58 and hasn’t appeared in a major league game in 13-plus years. But his presence still causes a stir at the ballpark.
Clemens showed up at Minute Maid Park on Tuesday to present a wheelchair to a combat veteran in conjunction with a charity group he works with, Wheelchairs for Warriors.
Clemens has maintained close ties with the Astros and Red Sox. Some of the Astros worked out at his home in Houston during the pandemic last year.
“It was nice having them come over and throw and hit at the house. That made it kind of fun,” Clemens said.
A trip to Boston has been planned for Clemens to renew his work with charities in the area that was put on hold in 2020.
“We’ve got a couple of events scheduled for New England and the Boston area. So I’ll get up and see the guys and maybe do a little TV and radio,” he said. “All the appearances are picking back up.”
For several years now, Clemens has thrown batting practice at Fenway Park to groups of Jimmy Fund donors.
“The Jimmy Fund is dear to my heart,” he said. “We do the celebrity batting practice thing at Fenway, and you can’t beat that. COVID shut a few down but I have three outstanding ones and I’ll get up there and throw. I’ll get a little oil working on my shoulder.
“I got my start there. It’s almost my second home.”
Clemens follows baseball closely and has been impressed with how the Red Sox have bounced back from last season.
“It’s a great surprise and it probably has a lot to do with [Alex] Cora and the guys at the top keeping everybody in check,” he said. “I’m not surprised. These young players coming up now are getting after it right away. It’s good to see.”
Clemens also is following the progress of his sons. Kody, 25, is a minor league infielder with the Tigers. Kacy, 26, is a first baseman who was in the Blue Jays organization and played independent ball in 2020. He’s pursuing that route again this season.
Frates family a force behind Gehrig Day
It’s a bit hard to believe that it took until this year for Major League Baseball to have Lou Gehrig Day.
The sport has rightly paid annual tributes to Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente, but it took a grassroots movement by patients, their families, and friends to bring MLB around to recognizing Lou Gehrig and creating an official platform to fight the scourge of ALS.
Success has many fathers and one of them was the late Pete Frates, who was diagnosed in 2012. He was a longtime advocate of using Gehrig’s legacy to advance the cause.
Let his mom, Nancy Frates, tell the story.
“This would be right at the top of his list. Six hours after his diagnosis, he sat at our table and Pete pretty much gave a directive to our whole family and told us what we were going to do,” she said.
“One was to get the disease in front of philanthropists, such as Bill Gates, which happened during the Ice Bucket Challenge. The second thing he said was he wanted MLB to take ownership of this disease because it was Lou Gehrig and it became Lou Gehrig’s Disease.”
Because Pete was a prominent player at Boston College, the family’s connection to baseball was firm. Rob Manfred, deputy commissioner at the time, became close to the Frates family, as did many people within the Red Sox organization.
The Yankees hosted the Frates family on Wednesday for their Lou Gehrig Day ceremony. They will be at Fenway Park on Tuesday along with Dr. Merit Cudkowicz from the highly regarded Healey Center for ALS at Massachusetts General Hospital.
“The collective love of baseball brought this day,” Nancy Frates said. “Pete is screaming, dancing, hitting baseballs, and taking swings up there. He’s very excited about this.”
For a lot of people who work for the Sox or are around the team regularly, this is personal. Pete was close to many in the organization right up until his death in 2019. NESN videographer John Martin, a constant presence at Fenway, died of ALS in 2018.
There’s hope. Calgary Flames assistant general manager (and former Globe Red Sox beat writer) Chris Snow is battling ALS but has lived a year longer than was projected thanks to experimental treatments.
Three current MLB players — Sam Hilliard, Jacob Nottingham, and Stephen Piscotty — have relatives who have or had ALS.
Hopefully Lou Gehrig Day becomes a fund-raising platform that leads to a cure and not just a once-a-year patch on the uniform and a pregame ceremony.
Something to keep an eye on in the coming weeks: umpires cracking down on pitchers using foreign substances on the ball. The league has been tracking spin rates since the season started and examining balls taken out of play. Four minor league pitchers were ejected (and then suspended for 10 games) last month and MLB umpires are likely to be doing the same or checking the hats and gloves of pitchers on a regular basis. The foreign substances rule has long been overlooked in the belief that pitchers needed something to get a better grip and managers looked the other way knowing their pitchers were doing the same thing. But now many pitchers are using pine tar, sunscreen, or some kind of homemade goo to improve their spin rate. Any tacky substance that keeps the ball on the fingertips a bit longer can dramatically improve spin … The National League Central looked wide open for the Cardinals at the start of the season given how little the other teams did to improve their rosters. But now Jack Flaherty is out for what the team has said will be “an extended period” with an oblique strain. Miles Mikolas was already on the 60-day injured list with a flexor tendon issue. The Cubs took the opportunity and won 9 of 10 to jump into first place. “I think we’re pretty damn good. Yeah, I do,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “All that matters is our belief in here and I think these guys believe that. Whatever you want to say, the outside narrative, you’ve got to write what you see and what you think. That’s fine by me. But the guys in the room believe in themselves and believe in each other.” … The Mets have 13 players on the injured list and an assortment of players on the major league roster who didn’t expect to be there. But they were 17-9 in May and emerged with a 3½-game lead in the division. The ReplaceMets, as they were dubbed, finished the month with five consecutive victories. Francisco Lindor also is starting to hit, which is their best news. Credit to manager Luis Rojas, who has gone through a lot in two seasons and proven he can take what New York has thrown at him. His management of the bullpen has been excellent … Old friend Josh Reddick, now 34, took a minor league deal with Arizona on April 12, went to their minor league camp, and started the season with Triple A Reno. But it paid off. He hit .333 with an .804 OPS in his first 14 games for the Diamondbacks as a platoon right fielder … Cape Cod League mainstay Paul Galop, who died on May 28, was honored by friends and family at Veterans Park in Chatham on Saturday. Galop was involved in the league for 40 years, including 15 as commissioner … Here’s a wild one: The last time the Blue Jays played in Toronto, on Sept. 29, 2019, Clay Buchholz was their starting pitcher and went five innings for the win … Happy birthday to Junichi Tazawa, who is 35. He was in the Red Sox organization from 2008-16, appearing in 302 games. Tazawa appeared in 13 of the 16 playoff games in 2013, recording 22 outs and giving up one run.