Mookie Betts entered 2021 beginning his 12-year contract extension and looking to help the Los Angeles Dodgers repeat after they won their first World Series since 1988.
Betts said he was ready for the challenge of defending the title and expected teams to be at their best when playing the Dodgers.
“I think we all have one goal in mind, and that’s to win again,” he said last April. “We know it’s going to take a lot of hard work, we know there’s a bullseye on our back. But I would rather be playing with a bullseye on my back than trying to chase to get to the top.”
Betts started out slow as he hit .250/.364/.405 with a 115 wRC+ in April while dealing with lower back stiffness that lingered throughout the month and a sore right forearm from being hit by a pitch. During the month, his average exit velocity was just 88 mph, two mph below his average in 2020 and four below his 2018 MVP season.
Betts admitted the back injury was causing him more problems than expected and Dodgers manager Dave Roberts noted the outfielder was pressing at the plate, which was also contributing to his struggles.
Betts’ production increased in May with a 131 wRC+ but it was still well below what he was capable of. He also received treatment on his left shoulder during the month.
In June, Betts’ hitting increased a little more but most notably, so did his average exit velocity, which was 91 mph over the month and signaled that a breakout was close.
The production finally came in July as Betts was playing like the team expected him to. During the month, he hit .370/.417/.685 with a 188 wRC+. He was also named to the All-Star Game for the fifth time in his career and his first time as a National League player.
However, just as he was finding his swing, Betts was removed from a game against the Colorado Rockies just out of the All-Star break. Roberts said the hip injury was nagging him throughout the season, which was part of the reason he decided to skip the Midsummer Classic.
Although the right hip inflammation was something Betts played through during the first half of the season, Roberts acknowledged at the end of July it was the worst it’s been. Betts received a cortisone injection and he was placed on the 10-day injured list.
Betts was activated with a plan to just manage the discomfort and figure it out after the season because it wasn’t going to go away. It was later determined the injury was a hip pointer as a result of a bone spur that would have ended most players’ seasons.
After going on the IL for a second time, Betts met with a specialist and received more treatment, which seemed to work. A week later, Betts said he was finally feeling healthy with no pain.
“It’s just good to feel like me again,” Betts said in August.
He finished the second half of the season hitting .280/.369/.516 with a 139 wRC+, giving him an overall season line of .264/.367/.487 in 122 games with a 131 wRC+ and 3.9 WAR.
Once the postseason came around, Betts was hitting a lot of singles but was struggling to connect for any power.
His best playoff performance came in Game 5 of the NL Division Series, when he went 4-for-4, becoming the first Dodgers player to record at least four hits in a winner-take-all postseason game.
He finished the postseason hitting .319/.377/.404 in 12 games.
Although he wasn’t able to help the team complete their goal, Betts was happy with what the team was able to accomplish through all their injuries as they tied a franchise record with 106 wins and returned to the NLCS a fourth time in the past five seasons.
“Super proud. We had a target on our back. Everywhere we go it’s, ‘Beat L.A. Beat L.A.,’ Betts said after the NLCS. “To me, that just lets you know you’ve done something good and everybody is after you.
“It’s hard to be on top. Everybody fights to get on top, and then it’s a battle to keep everybody away. It’s hard, but it’s what we signed up for.”
After the season Betts was named a Gold Glove finalist and he was a nominee for the 2021 All-MLB Team, but did not get recognized with either honor.
Betts’ 2021 highlight
The highlight of Betts’ season was a web gem against the San Diego Padres in April.
With two outs in the bottom of the ninth inning and the tying runners in scoring position, Tommy Pham hit a line drive that Betts immediately broke left on and sprawled out for a game-winning catch in the right-center field gap.
The catch probability was a mere 10% according to Statcast, making it a five-star play.
“It takes an elite defender in center to make that play,” Roberts said. “A lot of things have got to line up: the jump on the baseball, the line to the ball and still secure the baseball.
“There’s a handful of guys that probably could’ve made that play. It just speaks to that’s why he’s arguably the best all-around player in baseball.”
It was recognized by MLB as the Play of the Week.
Betts was able to avoid hip surgery after the season so he should have a full offseason to let his body recover and prepare for the 2022 campaign.
He should once again be one of the Dodgers’ best players and if he stays healthy all year, could find himself in NL MVP discussions.
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