Heading into spring training this year, ahead of what could become his second MVP season, Los Angeles Dodgers superstar Mookie Betts said one of his offseason plans was to bulk up.
“Losing weight equals losing strength,” Betts told MLB.com, recalling test results at Driveline Baseball, the state-of-the-art performance lab he visited at the Dodgers’ recommendation. “I was only small, man, so I had to gain weight back.”
The bulking brought Betts up to 178 pounds, according to MLB.com. He said he played at 170 pounds in 2022, when he ripped 35 homers. This year he has already surpassed him on his way to a career high. His next player will be No. 40, a stunning total for anyone, but especially someone of Betts’ size.
At 5-foot-9, Betts would be only the fourth player under 5-foot-10 in MLB history to hit 40 homers in a season, joining Roy Campanella in 1953, Hack Wilson in 1930 and Mel Ott in 1929. by listed height , a corner of the baseball world with enough reach to rival first base. For example, Alex Bregman, who tallied 41 homers in 2019, is listed at 6 feet, although he appears to be at the same level as Betts.)
But the point here is not so much the precise contours of the story as the historical feel of Betts’s celebrity. A freak athlete who also excelled at basketball in high school and remains an extraordinarily good bowler, Betts and his ever-growing list of accomplishments may seem as if they’ve been transported from a different day and age: a world of black and white black. TV, word-of-mouth exploits and larger-than-life heroes who were actually fit for everyday life.
The history of professional sports is primarily a story about getting bigger. More interest led to more money, which led to sports becoming a more dedicated career pursuit, which led to more energy focused on training and teaching in-demand skills, which led to more pursuit of bigger and stronger players who could be trained and taught. . It all makes sense. Baseball’s journey into the realm of physical exceptionalism is less obvious than that of football or basketball, but it’s happening. It’s been happening for generations.
“Pitchers are much better today,” Willie Mays said way back in 1970, entering the valedictory stages of his Hall of Fame career. “The most improved pitch is the slider. Everyone throws it now, and many throw it well.”
“Pitchers today are bigger,” he added, “and they throw harder.”
Many years and exponential steps down the road, Mays’ observations would ring just as true if he made them today. The best all-around player of his era—and still a popular choice for best all-around player ever—Mays stood 5 feet 10 and weighed about 182 pounds during his playing days, according to his account at the Sporting News. He hit 40 or more homers in six seasons en route to 660 career long balls and acknowledged the growing difficulty, even if the league never quite caught up to his extraordinary greatness.
Decades later, Betts is about Mays’ size, but the competition looks much different. During Mays’ peak, from 1954 to 1965, there were 18 total hitters who stood at least 6 feet tall, weighed at least 200 pounds, and had at least 3,000 plate appearances (about six seasons, or however long it would take to reach free agency now) ). During Betts’ career, since 2014, there have been 113 hitters who achieved these results.
The average measurements of the five other hitters who have reached the 40-homer threshold or are on pace to do so this season — Matt Olson, Pete Alonso, Kyle Schwarber, Shohei Ohtani and Ronald Acuña Jr. — are 6-foot-2, 223 pounds . Then there’s Betts, who at times looks like he’s moving in uniform as he bounds around the bases at Dodger Stadium – and who currently leads the National League in OPS+.
Betts has elite athletic traits, obviously. They are simply not noticeable to her tailor. His hand-eye coordination is what this specific type of legend is made of. His ultrafast visual processing and reaction times are something approaching superpowers in a baseball landscape dominated by fastballs that average 94 mph.
When Betts jumped onto prospects’ radar in 2013, after hitting zero homers in 72 minor league games in 2012, minor league manager Carlos Febles said he “recognizes pitches as well as anyone I’ve seen at this level.” This surprisingly remained true even as Betts rose up to the major league level.
What that means, functionally, is that Betts is maximizing his physical potential more than any other hitter today. While his top exit velocity doesn’t stand out — at 110.1 mph, his hardest-hit ball of the season ranks 177th among qualified hitters — Betts consistently succeeds at the next-level task of putting the baseball past the fence.
In 2023, a hitter’s priority list is: swing with a good pitch, make contact, hit the ball hard, hit the ball in the air. The order changes based on the player and the situation, but this is the list. Betts is the undisputed master of doing all of these things at once. This season, 19% of his swings have resulted in balls leaving the club at more than 95 miles per hour and at an angle of 5 degrees or greater. (Aaron Judge is second with 15.5%.)
All this means: Betts hits the ball hard and in the air practically on demand. He achieves the basic objective of the game, despite playing against a cavalcade of physically more imposing competitors. In an era of measurements, of otherworldly talents like Judge and Acuña, and of more calibrated comparisons that work to place their very modern excellence in the context of baseball history, Betts is something of the exception that proves the rule.
It didn’t stand out like a sore thumb on first glance at the grainy 1950s footage of the Polo Grounds or Ebbets Field. It doesn’t stand out on the surface level of the Statcast rankings. But in reality, Betts pops off the field and off the screen, a pound-for-pound heavyweight whose power would play into any generation.