Is Dodgers’ Mookie Betts paying a price for his extra pre-game work?

Is Dodgers’ Mookie Betts paying a price for his extra pre-game work?

NEW YORK — It’s not that. Or is it?

The Dodgers and Mookie Betts insist that the extra workload he has imposed on himself in order to learn a position he hadn’t played regularly since high school is not the reason for Betts’ offensive slowdown since mid-May.

“Oh no, no. This is the best I’ve felt since I was probably 21 or 22 years old. So that absolutely has no part,” said Betts who started saying last year that he finds the running required in right field more taxing than the ground he covers as an infielder.

“But the fact is, this is all new to me, man. This is all new. And it’s going to take more than two months to get. I was talking to (Gavin) Lux during the game (last week), and I was like, ‘This is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.’”

Acknowledging that, Betts has arranged his pre-game work accordingly, attacking the task of gaining the experience he lacks at shortstop by spending more time on the field than any other Dodger. Hours before game time every day, Betts is out working with coach Dino Ebel, doing fielding drills on his knees then working up to taking grounder after grounder at shortstop, making throw after throw. Frequently, veteran Miguel Rojas is by his side, offering guidance and advice.

All of this is before batting practice even starts.

Betts’ denial notwithstanding, it looks exhausting. And it might be reflected in Betts’ offensive performance.

Starting with his six-RBI game in South Korea, Betts got off to a roaring start, drawing projections of a second Most Valuable Player award. When the Dodgers completed a three-game series in San Francisco on May 15, he was all over the top of the NL leaderboard with a .348 batting average, a .445 on-base percentage and a 1.007 OPS with seven home runs, 28 RBIs and 37 runs scored in 45 games.

Betts hasn’t been the same hitter since then.

In 21 games since that series in San Francisco, the extra work seems to have caught up with Betts. He has batted .226 (19 for 84) with a significant dropoff in power (four doubles and three home runs producing a slugging percentage under .400). He has scored just 11 runs in that time. Recently, he has struggled especially in clutch situations. He had a two-run double in Sunday’s game at Yankee Stadium but he has just four hits in his past 24 at-bats (.167) with runners in scoring position.

Not coincidentally, the Dodgers’ offense has sputtered more often without Betts (or Shohei Ohtani, going through his own slump) sparking it.

Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said he knew this was coming – both an inevitable cooldown after such a hot start and Betts’ workload getting the blame.

“I think the lazy, easy answer is because of his workload at shortstop,” Roberts said. “I think there was something in there that, if there was a dry spell offensively, that was gonna be the reason. So I just don’t buy that. I kind of manage narratives. My entire job is managing narratives. So when it flips, nothing is said about it.

“I think this is one of those situations where the world would wait for Mookie to start not staying hot, and say that’s why. So I just want time to pass. I trust his work. I know he’s gonna hit. He’s gotten a lot better at shortstop. And we’ve still got a first-place ball club. He’s still a pretty good player.”

Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said he sees no signs of fatigue in Betts’ offensive performance. But Betts’ workload has to slack off at some point.

“When he was thriving earlier and doing that work, no one said anything,” Friedman said. “That being said, I do not think that level of work is sustainable over the course of a season. Whether he’s on a hot streak or not, I do not think that level of pre-game work is sustainable for a guy who plays every day.

“I know that he is of the mind to get to a point where he feels comfortable (at shortstop) and then have more of a maintenance routine. So obviously, we’ll continue to evaluate as we go.”

If it’s not Betts’ hours of extra work that have caused his offensive production to taper off – then what is it?

“I think it’s just the natural ebbs and flows of the season,” Dodgers hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc said. “I mean, he was really, really hot to start. There was natural regression. At this point in the season you would take his numbers any day. Obviously he’s on the downturn but I think that just means he’s going to get hot again soon.

“He’s a guy that works on his craft. He finds things in his swing then when his swing syncs up he’ll get going.”

Van Scoyoc said there has been “nothing major” in Betts’ mechanics that would be a warning sign — no loss of bat speed or indications he isn’t able to use his legs effectively. And indeed, Betts has had hills and valleys throughout his seven All-Star seasons.

“I think a lot of really great players, to put up great seasons are streaky – because to put up great seasons you have to have a period of time where you’re on a real heater,” Friedman said, pointing out that even those really great players can’t stay hot all season.

“So I think tons of great players have them and my thinking is whether he’s on a hot streak or not when he comes to the plate we’re all really excited that he’s up there in the box.”

Betts never seems happy with his swing and teammates like Freddie Freeman and J.D. Martinez have served as hype men, reminding Betts how good he is. He’s not having it right now.

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“I mean, if people could hit .500, then I think we’d all be doing it. But that’s not really a thing,” Betts said earlier last week. “So you’re gonna go through your ups and your downs, and nobody enjoys the downs. But, you know, I’m just working through it. It’s the waves of the season. You have to understand that. That doesn’t mean you accept it. You just have to understand it.”

Asked for an update on his feelings about his swing following Sunday’s game, Betts was conflicted.

“I mean, it’s whatever. It’s okay,” he said before tilting his head back and letting his frustration show. “BAHHHH – it’s not that good. It is what it is what it is.

“I’m grinding. I’m working. You know me. I’m always working to get better and it’s just not happening. There’s nothing else I can do but just keep on working.”


Rangers (TBA) at Dodgers (LHP James Paxton, 5-1, 4.19 ERA), Tuesday, 7:10 p.m., SportsNet LA, 570 AM

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