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    How Dodgers’ Mookie Betts packs power into 5-foot-9, 170-pound frame
    • July 9, 2023

    LOS ANGELES — Growing up in Nashville, Tenn., young Mookie Betts was usually the smallest player on the field when he played baseball. So the other kids did what kids do.

    “They said, ‘Move in,’” Betts recalled.

    Betts’ parents weren’t the type to let their son accept any limitations on his abilities. So they offered some advice.

    “They said, ‘Hit it over their heads.’ So I just did it. I don’t know how. I just did it,” Betts said. “God blessed me with the ability to do it, and I’m still trying to do it.”

    He is doing it more successfully than ever this season. Betts reached the All-Star break with 26 home runs, tied for third in the major leagues and on pace for the first 40-homer season of his career. Ten of those have come in his first at-bat of the game, a franchise record for leadoff home runs and just three short of matching the single-season record set by Alfonso Soriano with the 2003 Yankees.

    Betts has been outslugging much larger sluggers all season and will now try to do it in their private lair, the Home Run Derby scheduled for Monday in Seattle.

    Move in, indeed.

    A similarly sized outfielder in his playing days, Dave Roberts hit a total of 23 home runs in his 10-year playing career. When the Dodgers acquired Betts in 2020, Roberts said the one thing that surprised him about the former MVP was his power.

    “I just think looking at the stature, the physicality, it doesn’t add up,” the Dodgers manager said. “But as I’ve gotten to know him more and understand how he uses his body, the way he sequences (the parts of his swing), how he uses the ground force as well as anybody I’ve been around — then it starts to make sense.

    “That’s how he generates it. … It’s not the bat speed. It’s the ground force, the torque he creates. He gets this whippy, rubber-band type thing with his body — all those things and the sequencing of how it goes. I equate it to how a golfer who’s not that big can launch a ball because everything is working in sequence, where you can try to brute-force a ball and it just doesn’t go as far.”

    Hitting coach Robert Van Scoyoc highlights two things as keys to Betts’ ability to generate more power than his 5-foot-9, 170-pound frame implies — efficiency and leverage.

    “He just uses every inch of his frame and everything he has as efficiently as you can,” Van Scoyoc said. “He uses his core, his wrists, his arms, all of it, each part independently is super efficient, and as you put them all together as one piece, it can produce that.”

    Betts was one of several Dodgers players who went to Driveline for an evaluation this past offseason, that baseball think-tank known for helping pitchers now expanding into hitting. The feedback there just confirmed what the Dodgers’ hitting staff already knew about Betts’ swing, Van Scoyoc said.

    “Since he’s smaller in size and stature, he has to get into his front leg and he uses his front leg very effectively, goes into rotation and creates a lot of force and torque with his front leg which will translate into speed and power up the frame,” the hitting coach said.

    This is all well and good. But don’t expect Betts to traffic in words like “leverage” and “torque” when explaining how he generates power with his swing. In fact, don’t expect him to explain it.

    “I have no idea. I have no earthly idea where it comes from. I just do it,” he said. “People ask me about hitting, I try not to ever give advice on hitting. I just don’t know.

    “I know my swing. But for other people, I can’t tell other people how to do what I do. Hell, half the time I don’t know how I do what I do with hitting.”

    But he knew what he wanted to do.

    Betts took a step back offensively during his third full season in the big leagues. He hit just .264 in 2017 with an .803 OPS (still the lowest of his career). A friendship blossomed with new teammate J.D. Martinez, who encouraged Betts to make some changes in his swing.

    “Really just the finish,” Betts said. “It’s kind of hard to explain. My finish used to be kind of low and cut across and that’s why I would hit a lot of ground balls on sliders. J.D. and Rob were kind of the ones who taught me a better finish.”

    The result was Betts elevated more balls and drove them more often — though he insists that’s not what he was going for. His aim was “just to be a better hitter.”

    “I just didn’t want to hit it on the ground. Not for launch angle. I’m not into launch-angle stuff. Just not hitting it on the ground,” Betts said.

    “Sure, I wanted to drive it. But it was mostly to stop hitting ground balls on sliders. You look back at ’17, I hit .260. I hit a lot of ground balls to second on sliders, a lot of ground balls to short. I just didn’t want to do that anymore.”

    Betts hit a career-high 32 home runs in 2018, led the majors with a .640 slugging percentage (Martinez was second) and won the American League MVP award. Though his average has dropped since then, Betts’ slugging percentage has stayed up and his home run rate has increased.

    In his first three full big-league seasons, he had a .492 slugging percentage and hit a home run every 28.7 plate appearances while playing his home games at hitter-friendly Fenway Park. Since 2018, he has slugged .553 with a home run every 19.6 plate appearances.

    “When things are clicking for him, it’s a really efficient swing,” said Dodgers coach Clayton McCullough, whose job it will be to find Betts’ sweet spot pitching to him in the Derby. “There’s a lot of twitch in there and a lot of bat speed. And his ability to create some torque, it amazes me sometimes.

    “You can tell as soon as he hits it, you’re just like ‘Wow.’ For it to come off his bat that way, for someone who is not as physically maxed out or gifted as some other guys, it’s impressive — like everything he does.”

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    ​ Orange County Register