HOUSTON — The fans here at Minute Maid Park have chanted “M.V.P.! M.V.P.!” for Alex Bregman in this American League Championship Series, and you can understand their affection for the Astros’ wondrous third baseman. But in the interest of accuracy, the most valuable player in the American League is Mookie Betts of the Boston Red Sox, and he should win the award in a landslide.
Betts offers hints of the best Astros players. He is an undersized, do-it-all dynamo, like Jose Altuve, and a leadoff man with extraordinary power, like George Springer. Altuve was the league’s M.V.P. last season, and Springer took the honors for the World Series. Betts could win both this year.
On Wednesday, he helped lift the Red Sox to a three-games-to-one lead in the best-of-seven A.L. Championship Series, scoring twice and excelling on defense in a heart-pounding 8-6 victory. He had help from the other outfielders, with Jackie Bradley Jr. hitting the go-ahead home run and Andrew Benintendi making the game-saving catch in the ninth.
They are the modern version of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans, another homegrown outfield trio, who starred for the Red Sox team that went to the World Series in 1975. It is hard to think of a better outfield than Boston’s today, especially on defense.
“We have three center fielders in our outfield at all times,” starter David Price said. “To be able to have that — the way Benny plays the wall in left, Jackie everywhere, and Mookie, what he does in right field — I do believe we have the best outfield.”
Betts shines brightest. His .346 batting average and .640 slugging percentage led the majors this season, and he also had a .438 on-base percentage. It was the 50th time since 1900 that a player had reached or exceeded those figures in each category, and some of baseball’s greatest hitters show up on the list: Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Stan Musial, Ted Williams.
Yet Betts, 26, adds another element: speed. Only Larry Walker, in his M.V.P. season for Colorado in 1997, has ever matched Betts in average, on-base percentage and slugging while also stealing at least 30 bases. Walker won his third Gold Glove in right field that season, as Betts could this year — not bad for a player who spent most of his minor league career at a different position.
“To come up as a second baseman and turn himself into the type of right fielder that he is just shows how athletic he is, for one, but also how dedicated he is to making himself better,” Red Sox infielder Brock Holt said. “Offensively, he’s the M.V.P. But he runs the bases really, really well, he plays a Gold Glove right field and puts up video-game-like numbers in the box. He can do it all.”
In Game 4 of the A.L.C.S., Betts commanded attention for his leaping pursuit of a deep drive by Altuve, which led to the controversial interference call that turned a possible two-run homer into an out. The umpire, Joe West, determined that a fan had reached over the wall and prevented Betts from making the catch.
“I’m 100 percent positive I was going to be able to catch that one,” Betts said, and who could argue? The issue was where the interference occurred — in the stands, or over the field — not whether Betts could have caught it. Even the Astros conceded that.
“The ball looked like it was going to leave the ballpark,” Manager A. J. Hinch said. “But we assume — and you can assume a lot with Mookie, because he’s an incredible athlete — we assume he’s going to make this spectacular catch, jumping as high as he can into the crowd.”
For Betts, it was just one of several standout defensive plays in Game 4. His arm strength kept Marwin Gonzalez from trying to score from first on a two-out double in the seventh by Carlos Correa. Reliever Matt Barnes then froze Tyler White on a third-strike curveball to strand the runners and preserve a two-run lead.
In the eighth, the speedy Tony Kemp led off with a bullet down the right-field line and tried for second. Hinch acknowledged that testing Betts was a mistake, but Bradley was not surprised.
“There’s not many times a fast guy’s going to hit down the line and he’s not going to get extra bases,” Bradley said. “But we have a special outfielder out there.”
Betts dashed far for the ball, corralling it and firing a strike to Xander Bogaerts at second to cut down Kemp. Betts said he had practiced that play many times in spring training, and had assumed off the bat that Kemp would go for two. It turned into a career highlight for Betts.
“That’s probably in the top three of my throws, for sure,” he said.
Kemp and Betts have a history — and played against each other when they were growing up in Tennessee. Betts rooted for Vanderbilt teams and always wanted to play for the Commodores, but when Kemp enrolled there and was the freshman of the year in the Southeastern Conference, Betts changed his mind.
“I know I’m not any better than Tony,” Betts told Chad Jennings of The Athletic, describing his mind-set at the time. “I don’t want to sit behind him.”
Betts committed instead to the University of Tennessee, but the Red Sox had other plans for him. He reminded their scouts of Derek Jeter, for his fluid athleticism and unflappable demeanor — a slow heartbeat, as scouts call it.
Only one other team, the Kansas City Royals, was serious about Betts, and the Red Sox drafted him in the fifth round, signing him for $500,000. That was more than the recommended bonus for a fifth-rounder, and in explaining their decision to the commissioner’s office, the Red Sox emphasized Betts’s multisport skills.
Another sport he has mastered? Bowling. Betts has rolled several 300 games, and last November, in Reno, Nev., he had his first in a Professional Bowlers Association Tour event: the World Series of Bowling.
A different World Series is the goal now, for the best player in the league this season and the best team.
A regular analytical column looking at major league baseball.
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