A few weeks before the All-Star break, Mookie Betts called J.D. Martinez.
Betts had just decided to participate in this year’s Home Run Derby, and wanted some guidance from his Dodgers teammate — not on how to hit home runs in the event, but rather to help him continue his ascendant season once it was done.
“If my swing gets messed up,” Betts said, “are you gonna be able to [help me] get it back?”
Retelling the conversation at last week’s All-Star media day, Martinez laughed.
“I was, ‘Your swing has been messed up before. And we’ve been able to get it back,’ ” Martinez responded.
Turns out, such concerns have been unfounded.
Since the Dodgers resumed play Friday, Betts has continued the blistering pace he set during the first half of the season, rediscovering a level of superstar form that had been missing the last couple of seasons.
During a trip to New York over the weekend, Betts had seven hits in 13 at-bats, blasting his 27th homer of the season Saturday and adding three RBIs in a series win over the Mets.
After another hit in Monday’s series opener at Baltimore — making it 14 out of 15 games in which he has reached safely — Betts entered play Tuesday with a .972 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, trailing only the Atlanta Braves’ Ronald Acuña Jr. (1.007) in the National League.
Those results prompted manager Dave Roberts to make a declaration Sunday.
“I think he’s trying to win the MVP,” Roberts said. “Superstar players are motivated by certain things, and I think he’s put himself in that conversation. That carrot is out there now.”
Had Betts told Roberts that was his goal?
“No,” the manager said. “I just know him well enough.”
That led Roberts to note another observation, one that might be just as telling about Betts’ play this season.
“I do know that he’s just mentally in a good spot, as far as being with this group of guys,” Roberts said. “There’s just a lot of joy every time I see him, where in the last couple years it’s been in and out for various reasons.”
Indeed, all appears to be interconnected — Betts’ strong play, his affinity for this year’s roster and his return to MVP-caliber production, a level he hadn’t consistently reached since his first season with the club in 2020.
In 2021, Betts was limited by a hip injury, batting a career-low .264 while playing just 122 games.
Last year, Betts’ health was better, but his play remained inconsistent. He had two blistering months in May and August, when he hit 21 of his career-high 35 home runs. But when he arrived at spring training this year, he bemoaned the cold stretches that dogged him throughout the season, aiming to be a steadier presence in 2023.
After batting .235 through April, Betts has done just that. In 63 games since May 1, he has a .305 batting average, 23 home runs and 57 RBIs. In that time, only Angels two-way star Shohei Ohtani has accumulated as many wins above replacement as a hitter (both he and Betts have 3.9).
“It’s not necessarily getting hits,” Betts said of his recent play. “It’s more just the quality of at-bats and getting solid contact, swinging at the right pitches. You can’t control if you get hits or not. I feel like I’m doing those three things and maximizing my chances of getting hits. That’s really what I want to be consistent with.”
Has something changed with Betts’ mechanics or approach at the plate?
“It’s tough to say,” he said. “I mean, I’ve gone through so many mechanical things and feels and I think I finally found a mechanical cue and feel that sticks and I’m able to repeat over and over again that works. I think it all kind of correlates.”
So too, apparently, does his renewed demeanor.
Betts, the Dodgers’ primary right fielder, has relished a return to the infield this year, where he has started in 33 of his last 71 games.
He has enjoyed a reunion with Martinez, who was not only his teammate in Boston (where he helped Betts reimagine his swing during his MVP season in 2018) but also one of his closest friends in the game.
Amid some good-natured teasing with Freddie Freeman after the All-Star Game last week, Betts noted the bonds within this year’s Dodgers squad, too, calling it “one of the best groups of guys I’ve ever been a part of.”
To Roberts, it has all made Betts a brighter light around the clubhouse, more willing to joke with teammates and engage media members and embrace the spotlight of his superstar stature.
“When Mookie is where he is right now, I think everyone feels that sense,” Roberts said. “It’s just a good vibe we’ve got going on.”
The latest example came Monday afternoon.
Following an extra-innings loss to the Mets and late arrival into Baltimore the previous night, Roberts came to the ballpark anticipating a quiet pregame scene.
Instead, “guys were laughing and messing with each other in the training room,” he said. “And Mookie was right there in the middle of it.”