What we learned in MLB this week: Mookie Betts remains unique, Cody Bellinger’s revival

Every Thursday, Jordan Shusterman examines one thing from each MLB division that we’ve learned from the past week of action. 

AL East: Rays have been average; team to watch at the trade deadline

The Rays finally have some company atop the AL East for the first time all season after getting swept by Texas at Globe Life Field, paired with Baltimore’s Wednesday win over the Dodgers. A massive four-game series with the Orioles fittingly begins on Thursday. Since starting the season 29-7, Tampa Bay has gone 31-32. 

I wasn’t expecting them to maintain their 130-win pace, but I didn’t think their true-talent was close to .500, though this sizable sample would suggest the latter is actually the case. I was sold on the Rays as a legitimate force atop the AL postseason picture and in the game’s toughest division, but we’ve started to see some of the flaws as the offense has cooled off from its historically hot start and the pitching staff has thinned due to injuries. 

The roster as it stands is still plenty capable of winning this division, but I am highly focused on the Rays with the trade deadline approaching as a team that should be leveraging its strong farm system as a means of acquiring impact big-league contributors. The fact that the Yankees and Blue Jays have struggled to this degree relative to expectations is an opportunity that doesn’t come around every season, and one that the Rays should be looking to take advantage of further down the stretch.

They’ll need to avoid costly, big swings at a rental a la Joe Ryan for Nelson Cruz, but I still would like to see them be aggressive over the next few weeks and try to make the most of what is one of the most complete Rays teams we’ve seen in years. 

AL Central: Eduoard Julien is fueling the Twins offense

The Twins have hung around in the AL Central race with Cleveland thanks to a stunningly improved and legitimately excellent pitching staff. The offense, on the other hand, has been the opposite of inspiring, with big names like Joey Gallo and Carlos Correa only delivering in spurts and Byron Buxton downright disappointing as a full-time DH. With the stars underwhelming, Minnesota has turned to some of the talented but less-proven bats to keep the offense afloat. Trevor Larnach started hot before slumping hard and getting demoted, while Alex Kiriloff has heated up in recent weeks. 

The one hitter who has really turned it on as of late, though, is 24-year-old Québécois superhero Eduoard Julien, a bat-first second baseman whose power and OBP skills have earned him legitimate prospect status since the Twins took him in the 18th round back in 2019. 

Julien got his first big league call-up a couple weeks into the season, but then bounced back and forth between Minnesota and Triple-A a few times before finally sticking in mid-June. Since his recall on June 10, Julien’s 191 wRC+ is fifth-best in MLB, providing a much-needed jolt to a Twins offense that’s been desperate for any semblance of a spark or intimidation factor. He’s still striking out a good bit, but Julien’s doing more than enough damage otherwise to warrant premier placement in Minnesota’s lineup for the foreseeable future.

AL West: Alex Speas is a cool story, but also important

The Rangers completed the sweep of fellow AL powerhouse Tampa Bay on Wednesday in a game that featured one of the cooler moments of the season: 25-year-old right-hander Alex Speas’ MLB debut. A second-round pick out of a Georgia high school back in 2016, Speas always threw hard but struggled to harness his command or stay healthy in the early part of his pro career. After posting an 11.15 ERA across 15 appearances in 2021, Speas decided to step away from the game as a player and spend 2022 coaching kids of all ages closer to home in North Carolina. 

Almost exactly a year ago, Speas was named the head coach at the Combine Academy, which boasted two of the top prep players in all of North Carolina in outfielder Justin Best and right-hander Chase Meyer. But before the spring season began in 2023, Speas decided to give his playing career one more shot, reuniting with the Rangers. He quickly made a strong impression in Spring Training. He dominated in Double-A and Triple-A before getting the long-awaited call to the big leagues earlier this week.

While Speas’ story is already a remarkable one worth celebrating, what happens next is arguably even more fascinating. The Rangers have one of baseball’s best lineups, one possibly good enough to outscore the uneven run prevention of a shaky pitching staff. But this team’s ultimate ceiling in October may be capped by how well they can hang onto close leads late in games. 

They already made the first big trade of the summer in landing lefty Aroldis Chapman, and he’s been phenomenal thus far. But it’s still quite thin behind Chapman and fellow veteran lefty Will Smith. Perhaps Speas — whose stuff (triple-digit velocity, a promising slider and cutter) sure seems to fit the role of late-inning weapon — could become a lot more than just a neat story. His 1.00 ERA in 36 innings with 59 strikeouts in the minors before the call-up suggests that could very well be the case. He’s definitely a name to monitor. 

NL East: Kodai Senga deserves way more attention

I was rather bullish on Kodai Senga’s ability to transition from NPB to MLB, having confidence that his high-powered arsenal headlined by the trademark “ghost fork” would give even the best hitters in the world fits in his first season. Forkballs (and similar splitters) are just so uncommon in today’s game, but pitchers who can master them like Senga has for years or recent MLB examples like Kevin Gausman and Tony Gonsolin have a massive advantage attacking hitters with such an unfamiliar offering. At the same time, even a Senga optimist like myself wasn’t quite sure the degree to which he would succeed, let alone excel. 

San Diego Padres, New York Mets are mired in two of the most disappointing seasons in MLB history

Well, the 12% walk rate (second-highest among qualified starters) suggests that concerns about Senga’s command were warranted, but the 30% strikeout-rate (sixth-highest) is even higher than it was in any of his final three seasons in NPB. His forkball has been dynamite as expected, but it’s his 90 MPH cutter that ranks as one of the game’s most effective pitches, truly elevating Senga’s arsenal into one of the game’s deepest — especially when the heater is averaging a hearty 95.9 MPH. This dude is really, really good.  

It’s hard for him to get the credit when he’s been a mere positive footnote in an otherwise dismally disappointing Mets campaign, but I’d be ecstatic about the 30-year-old right-hander being an important part of the team’s core moving forward if I was a Mets fan, no matter how this nightmare season turns out. 

NL Central: Cody Bellinger mashing lefties

Even if you haven’t been following the Cubs all that closely, there’s a good chance you’re at least vaguely aware former NL MVP Cody Bellinger is enjoying quite a bounceback season in 2023 after dismal showings over the last two years. Signed to a 1-year, $17.5M deal with a $25M mutual option for 2024 after being non-tendered by Los Angeles, Bellinger has been everything Chicago could possibly have hoped for and  more. He might not be full-blown MVP Bellinger, but he’s been a damn good hitter – his .888 OPS ranks eighth among NL position players – and a capable defender in both center field and at first base.  

One element of his return to form has my attention in particular: his performance against southpaws. Left-on-left is traditionally a tough match-up for even some of the best lefty bats in the game, but Bellinger has made it look shockingly easy in 2023. Here’s a look at how he’s performed against lefties over the years:

  • 2017: .903 OPS in 173 PA
  • 2018: .681 OPS in 210 PA
  • 2019: .982 OPS in 228 PA
  • 2020: .666 OPS in 83 PA
  • 2021: .383 OPS in 96 PA
  • 2022: .583 OPS in 160 PA
  • 2023: 1.066 OPS in 89 PA

That 1.066 OPS mark isn’t just the best of his career and more in line with his early career peaks – it’s the best mark of any left-handed hitter in MLB this season with at least 70 plate appearances against lefty arms, edging out the likes of Freddie Freeman, Yordan Alvarez, and Shohei Ohtani.

This is a remarkable development. There was absolutely a version of this season where Bellinger rediscovered his power stroke against right-handers and became an attractive trade target as a platoon bat at the deadline. Instead, he’s raking against all opposing pitchers and might suddenly become one of the best available rental bats of any variety in the coming weeks, assuming the Cubs pivot to sell mode soon. 

NL West: Mookie Betts is the best utilityman of all time

Allow me to take a moment to appreciate the season in progress for one Markus Lynn Betts, Mr. MLB himself. Predictably underwhelming Home Run Derby performance aside, Betts has been launching balls to a stunning degree, and is comfortably on-pace for his first career 40-homer season to go along with a boatload of walks. It’s the best he’s looked at the plate since his MVP campaign in 2018, and he’s doing it while seamlessly evolving into the best possible version of a super-utility man. 

After bouncing between his native right field, second base and — most incredibly — shortstop, over the first half, Betts has started at the keystone every game since struggling prospect Miguel Vargas was optioned to the minors. This kind of flexibility Betts now suddenly offers cannot possibly be overstated when understanding how the Dodgers have kept chugging along atop the NL West despite ample flaws up and down the roster.

‘The final thing is really just to be a Hall of Famer’ — Mookie Betts

Defensive versatility is a valuable trait in and of itself at the big league level. But to be able to mix and match with a player who is also one of the best hitters on the planet? That’s both tremendously rare and a huge boon for a Dodgers team that is not nearly as deep as it has been in recent years.

Ben Zobrist is the obvious headliner among recent examples of multi-positional players who also rake. Ketel Marte had a similar split between second base and center field during his breakout campaign in 2019, but has since reverted back to being a full-time infielder. Betts’ teammate Chris Taylor has long been known for his versatility, but he’s never been this level of a hitter. All of which is to say: this is not your standard great Mookie Betts season. It’s something much, much different — and we should be appreciating it accordingly. 

Jordan Shusterman is half of @CespedesBBQ and a baseball writer for FOX Sports. He has covered baseball for his entire adult life, most notably for MLB.com, DAZN and The Ringer. He’s a Mariners fan living in the Eastern Time Zone, which means he loves a good 10 p.m. first pitch. You can follow him on Twitter @j_shusterman_. 

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