So far it seems that Betts is running away with this competition but here’s where it gets interesting. Defense.
Betts is a two-time Gold Glove winner, one of the few awards Trout doesn’t have on this resume. You would think that WAR would favor Betts in this department, right? Not so fast.
Baseball-Reference uses defensive runs saved for its WAR formula, a stat Betts led all outfielders in last season with 31 DRS. Trout was actually a below-average -6 DRS last season.
This year the tables have turned. Trout is tied for sixth among major league outfielders with 6 DRS while Betts is at 2 DRS. Betts has been a bit below his usual standards but remains a very good defensive outfielder. While he trails Trout in this category, it’s not by a significant margin.
The major difference between them is the position they play. WAR weighs defensive value based on the importance of the position. Trout plays a premium position in center field, which WAR gives him more credit for than Betts gets for playing right field. While the defensive metrics show only a marginal difference in their production, Trout’s advantage is magnified by the positional adjustment.
Mookie’s off the charts defensive metrics are partially attributed to him being compared to others at his position. The corner outfield spots typically have weaker defenders than center field. Betts has been well above-average at his position over his career since the average right fielder isn’t all that great with the glove. Trout has to compete with a deeper pool of elite center fielders.
Betts is certainly capable of playing center, which he has done on occasion. Fenway Park has a notoriously difficult right field corner that Betts has proven to have mastered. It makes sense for the Red Sox to keep him at that position, especially in home games. Boston also has Jackie Bradley as their primary center fielder, an elite defender in his own right.
Sticking Betts in right field is the correct move based on the makeup of this roster and dimensions of his home ballpark. It’s unfortunate that this hinders his value in the eyes of WAR, as this is the primary reason why Betts trails Trout.