As baseball has been redefined by analytics in recent years, one role that has been largely reconsidered is that of the leadoff batter. No longer is it the realm of the pesky, pitch-spoiler who gets on frequently and steals bases.
The Houston Astros put their leading home run hitter, George Springer, at the top of the order and rode his hot bat to a World Series title in 2017. In spring training, the Yankees tinkered with their lineup briefly by batting Aaron Judge first in an exhibition game.
It was on that day in March when Alex Cora, the new Boston manager who had previously been a coach with Houston, was asked what his prototype leadoff hitter looked like.
“For me, somebody very close to Mookie Betts,” Cora said. “That’s my vision of the leadoff guy.”
That assessment proved to be prescient this season as Betts, who led his team to a franchise-best 108 wins and a World Series title, followed that up by winning the American League Most Valuable Player Award on Thursday. Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers was named M.V.P. of the National League.
Betts was a leadoff batter and more for Boston. He displayed a dizzying degree of offensive versatility in his lithe 5-foot-9, 180-pound frame. He batted .346 and posted a .640 slugging percentage — the highest figures in the majors — while stealing 30 bases and hitting 32 home runs, both career-highs.
And if the essence of a leadoff batter remains scoring runs, Betts did that, too. He scored 129 times, the most in the majors.
Such dynamic offense paired with his stellar defense in right field — he recently won his third consecutive Gold Glove — got Betts the first-place vote on 28 of 30 M.V.P. ballots.
While there was some discussion during the Red Sox playoff run about who the most valuable member of the team was — Betts or the designated hitter J.D. Martinez — the baseball writers who voted left little doubt as to their opinion.
Mike Trout of the Los Angeles Angels, who finished second to Betts, and Martinez, who finished fourth, each got one of the two remaining A.L. first-place votes. Cleveland Indians third baseman Jose Ramirez, who was named either third or fourth on 21 ballots, finished third. It was the fourth second-place finish in seven seasons for Trout, who has won the award twice.
Betts is the first M.V.P. to serve primarily as a leadoff batter since Jimmy Rollins of the Philadelphia Phillies won the National League award in 2007, and the first in the American League since Ichiro Suzuki of the Seattle Mariners won in 2001.
Just as Betts lapped the field, so, too, did Yelich. He garnered 29 of 30 N.L. first-place votes to easily outpace Chicago Cubs second baseman Javier Baez and Colorado Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado.
The only first-place vote that did not go to Yelich went to Mets pitcher Jacob deGrom, who finished fifth in the voting after being named the winner of the N.L.’s Cy Young Award on Wednesday. Freddie Freeman, a first baseman for the Atlanta Braves, finished fourth in the M.V.P. voting.
The left-handed hitting Yelich, like Betts, led his league in hitting with a .326 average and also led the N.L. with a 1.000 on-base-plus-slugging percentage. He hit 36 home runs and stole 22 bases.
The National League race was considered wide open entering the final month. But Yelich’s dominant second half — he had a 1.129 O.P.S. after the All-Star break — fueled the Brewers’ September surge that led them to the best record in the National League after defeating the Cubs in a playoff for the Central Division title. It was the team’s eighth consecutive win.
Yelich’s victory on Thursday was also a nice reward for Brewers General Manager David Stearns, who acquired Yelich from the Miami Marlins last winter for four prospects. Yelich, who will turn 27 in December, is under contract through 2022.
The Red Sox have a similar anchor in Betts, 26, who does not reach free agency for two more seasons. As the Red Sox burst out of the gate this season, winning 18 of their first 20 games, it was fitting that Betts was their catalyst in the leadoff spot nearly every night.
In an era of carefully tracked launch angles and fly-ball rates, Betts distinguished himself by hitting the ball hard, but also with a discerning eye. He was at his best against the division-rival Yankees, who could not push their way past Boston. In 17 games against the Yankees, Betts batted .415 with 10 doubles, three homers, 13 walks and 15 runs batted in.
The victory by Betts marked the third consecutive year that a league M.V.P. had also won a World Series title, following Jose Altuve of the Astros last year and Kris Bryant of the Chicago Cubs in 2016. Before that, it had been exceedingly rare. Between Kirk Gibson, who won the M.V.P. for the World Series-champion Los Angeles Dodgers in 1988, and Bryant, the only other league M.V.P. to win a World Series title in the same season was Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants in 2012.