TRENTON, N.J. — Entering the 2013 season, Mookie Betts was just like a lot of promising but unspectacular position prospects. He was an undersized, 5-foot-9, 156-pound, light-hitting, erratic-throwing shortstop with above-average speed and athleticism but little to show for it.
A year and a half later, the 21-year-old Betts had advanced to Triple-A Pawtucket in the Red Sox system and had separated himself from the pack.
So what changed?
The Red Sox moved him from shortstop to second base, turning an unreliable defender into one of the better glove men around. He added weight and muscle, and low Class A Greenville hitting coach U.L. Washington helped him tweak his hitting mechanics at the plate, allowing him to become an on-base machine with surprising power.
Before it was over, Betts had started to put together one of the most fascinating hot spells in the minors, an extended on-base streak that spilled over into this season. Consequently, Betts has climbed into the ranks of the top prospects in baseball.
The on-base streak began last Aug. 1 in the Carolina League, when Betts drew a walk against Lynchburg reliever Carlos Perez as a member of high Class A Salem. The next night, he collected another hit. The next night, he did so again.
From that first walk against Perez until the end of the season, Betts reached base in every game, 30 in all, and then did so in each of Salem’s five games in the team’s run to the Carolina League title.
And even if he had hiccupped and drawn the collar once or twice down the stretch, the numbers he put up with Salem were good enough to reiterate to the Red Sox and the world that they really had something in Betts, whom they drafted in 2011 out of a Brentwood, Tenn., high school and signed for an over-slot $750,000 in the fifth round.
Promoted to Salem on July 9, 2013, Betts from that date until the end of the season led the Carolina League in average (.341) and slugging (.551) while ranking fifth in on-base percentage (.414). While he didn’t qualify for the league’s season batting title, he provided unexpected power from a sinewy if not necessarily musclebound frame. Not bad for a second baseman whose primary calling card entering the year was his fleet feet.
Betts credits his meteoric rise to a couple of factors. First, he made obvious strength gains. He kept his “eat anything in front of me” approach to his diet, but also spent a lot more time in the weight room.
He’s still 5-foot-9, but instead of his listed 156 pounds, he weighs in at a much more robust 175 pounds. He’s not going to be mistaken for Yasiel Puig anytime soon, but those extra 20 pounds certainly helped him put a little more thump behind the ball.
Beyond that, he also eliminated an exaggerated windup during his load, which he blamed, in part, for throwing him off during the early stages of his career.
“I had a big leg kick. That was it, just a big leg kick that threw off the timing,” Betts said. “It was just like a pitcher’s leg kick, like when they wind up and get ready to throw a pitch. It was about the same thing. It was throwing off my timing.”
The suggestion to remove the leg kick came from Washington, Betts’ hitting coach at Greenville in 2013.
The change came during a tough stretch for Betts–he hit .157 through 70-at-bats in April at Greenville–and it paid immediate dividends.
“I guess it took me about a month to figure out,” Betts said. “With U.L. Washington, he kind of told me, ‘Don’t do this,’ and it actually happened in a day. Pregame, he said ‘Don’t do it. Try just striding,’ and actually I hit my first home run that day (April 10). From then on, it kind of worked for me.”
Did it ever.
After bottoming out with a .145 average heading into play on May 5, Betts went on a rampage, hitting .353/.451/.557 in 240 plate appearances at Greenville to earn a promotion to Salem in July.
Perhaps no single game in 2013 showcased Betts’ new swing and explosive hitting potential quite like an Aug. 23 game at Myrtle Beach. He went 5-for-6 that day and slammed two homers and two doubles while scoring four times and driving in seven runs.
It was about that time that word began to circulate through the system that something special had been brewing and had just now begun to reach that perfect rolling boil.
“I know he almost hit for the cycle, and in Myrtle Beach he had like nine hits in two games or something crazy like that,” Betts’ organization-mate Peter Hissey said. “He’s done that several times this year, so these stories have validity when they keep happening day in and day out.”
Betts didn’t stop there. After moving to the Arizona Fall League, he kept on making loud contact and getting on base at a torrid clip. He reached base in all 14 games in which he batted for Surprise.
If you’re counting, Betts got on base in 30 consecutive games to end the regular season, then five more in the playoffs, followed by 14 more in the AFL. Stretches like this tend to get noticed, and this one was no different.
The AFL gave Betts a taste of what he might face in 2014, when he took over second base at Double-A Portland.
The Double-A level has a way of separating prospects from suspects, and the Eastern League is known by and large as a pitchers-friendly league. Moreover, Betts would be starting his season in Maine, which isn’t exactly known for its friendly temperatures in April.
All these could have been used as easy excuses if Betts had struggled in the early going. That didn’t matter. He just kept hitting like the calendar still said it was 2013 and he was still humming along in the Carolina League.
Manager Billy McMillon moved from Salem to Portland with Betts this season. He said that, even with the layoff and the level change, Betts has been the same dynamic player.
“I’ve only seen him play like he’s been doing now,” said McMillon, who logged parts of six seasons in the majors. “I haven’t seen any significant slumps. I haven’t seen any inconsistent plays defensively. I’ve come to see him as a fun-loving, hard-working kid who is just really exciting to watch. It’s not hard to close your eyes and see him playing in a big league stadium today.”
Back to the streak, which Betts didn’t waste much time extending.
On the sixth pitch of his first at-bat on opening day at Reading, Betts homered. That was the beginning of the 4-for-4 night, which was even more impressive when you considered that the game was shortened by rain to six innings.
He collected hits in nine of his first 10 games, including seven multi-hit efforts. In his lone hitless effort, he walked twice. That bumped his regular-season on-base streak to an incredible 40 games and caught the attention of his teammates, who were well aware of what was going on.
“When he was hitting like this in spring training, I was just like, ‘Wow, man, this is pretty incredible,’ ” said Hissey, a Portland outfielder, “but when he started doing this during the year, I was honestly just in shock of what he’s been doing and the quality of at-bats and the quality of outs he’s been making.
“Not only the hits–I mean, the average speaks for itself– but his at-bats are even more impressive with the contact and the walks, the stolen bases, the defense. This guy’s a pleasure to play with.”
In all, Betts extended his on-base streak to 66 games, the curtain falling on May 17 with an 0-for-4 game in Portland. His final chance to extend the streak was snuffed when an official scorer ruled he had reached on an error instead of a hit in his final at-bat.
No one knows the length of the longest on-base streak in minor league history–for decades, no one paid enough attention to walks to notice–but Betts’ run is one of the longest on-base streaks in the past 20 years.
“Guys were letting him know all the time. It was such an incredible streak, and to be a part of that was pretty cool,” Hissey said. “He just takes everything in stride with a smile on his face. That’s the special part: he’s a hard worker, he’s a fun guy and loves it.”
When it comes to the nuts and bolts of what helps Betts do what he does, one of the big keys is his athleticism, which, if you watch him play, you can see is off the charts.
His uncle on his mother’s side is Terry Shumpert, a 14-year big leaguer who spent most of his career with the Royals and Rockies. On his father’s side there’s George Wilson, a three-year starter at wide receiver for the University of Arkansas and a safety for the last 10 years in the NFL, primarily for the Buffalo Bills.
That, Betts says, is just the tip of the iceberg.
“My dad’s side is full of athletes,” said Betts, who can dunk a basketball and is also a fine bowler. “I don’t think any of them played professionally, but if you go out and shoot basketball with them you’d wonder why they never made it. I come from a background full of athletes.”
Athleticism, of course, is great. It keeps non-prospects employed, makes low-level prospects intriguing and top prospects tantalizing, but it can only get you so far. At some point, the athleticism and tools have to manifest themselves into usable skills on the diamond.
One of the biggest ways athleticism has translated for Betts is in his immensely talented hands, which allow him to be incredibly quick to the ball, thus keeping his contact rates high and limiting his strikeouts. In fact, when he left the Eastern League in early June, he had struck out just 7.9 percent of the time, one of the lowest rates in the EL among qualifiers.
On offense and defense, Betts has drawn raves from evaluators wherever he’s gone.
“He’s outstanding. He does everything,” Reading manager Dusty Wathan said. “He took his walks, he drove the ball, he stole bases, he played defense. He’s a well-rounded player.
“We couldn’t find one (hole in his game). He was definitely (the best player in the league) against us in the 12-15 times we played him. He was by far the best.”
Trenton manager Tony Franklin echoed the sentiments of his counterpart to the west.
“He’s a pretty good player,” he said. “He does some things out there that I haven’t seen in a long, long time. He’s very athletic, and his athleticism comes across very, very well. He had a couple of good series against us and, yeah, he’s very impressive.”
This is where it gets tricky.
Even with all the accolades and praise, Betts still faced the problem of being a second baseman in the Boston system. Dustin Pedroia has that spot on lockdown now and for the foreseeable future. The all-star’s presence, plus Boston’s spate of young infielders–Xander Bogaerts, Garin Cecchini, Will Middlebrooks–means he’s blocked out of the dirt, at least for now.
With that in mind, the Red Sox have begun the process of shifting Betts to center field, where he played for part of his high school career, along with both up-the-middle positions.
Betts knows he’s blocked for now and has embraced the move to the outfield.
“I went and messed around out there and happened to open up a gate,” he said. “It did come as a surprise, but now I’m just trying to get used to it. Pedroia’s at second base and he’s there for the long term. As of now, I don’t know what I am, but before I was just a second baseman, but I knew I had the kind of ability to move around a little bit.”
Betts has much to learn in center field–the ways to approach balls in the gap, how to take the proper angles, how to read balls hit directly at you–but along with his coaches, he’s had teammates Hissey with Portland and Shannon Wilkerson at both Double-A and Triple-A to help him.
Early reviews of Betts’ early play at the new position have been quite good.
“He could go out there,” one evaluator said. “If you wanted to feel nice about it and have him play an extra 50 games in center field in Double-A or Triple-A until he feels comfortable, great.”
The evaluator said he sees Red Sox incumbent center fielder Jackie Bradley as more of a fourth outfielder.
Betts’ former manager in Salem and Portland agrees, but not without cautioning that he still needs work on the little things. It has, after all, only been a few weeks.
“You can see that he’s getting a lot more confident out there,” McMillon said. “His routes to balls are improving. He’s got a really strong, accurate arm.
“The more he plays, the better he’s going to get out there. He’s going to gain additional confidence. I think it’s just a good thing to show that he’s athletic and versatile enough to go play the outfield, because that might be a way for him to get to the big leagues quicker.”
Like virtually every minor leaguer, Betts has had his struggles with his confidence along the way. That side of the game hasn’t come naturally to him, and he’s spent a lot of time with Boston’s mental conditioning coaches, formerly Bob Tewksbury and now Laz Gutierrez.
Together, the coaches talk with the players about their concerns and fears about trying to realize their dreams in such highly pressurized.
Even with his recent popularity–the interview requests were nearly daily toward the end of his tenure with Portland–he’s still not over the moon with confidence in himself and his game, but he’s getting there.
“I kind of know what I’m able to do and what I’m able not to do,” Betts said. “Other people don’t really know, and I think when I catch other people by surprise, it doesn’t really surprise me, because I know what I’m able to do. Nobody else believes.”
If somebody out there now doesn’t believe in Mookie Betts, then it won’t be long before he changes his mind.