Mookie Betts takes stock of an unexpected breakout season

January 11, 2014 - 9:29 am

A year ago, Mookie Betts was a relative unknown save for some curiosity about his name. He was a light-hitting middle infielder who, as a 19-year-old in Lowell, hit .267 with a .352 OBP, .307 slugging mark and 20 steals -- the profile of someone who might one day develop into a utility infielder. Then 2013 happened. "That kid blew up this year," said catcher Blake Swihart, who bore witness to Betts' standout performance following a July promotion to High-A Salem, where he followed his .296/.418/.477 line in Greenville with a .341/.414/.551 line in the Carolina League. "It was impressive watching him play. I remember him coming up -- he and I are pretty close, our lockers were right next to each other. He was asking, 'Hey man, is the pitching different? Is it that much harder?' I was like, 'Dude, just go relax and you'll be fine. I've seen you play and you're fine.' He would just go out -- it was impressive watching him play, just how he developed." Betts went from being ranked as the No. 31 prospect in the Red Sox system to the No. 7 prospect in Baseball America's annual ranking, a meteoric rise that reflected a number of tools coming together. Betts showed the ability to hit for average (a combined .314 mark at his two levels), control the strike zone (.414 OBP, with 81 walks and just 57 strikeouts), hit for power (15 homers -- after not going deep once in either high school or Lowell -- and 55 extra-base hits in 127 games en route to a .506 slugging mark), showed above-average defensive tools and athleticism at second base and the ability to impact the game on the bases (he was 38 for 42 in stolen base attempts). Some of those traits -- several of them, even -- had been on display before. But not all. "He said he didn't hit any home runs in high school, didn't hit any in Lowell, and he comes and hits, what, 15 this year? That's awesome," said Swihart. "That's really finding your swing and finding confidence in your at-bats." Indeed, when Betts finally went deep with Greenville in April, he acknowledged that the celebration was anything but routine. "My first one, I was smiling around the bases because it was my very first one," said Betts. "My teammates were making jokes like, 'Act like you've been there before.' But I hadn't. It was very surprising." But the confidence in his swing and offensive approach became very real, something that was evident as Betts played against older and more renowned competition. He not only performed at a dominant level during his promotion from Single-A to High-A but also impressed evaluators with his skill set while in the Arizona Fall League, where he hit .271 with a .368 OBP and .371 slugging mark while making consistently loud contact in a fashion that turned heads. His performance in the AFL suggested that he does indeed fit comfortably in the consideration of some of the game's better prospects, though Betts -- who along with Swihart was in attendance at the New Stars for Young Stars fundraiser, an event where Sox prospects meet with Jimmy Fund patients and fans to raise money for cancer research, treatment and prevention -- suggested that he was trying to avoid getting carried away with the notion. "I try not to think about it," said Betts. "I try to stay humble, go out each and every day like it's my last, try to play hard and not worry about anyone else but myself." Still, he acknowledged that there was a dizzying element to his rapid ascent. "I have some friends at home who were like, 'You started in Greenville.' I was like, 'Wow, I did start in Greenville this year, then to Salem and Fall League, it seemed like it all ran together all in one year,'" Betts marveled. Now, he likely faces another year in which quite a number of new challenges could be thrown at him. Team sources suggest a strong likelihood that, based on his strong performance against older competition, Betts could open the year in Double-A Portland. Moreover, after spending all of 2013 at second base, he is likely to be reintroduced to shortstop as well -- a position he played in high school and to a limited degree (13 games) in Lowell in 2012, with a longer-term possibility (late 2014 or 2015) that he could also see time in the outfield in order to maximize the number of avenues for his ascent to the majors, given that he currently mans a position with a franchise linchpin (Dustin Pedroia) who is signed through 2021. Betts said he was unaware of any plans to move around the field, but recognized that his versatility could be an asset going forward. "Actually in high school I played a lot of center field, a lot of shortstop, not as much second base. It's kind of weird how that happens. Hopefully my athleticism works out so I can play somewhere else," said Betts. "Hopefully [versatility] comes in handy at some point." Given that the Sox almost always prepare their prospects to play positions other than their primary one as they near the big leagues, there's an excellent likelihood that such a time will come to pass. For now, however, Betts' approach is more narrowly defined, chiefly in his need to put himself in position physically to build upon his breakout of a year ago. "I think I'm in a good spot," said Betts. "As soon as I got home, I maybe took two days off and then I'm back working out, because I know I need to try to get to a better spot next year than this year. Just trying to be consistent -- that's pretty much my main focus for this offseason."