August 22, 2013 at 8:01 AM
In a season where most of the attention has rightfully been focused on the major-league ready talent in the Red Sox’ farm system, Salem’s dynamic second baseman Mookie Betts has emerged as a jewel in Boston’s lower minors—a development that even surprised Betts himself.
“Coming into the year, I wasn’t expecting anything like I’m how I’m doing,” Betts said. “I want to stay humble about everything I have and everything I’ve done, but I didn’t expect it at all. … I think I hit (in the) .260s last year, I was just trying to do the same. I figured a longer season, more (at-bats) meant more of a chance to hit .250 or lower.”
But games like Salem’s 10-9 win over Myrtle Beach Tuesday—the most recent standout performance in Betts’ breakout season—ensure that going forward, expectations will be plenty high for the 20-year-old.
Betts, a triple short of the cycle Tuesday, went 3 for 5 with three RBI, though an 0-for-2 performance Wednesday at Myrtle Beach settled his line at .294/.370/.483 with five home runs in 39 games with Salem. In 76 games before his promotion in Greenville, most hitting at the top of the lineup, Betts hit .296/.418/.477 with 33 extra-base hits, including eight home runs.
Though Betts himself is among those caught off-guard by his success, his skills are such that his triumphs could be more than a one-year aberration. At the plate, Betts stands relatively upright in the batters box with a lot of movement in his hands before the pitch arrives. But when he takes a cut, the 5-foot-9 Betts has a smooth but powerful swing—no matter the count.
“He seems like he’s right on every pitch,” said Carlos Febles, who managed Betts in Greenville. “You can’t tell when he’s in an 0-2 count or 2-0 count. That’s special. You don’t see that too often.”
Betts is yet another disciple of the organizational philosophy of being selectively aggressive at the plate, much of the attention he garnered early in the season came from his ability to get on base. On May 2, he was batting just .145, but boasted an on-base percentage nearly .200 points higher at .340. Over the next month or so, Betts started crushing the ball, bringing his average up to .296 by June 7, with his on-base percentage shooting up to .422, both numbers holding about steady until his July 7 promotion.
“As a leadoff hitter, all you do is try to get on base no matter what” Betts said.
“He knows exactly what he wants to do on the plate, and he walks a lot because he recognizes pitches as well as anybody I’ve seen in this level,” Febles said. “As we said, he’s very aggressive. It’s hard to find a kid at a young age that has that ability to be selectively aggressive the way he is. He doesn’t swing at bad pitches.”
Betts has also become more aggressive on the basepaths as the season has progressed. In Greenville, he stole 18 bases in 20 attempts in 76 games. Since being promoted to Salem, he was a perfect 17-for-17 before he was caught stealing for the first time Wednesday night. Betts’ manager in Salem, Billy McMillon, said he has “shown good instincts on the bases,” including good reads on ground balls.
He has seen around half the sample size Febles has, but both managers see a similar ceiling for Betts.
“I’m not trying to put pressure on him or anything, but you can close your eyes and envision him playing in the big leagues based on what he’s done in this small sample,” McMillon said. “He’s a good kid.”
Febles chalks up that potential—and the success it has reaped this far—to Betts’ work ethic.
“He comes ready to work every day,” Febles said. “He works on the exact same things every day … and he takes it very seriously. He goes about it the right way. When you do that, what you do (beforehand) will show in the game.”
As his first full professional season comes to a close, Betts said he is still learning about himself and what’s best for him as a player. With only short-season ball under his belt after he signed for $750,000 as a fifth-round pick in 2011, Betts said he had to adjust this spring to not having several months of at-bats that didn’t count in extended spring training before the proverbial lights came on.
Now, his opportunities as Salem chases a playoff spot in the Carolina League double as a chance to set himself up to grow further in 2014.
“Each year is different, and each year you have to compete against different pitchers and different circumstances,” McMillon said. “I think the benefit of moving up is as you project players, you project he’ll be here next year, so getting a taste for the travel, getting a taste of playing against the same teams over and over. I think those will help him to prepare for next year—no guarantee of success or anything, but at least let him know what he should expect should he be here for a full season to start.”
Photo Credit: Mookie Betts by Kelly O'Connor
Jon Meoli is a Senior Columnist at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.
Daniel Lindsey contributed reporting to this story
Daniel Lindsey contributed reporting to this story