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Follow the leader: Mookie Betts’ basketball background easing transition to new position

06.10.14 at 8:27 am ET
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PAWTUCKET, R.I. — Playing center field brings Mookie Betts back to Nashville, Tennessee, and his days in high school. While he played some outfield for the Overton High School baseball team, Betts’ experience in another sport is helping him make the transition to the outfield from second base.

As the point guard and captain of the basketball team, Betts played floor manager, directing his teammates while being the vocal leader on the court. While manning center field for the Pawtucket Red Sox, Betts positions his teammates through vocal direction, similar to his days manning the point in high school — only this time, Betts, a 2011 fifth-round pick, is directing corner outfielders rather than shooting guards and small forwards.

During high school, Betts used his athleticism to excel at three sports: baseball, basketball and bowling. On the basketball team during his senior year, Betts managed to average 14.4 points and 5.8 assists per game. PawSox manager Kevin Boles says that Betts’ athleticism has allowed him to smoothly make the transition to the outfield from second base.

“It’s not easy,” Boles said. “Creating versatility is not an exact science. It’s tough. To be able to go from second base and then go to center field, there are some tough reads out there, and to engage those corner outfielders, to keep things in order as far as keeping the batter or runner off of second base, containment, those little ins and outs of the game, it’s kind of tough. A lot of times, it’s not such an easy transition. He’s handled it well from what we’ve seen so far. It’s a real good look.”

Betts says the team did not tell him much before he began to play the outfield. Instead, the team told him to go out and display the athleticism that made him a top baseball and basketball player during high school.

“They just told me to go catch the ball,” Betts said. “It seems easy to go out and catch it and there is a lot more to it, but for the most part they told me to go get it.”

Boles has been encouraged by the progress Betts has made since adding outfield to his tool belt in mid-May while he was with the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs.

“He’s very athletic,” Boles said. “He’s engaging with the corner outfielders. He’s paying attention. Keeping his head, keeping his eyes up. He’s shown some very good situational awareness. He’s backing up bases. He’s managing to keep his throws down and he’s got closing speed. Some balls that have been hit over his head or balls that have been hit in the gap, he has closing speed. He’s going to learn the position, and the more live reps that he gets during batting practice and the more game situations that we can put him in, that’s going to be beneficial for him.”

Boles says there are a couple of factors that anyone making the move to the outfield must keep in mind. One of the more difficult parts about playing center field is reading low line drives off the bat and judging how far the ball will carry. In addition, the center fielder must be mindful of each hitter’s tendencies in regard to defensive positioning. Boles said that Betts is quickly picking up how to man the outfield.

“You can see that he’s engaged [in each play],” Boles said. “He has studied the scouting reports, you can see the adjustments if you watch him out there and just pay attention to him. He roves around. It’s not like he’s standing in one position. He’s been very proactive as far as being in different positions.”

During his first couple of games in the outfield for the Sea Dogs, Betts hesitated when calling off his teammates for balls headed toward the gaps. Over time, the 21-year-old overcame those qualms.

“I’ve kind of gotten over it now, just go ahead and call it. As long as we get the out, it doesn’t matter,” Betts said. “It’s just being confident in yourself. Just knowing that you know the right reads and knowing that you are the quarterback, so if you’ve got it, you go get it. That’s kind of what they emphasized to me.”

Boles says that Betts has already taken a leadership position among the outfielders, often positioning the left and right fielders pre-pitch, moving himself around the outfield grass depending on the batter at the plate.

“He always has somewhere to go,” Boles said. “Even if you make the wrong choice, as long as you’re moving and staying active, being vocal and not being afraid to take charge, especially here because we have some veteran outfielders. You have a Corey Brown or a Justin Henry. Going ahead and taking charge and saying, ‘Hey, look, I’m feeling this.’ It may not work out every time, but go ahead and be aggressive in moving the corner outfielders. It shows leadership out there and you have to be that in order to be a center fielder.”

Betts believes that communicating to both outfielders is the biggest role that he has the as the point guard of the outfield.

“Talking to left and right fielder, telling them that I’m moving over or scoot this way or that way,” Betts said. “Just as simple as yelling that I’ve got it louder than them.”

With the current group of Red Sox outfielders struggling (hitting .214/.294/.320 with 11 home runs, 85 RBIs and a -0.8 WAR, the lowest among outfields in baseball heading into Monday), the time for the team to call up Betts, who has hit .349/.440/.539 with seven home runs, 35 RBIs, 18 doubles, three triples, 40 walks and 23 strikeouts in 60 games this season heading into Monday, appears to be nearing closer and closer by the day. Should he receive the call to make the trip to Boston, Betts says that he is prepared to perform at the major league level.

“I just got [to Pawtucket] so I’ve got to prove myself here,” Betts said. “If they were to call, I think I’m ready to go. Hopefully, those guys get it together and they finish up the season strong, make the playoffs. I think I could do all right. I think I’m prepared to play.”

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