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How Mookie Betts rode a fast track to the big leagues

06.28.14 at 10:20 am ET
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NEW YORK — Feats of Mookie: Arriving.

According to an industry source, the Red Sox will call up Mookie Betts prior to Saturday’s game against the Yankees. The 21-year-old has played 23 games in Triple-A Pawtucket, reaching base in all of them while hitting .322 with a .425 OBP and .444 slugging mark. He’s played second, center field and, most recently, right field in his last two games.

The move comes as something of a surprise, given that on Friday night, following their 6-0 loss to the Yankees, manager John Farrell said that the Red Sox were not making a roster move “at this moment.” It turns out that the moment was very brief.

On Wednesday, Betts took stock of the possibility of a callup and whether he was ready for the transition to the big leagues after a blitz through the upper levels that has seen him play 54 games in Double-A Portland and 23 more in Triple-A this year preceding his callup. 

“I don’t know how that transition is. I don’t know what being ready for that level is. But if I was to get the call, I feel like with [third base and infield coach Brian Butterfield] and [first base coach Arnie Beyeler] and Farrell, they’ll just say go play — same way other managers have. That’s all I can do, go play and figure it out on my own,” said Betts. “Getting to the big leagues is hard, but I’ve talked to guys and they’ve said it’s not getting to the big leagues, it’s staying in the big leagues. I feel like I can get there at some point, but my experience there will determine whether I’m able to stay there or not. That’s the part that I’m excited to see — to see how I can play for a period of time and be able to stay.

“I’ve had people ask about [when he might be called up]. I don’t think about it,” said Betts. “Whenever I get the call, I feel like I’ll be ready.”

That Betts is getting called up less than three years after signing with the Sox after being taken in the fifth round of the 2011 draft is little short of stunning. He’s the first position player taken by the Sox out of high school to reach the big leagues three years after being drafted since Phil Plantier in 1990. And Betts acknowledged that when he did sign, he didn’t think that he’d ever reach the big leagues at all, let alone in this breathtaking timeframe.

Yet after a modest pro debut with the Lowell Spinners in 2012, in which Betts hit .267 with a .352 OBP and .307 slugging mark while collecting just nine extra-base hits (and no homers) in 71 games, he exploded to prospect prominence last year in Single-A Greenville, hitting .296/.418/.477 in 76 games. That performance earned him a mid-year promotion to High-A Salem, beginning a fast track progression in which Betts dominated at level after level while displaying remarkable pitch recognition, hand-eye coordination and feel for the strike zone, permitting him to post high averages and OBPs while impacting the ball for extra bases regularly.

His progression:

2013 – Single-A Greenville: 76 games, .296/.418/.477, 33 extra-base hits, 18 steals, 58 walks, 40 strikeouts

2013 – High-A Salem: 51 games, .341/.414/.551, 22 extra-base hits, 20 steals, 23 walks, 17 strikeouts

2014 – Double-A Portland: 54 games, .345/.437/.520, 27 extra-base hits, 20 steals, 35 walks, 20 strikeouts

2014 – Triple-A Pawtucket: 23 games, .322/.425/.444, 6 extra-base hits, 7 steals, 16 walks, 13 strikeouts

What attributes have allowed him to move so quickly through the Sox system?

“He’s on everything. He’s on everything. It doesn’t matter — off-speed. He’s just always on everything. I don’t like to use the word balance. I think people misunderstand what balance means. It’s not like you’re standing on a 2×4 and literally balanced so you’re not going to fall over,” said PawSox outfielder Alex Hassan, who first saw Betts last year while on a rehab assignment in Greenville. “He’s just on everything. Even if he gets on his front side, his hands are still in a position where he can stay on the ball. That’s balance to me. I’m on the fastball and even if you get me a little bit out front on the breaking ball, I still have something to put a good swing on a breaking ball. That’s balance. That’s what balance is to me. … It doesn’t matter if he’s seen a pitcher or not, he’s on fastballs and off-speed.

“And his pitch recognition,” Hassan added. “He’s just a kid who just gets that. There’s a lot of talk about whether that’s something you can teach or not, something that’s innate. I don’t know the answer to that. But I know what he does, how effortlessly he does it, you can’t teach that. You can teach someone to make small improvements on it, looking for certain pitches in certain counts, looking for the ball up if you’re having trouble swinging at breaking balls in the dirt, you can improve on it. But the level of how effortlessly and how well he recognizes pitches, you can’t teach that. You can’t teach that advanced of a skill set.

“That’s something he had in Greenville, which is why when he goes up to a new level, he has a really great swing that stays on a plane for a really long time, he’s on off-speed, he’s on fastballs, he can catch up to fastballs, so really it’s just a matter of him getting used to the speed and sharpness of new pitching, but it’s not like he’s got a hole in his swing that upper level  guys can exploit. He covers the plate well. It’s just a matter of him getting comfortable with the speed of the pitches and sharpness of the breaking ball. It’s not like he has a hole he has to work on to get to a higher level. He’s pretty polished. It’s just him getting used to the speed of the game really.”

In addition to his abilities in the batter’s box, the 5-foot-9 Betts has also shown tremendous athleticism that has helped to make him an impact baserunner and defender in the minors. He’s viewed by evaluators as a well above-average second baseman who has taken well (and quickly) to his move to the outfield, which occurred at the end of May, mostly in center field but most recently (on Thursday and Friday) in right.

To hear Betts on the Minor Details podcast (an interview that took place three days before news of his promotion), click here.

The countermove is not yet known.

News of Betts’ promotion was first reported by John Tomase of the Boston Herald.

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