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The Rise of Mookie Betts

Mookie Betts is back in the Major Leagues tonight. Let's take a look at how he got here and what he needs to do to succeed at the highest level.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

A diminutive and relatively unheralded fifth round pick in 2011, Mookie Betts has gone from obscurity to prominence over the past season and a half. Despite never playing above High-A ball entering the year, Betts has continued to hit at every minor league level, which ultimately led to a brief promotion to the Major League club.

Whether it’s the name, the size, or the dramatic rise to the majors, Betts has won the hearts of fans even outside of the greater Boston area. His Major League debut in a nationally televised game at Yankee Stadium thrust him into the national spotlight, and he demonstrated that he belonged by singling in his second Major League plate appearance. He hit his first Major League home run in another nationally televised game against the Cubs a few days later, but apart from his success in the these games, Betts’ overall performance did not match the hype surrounding his debut.

As Boston plays out the rest of a losing campaign, Betts has been recalled and will likely be given an extended look in the Majors this summer. It will be exciting to see what he can do in more than a ten game sample, but until then, let’s take a look at how Betts has reached this point and the steps he needs to take to succeed at the games’ highest level.

The Journey

Coming into the 2011 draft, Baseball America reported that Betts "could be a college difference-maker for his hitting ability, speed and solid athleticism," but said little about his potential to blossom into a top prospect. The report questions whether Betts had a carrying tool, a question that is often indicative of players with low ceilings who are unlikely to ever reach the Major Leagues. Betts is praised in the report for his makeup and intangibles, but makeup and intangibles without legitimate tools do not put players on prospect lists, let alone get them to the Major Leagues.

Betts was committed to the University of Tennessee, but the Red Sox took him in the fifth round and signed him for a hefty, over-slot bonus of $750,000. After being drafted, Betts played a total of one professional game in 2011, going 2-4 with a stolen base for the Sox’ GCL team. That turned out to be the only Rookie level game in Betts’ minor league career, as he was promoted to Short-Season Lowell to open the 2012 campaign.

Still mired in obscurity at that point, Betts played shortstop on the short-season Lowell Spinners until a few more highly regarded prospects, Devin Marrero and Mike Miller, joined the team. Marrero, the Sox’ 2012 first round pick and the more highly regard prospect at the time, was given the priority at shortstop, while Betts, who was likely a better fit for the keystone anyway, made the move to his current primary position of second base. It should be noted that Betts has played a lot of outfield this year, as the Red Sox have a greater need for outfielders than second basemen, and will likely play the outfield in the Major Leagues.

Betts held his own in short-season ball. He walked more than he struck out and posted a .352 on base percentage, swiping 20 bags for good measure. On the downside, he showed no semblance of power, and by no semblance of power I mean that Betts did not hit a single home run in 292 plate appearances. Furthermore, he only hit eight doubles and one triple, which resulted in an exceptionally low .040 isolated power. Betts is not a large man and power was never central to his game, but the complete absence of power was concerning enough to keep him very low on prospect lists. Baseball America ranked him as the number 31 prospect in the Boston system following the 2012 season, a territory often filled with organizational players with little chance of ever making the Major Leagues.

On track to move up one level per year, Betts began the 2013 season at Low-A Greenville, which was his first taste of full season ball. All he did at this level was hit, and hit with authority. As he aged, Betts improved his strength and was consequently able to turn a few of his line drives into home runs. In 340 plate appearances, Betts knocked eight out of the park, which may not sound like a lot, but for a player currently listed at 5’9", 156 pounds who had zero home runs in the previous season, this power display was both welcome and necessary. He will never be confused with a true slugger, but the occasional home run boosts his overall profile to a player who can do more than hit singles, draw walks, and steal a few bases.

The Red Sox saw the contributions of the 20-year-old Betts and rewarded him with a midseason promotion to High-A Salem, where he continued to thrive against older competition. In 211 plate appearances, Betts slashed .341/.414/.551, drawing praise for his ability to hit line drives and exercise good plate discipline. Even better, Betts continued to display improved power, hitting seven home runs to go along with a .211 isolated power. At two stops in 2011, the young infielder totaled 15 home runs, stole 38 bags in 42 tries, and walked significantly more than he struck out. The hit tool had blossomed and Betts was named the 2013 Red Sox’ Offensive Minor League Player of the Year.

He concluded the season in the Arizona Fall League, where his raw numbers were still above average, especially for a player yet to play above Single-A. In his most difficult test to date in the league of top prospects, Betts proved his worth by hitting for a .354 wOBA and was named to the AFL All-Star team. His breakout was real and Betts quickly found himself shooting up offseason prospect lists.

Photo credit: Mark Rebilas

Baseball America ranked Betts as the seventh best prospect in the Red Sox’ system and the 75th best prospect in all of baseball following his breakout campaign. Following the trend of aggressive promotions, the Red Sox sent him to Double-A Portland to begin the 2014 season. Widely considered the most significant jump in the minor leagues, Betts handled the transition from High-A to Double A with ease.

In 253 plate appearances with Portland, Betts proved that his 2013 breakout was not a fluke, but rather a sign of greater things to come. His slash line was even more impressive than the year before, as Betts hit .355/.443/.551 in his first taste of the upper minors. He also maintained his power numbers, hitting six home runs and posting an isolated power of .196.

These numbers were good enough to earn Betts another promotion, this time to Triple-A Pawtucket. Betts was now on the cusp of the Major Leagues, and it took less than a month at the Triple-A level for the Red Sox’ front office to deem him ready for the show. On June 28th, 2014 the phone call came.

The Debut

News of Mookie Betts’ promotion broke on June 28th, although the rookie did not appear in a game until the next night. Betts singled in his second career plate appearance and then hit his first Major League home run a few nights later. While it was encouraging to see him playing at the Major League level, his production did not match the hype. Betts recorded just eight hits in 34 at bats before being sent back to Triple-A, where he has resumed his elite production.

It’s easy to write off any ten game sample – good or bad – as an aberration due to a small sample size, and that’s the right thing to do here. It would have been nice to see Betts hit .400 in his brief taste of the highest level, but his long term outlook is unaffected by this sample. Nevertheless, there are a few interesting observations to make from his brief stay.

Most importantly and most alarmingly, Betts simply did not swing the bat during his debut. He offered at a mere 37.6 percent of pitches thrown his way, well below the league average of 46.4 percent. Broken down more specifically, Betts exercised good plate discipline by only swinging at 14.3 percent of pitches out of the zone (league average is 30.7 percent), but he also only swung at 54.7 of pitches throw within the "true" confines of the strike zone (league average is 65.4 percent).

These are unusually low figures and quite opposite of the tendencies of most young hitters, who often lack the advanced approach and plate discipline of older, more experienced batsmen. Taking an outlandish amount of pitches does not necessarily qualify as an advanced approach, but it is still encouraging to see a young hitter who does not feel the need to swing at every pitch remotely close to the strike zone.

As a contact hitter exercising extreme patience at the plate, Betts predictably demonstrated very little swing and miss in his game. His swinging strike rate over the ten game sample was a mere 3.4 percent. Looking a bit deeper at the swing and miss in his game, Brooks Baseball data tells us that Betts prefers and handles pitches thrown up and in much more than those thrown low and away. During his stay in the Majors, pitchers were seemingly aware of this and threw more pitches to that area than to any other zone.

The chart below shows his swinging strike rate for pitches in all areas within and surrounding the strike zone.

Betts1_medium

Draw an imaginary line connecting the boxes starting in the top right hand corner, moving through the center of the zone and ending in the bottom left hand corner. This separates the zone into three distinct regions – zones above the line, on the line, and below the line. There are ten zones above the line, which represent pitches high, inside, or both. Now count the combined total number of swings and misses in those ten zones. Trick question - the answer is zero. Mookie Betts did not swung and miss at a single pitch high and inside during his ten game stay in the Major Leagues.

There are only a few swings and misses in the other zones, but this is still enough to qualify as a notable trend. Complete dominance of any single area of the strike zone is very rare, and while it may be a stretch to say that Betts struggles with pitches low and away, he does not dominate that region of the zone in the same way that he dominates, or at the very least is able to make contact with, pitches up and in.

Scouting Confirms the Statistics

During a recent look at Betts in Triple-A, the patience, dominance of the inner half, and struggles with the outer half were on display. Betts was notably comfortable at the plate and showed willingness, perhaps even eagerness, to take pitches and work deep counts. For a player with a miniscule swinging strike rate, this is generally a good strategy, although the strategy failed him twice during this look.

Working the count led Betts to a pair of two strike counts, at which point opposing pitchers abandoned the inside pitch and worked him almost exclusively away. This resulted on a pair of strikeouts, one on a fastball and one on a breaking ball, and Betts failed to put a quality swing on either pitch. The patience paid off in another plate appearance when he drew a walk, but this was a small consolation to watching opposing pitchers systematically take advantage of his patience in getting to a two-strike count and his weakness on pitches low and away to record the pair of strikeouts.

On the positive side, Betts displayed his hit tool by squaring up a pitch slightly up and in, lining it with topspin to left field. His baserunning ability was also highly impressive, as he displayed both speed and instincts on the basepaths. Defensively, Betts handled the few balls hit his way in centerfield with ease but was not tested.

This brief look at Betts fails to capture the entirety of the profile, but the five plate appearances I saw supported the trends discovered in the statistics. It should also be noted that the live look happened before examining the statistics and writing this article. I did not go into the look with an agenda looking to support any conclusions previously made.

Looking Ahead

The consequences of these trends are very predictable. In a game of adjustments and counter-adjustments, opposing pitches can and should be expected to exploit any potential weakness they can find. I credit the pitchers for Lehigh Valley, who did this very well, and I fully expect other pitchers facing Betts in the immediate future to do the same. The formula to beat Betts is simple in theory: throw strikes early in the count then throw pitches low and away with two strikes. Despite the simplicity of this plan of attack, it would be foolish to expect this to lead to any sort of demise for Boston’s prized prospect from such a simple scouting report.

Betts will need to make adjustments, but the adjustments are both straightforward and relatively easy to implement. First, Betts ought to be more aggressive early in the count. If the strategy for pitchers is to throw two pitches over the plate hoping that Betts will take both, it seems unlikely that those pitches will always be high quality strikes on the edges of the zone. While Betts had shown a good batting eye and an ability to avoid swinging strikes, basic hitting theory states that hitters should not simply let hittable pitches pass by. Execution of this adjustment is as simple as it sounds and in practice amounts to Betts expanding his zone early in the count. Betts should not wait for the perfect pitch to hit, but rather be content with getting merely a good pitch to hit. His bat to ball ability is good enough to allow him to hit less than perfect pitches with authority at a higher rate than most players, and it is in his best interest to take advantage of this ability. Additionally, pitchers at the highest level do not make mistakes very often, so hitters who plan to wait for a mistake are often left empty handed, waiting for a perfect pitch that rarely comes.

Second, when Betts gets to two strikes, cheating to get to or "sitting on" the low and outside pitch may help him both see and hit pitches in that location at a higher rate. Opposing pitchers already throw Betts pitches low and way at a much high rate than up and in with two strikes, as per the Brooks Baseball chart below.

Betts2_medium
He does not miss the inside pitch, which both discourages pitchers from throwing there with two strikes and likely means that even if pitchers try to surprise him inside, he will still be good enough to put the bat on that pitch. This is a sacrifice of ability to hit the inside pitch in favor of an increased ability to hit the outside pitch, the latter of which is much more likely to be thrown to Betts with two strikes. This change in approach will take from a strength to address a weakness, but it will make Betts a tougher out who lacks a true hole in his swing.

Final Thoughts

Even with this approach, Betts returned to Triple-A and thrived. He is currently slashing .321/.408/.496 and walking almost as much as he strikes out at that level. Some of his .321 batting average is due to a .358 BABIP, but as a player with a knack for making consistent hard contact, Betts could very likely enjoy a consistently high BABIP during his career, as he has done throughout the minors. In other words, this should not be written off as a 157 plate appearance fluke.

I see Betts as a player capable of consistently hitting .300 with 10-15 home runs and 25-35 steals on an annual basis. When combined with solid defense at second base or centerfield, Betts has the potential to become an extremely useful player for the Red Sox. He is not a lock to reach those lofty totals, but as a player with nothing left to prove in the minor leagues, the risk factor is low. The easy player comparison is Dustin Pedroia, another undersized second baseman in the same organization with speed and a bit of power. Pedroia is a better defender than Betts, but Betts should steal a few more bags, at least early in his career. Defense plays a significant role in WAR totals, so Betts will likely not approach Pedroia’s lofty numbers, but he could still produce roughly three to five wins on an annual basis. Not bad for a fifth round pick without a carrying tool.

This is a huge developmental win for the Red Sox organization, as they have helped a largely unheralded fifth round pick develop into the club’s MLB.com midseason top prospect in their loaded system. I fully expect Betts to find success at the Major League level, and he is one minor tweak away from having the ability to enjoy that success this season.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball. Pre-draft scouting report courtesy of Baseball America

Dan Weigel is a Contributing Writer at Beyond the Box Score, a video scouting intern at Baseball Info Solutions and a former left-handed pitcher at Bucknell University. He currently holds the Bucknell school records for most shirseys worn to class and most rounds of fungo golf played. You can follow him on Twitter at @DanWiggles38.