PAWTUCKET – It used to be that any mention of the first name “Mookie” would send a collective shiver down the backs of Red Sox fans. Mention this particular Mookie, however, and you’re bound to receive a completely different reaction, one that doesn’t center on key words or phrases such as “groundball,” “through the legs” or “Buckner.”
The Mookie that officially joined the Pawtucket Red Sox on Tuesday is a promising farmhand who literally and figuratively hit his way out of Double-A Portland. When 21-year-old Mookie Betts boarded a morning plane in Maine, he took with him the highest batting average in the Eastern League (.355) along with six home runs and 34 RBI.
By the time he arrived in Durham, N.C. following a connecting fight, Betts was informed that his adjustment to Triple-A life would begin now. He batted leadoff, a spot in the lineup in which he appeared during his 54-game stint with the Sea Dogs, and played second base for the PawSox as they faced the Durham Bulls in a rematch of last year’s Governors’ Cup finals (he went hitless in four at-bats with a walk as Durham won, 5-2).
According to Red Sox Director of Player Development Ben Crockett, the idea of elevating Betts to Pawtucket has been on the front burner for some time. A final decision was made Monday afternoon, the same day the Sea Dogs were idle.
Truth be told, Betts had nothing left to prove in Portland, not after 214 at-bats and 254 plate appearances where he posted a .443 on-base percentage and .551 slugging mark. Equally noteworthy, he swiped 22 bases while getting nabbed a mere three times.
“We felt that the consistency in the performance over the first two months warranted moving up and the appropriate next step for him,” noted Boston Assistant General Manager Mike Hazen.
Added Crockett, “He’s performed well in all facets, and his numbers speak for themselves. He should be ready to be challenged at the next level, and he’s earned that right.”
Betts began this season red-hot as he hit .430 in 22 games in April and was hitting over .400 through mid-May (.401 on May 15, which led the minors). He cooled off slightly, falling to a season-low .347 on May 30 before collecting six hits in his final 12 at-bats, those spanning three games. He also garnered national attention after successfully reaching base in 66 straight regular-season games, a streak that began last year in Single-A Salem.
Removing the offensive component, the Red Sox felt that it was important for Betts to get his “sea legs” underneath him in the outfield before elevating him to a level of professional baseball commonly referenced as “finishing school.”
The Tennessee native and 2011 fifth-round draft pick made his pro debut in center field on May 18 after beginning the season exclusively at second base. Betts closed his Portland tenure by playing 12 of his final 17 games in center. He did not record an error in 30 chances in the outfield (all four of his errors came at second base).
“We wanted him to get some comfort in center field. In the past we’ve switched positions with guys in Pawtucket, but we felt – in this case – we were better served having him do it in Portland before going to Pawtucket,” Hazen explained. “More than anything else, I think what we wanted to do was (broaden his defensive horizons) in a place where he knew he would be comfortable.
“We knew that we would be moving him around at some point. Obviously, the guy shows a very high baseball IQ. He played center as an amateur and felt he could pick it back up.”
Andy Fox, Boston’s roving minor-league infield coordinator, saw Betts track fly balls down in Hadlock Field’s outfield gaps as recently as last week.
“For players who are naturally gifted, things look very natural for them. He caught a couple of balls, and it looked like he had been out there for a while, not just a few weeks,” was the impression Fox had.
As a second baseman, Fox noted that Betts, “has made a lot of strides in a short period of time. His athleticism and feel for the position … to me he’s got the whole package as far as game awareness and doing things that impact the game defensively. He anticipates really well and is so engaged. He gets off the ball quick, which allows him to cover a lot of ground.”
The Red Sox' plan is to stay the defensive course with Betts, (i.e. shuffling him between second and center).
“It’s not going to be long,” said Crockett about when Betts’ versatility will be on full display with the PawSox.
“Even though we’re exposing him to a new position, we don’t want him to lose his primary spot, either,” Hazen stated.
“Wherever you put him, he’s going to work his tail off,” Fox gushed. “He hasn’t missed a beat bouncing back and forth.”
Betts was part of a Red Sox draft haul that also included notable 2011 selections Matt Barnes, Blake Swihart, Henry Owens, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Travis Shaw.
“I know the scouts talked about the athleticism, and they all loved his bat and the way he hit. He was a middle-of-the-diamond player who could impact the organization in many different spots,” said Hazen, who was the farm director when Betts officially became Red Sox property. “At the time, we didn’t know exactly yet where his ultimate position would be. He started out as a shortstop, but we knew he was a premium athlete, and he’s shown that.”
Now that Betts is officially one level away from the majors, he finds himself in a position if something happens at the top, the Red Sox could very well end up turning to him – providing he continues to produce at a clip similar to that of when he was a Sea Dog.
“It comes with the territory. Once you go to Triple-A, there’s sort of that dual focus on the major leagues and the minor leagues,” Hazen said. “We want him to get comfortable in Triple-A. It’s just the appropriate next step in his development. The time line on his approach to the big leagues, it’s no different than with any other player. Certainly at that level, guys have to protect the major-league club if needed. Right now, we want him to focus on continuing his progression as a player.”
Follow Brendan McGair on Twitter @BWMcGair03