FORT MYERS, Fla. – It seems difficult to imagine, but in a spring where Mookie Betts has commanded constant attention, the 22-year-old did something on Thursday that he hadn’t done yet during this exhibition season.
His third-inning RBI double high off the Faux Monster at JetBlue Park in left field? No – he’s had plenty of those. Indeed, Betts has 10 extra-base hits, most of any player in Florida’s Grapefruit League.
Instead, his noteworthy event came one inning later, in the bottom of the fourth, with two outs and runners on second and third, when he watched lefthander Tommy Milone miss the strike zone four times.
“I was like, ‘Wow, I walked,’” Betts chuckled.
The fact that Betts hadn’t walked until his 37th plate appearance of the spring was easily overlooked given what he has done – slamming the ball to left and center with head-turning regularity. Nonetheless, the free pass, and more specifically, the fact that it was his first free pass, was noteworthy given what it suggests about how his game has evolved over time.
There was a time when the Sox thought that Betts was too passive as a hitter. He had outrageously high walk rates early in his career, most notably in April 2013 with Single A Greenville, when he had an on-base percentage (.333) that was more than double his batting average (.157) thanks to the fact that 21 percent of his plate appearances ended with a walk. Then, his plate discipline, athleticism, and speed suggested a player who might have a future as a utility player.
But the Sox saw Betts making loud outs, driving the ball in 2013 in a way that he’d been unable to do so in 2012. As much as they didn’t want to dissuade him of his discipline, they also wanted to see him start taking chances on pitches he could attack.
Greenville hitting coach U.L. Washington and Red Sox hitting coordinator Tim Hyers encouraged Betts around that time to look for spots early in the count where he could make noise. They suggested that Betts take advantage when ahead in the count rather than assuming that, as a leadoff hitter, he had a responsibility to take pitches.
Over time, Betts learned to do just that, rocketing through all four full-season levels of the minor leagues in a 15-month stretch. Then, over his time in the big leagues last year, Betts saw further proof that he would need to start looking to attack opponents, rather than letting the pitcher dictate the course of the at-bat.
“[Big league] pitchers are just around the zone more. I feel like you have to swing a little more. You can’t go up there taking,” said Betts. “I kind of learned last year that you can’t go up there taking. You’ve got to be ready to swing it. That’s how [Derek] Jeter got 3,000 hits. He wasn’t up there taking. That’s kind of why my approach is a little more aggressive than it used to be, which is all right. I feel like it works both ways – it cuts down on strikeouts and it may cut down on walks, but that’s OK. I’ll take [walks] when they come, like today. I feel like I didn’t really get a good pitch to hit, especially with guys on second and third, and ended up working a walk from there
“I think [the more aggressive approach] just kind of just developed over last year, especially against [big league] pitchers. They’re kind of in the zone with everything. I feel like if you go up there taking, you’ll be 0-2 in the blink of an eye,” he added. “It’s not something that I think about. It’s just something that’s naturally been an adjustment, the same way I always say – I feel like I just make natural adjustments.”
While Betts is unlikely to replicate his gaudy spring training line – he’s currently hitting .471 with a .486 OBP and .861 slugging mark – in the regular season, the Red Sox are unlikely to direct Betts to swing with less frequency given the frequency of solid contact that he’s made.
Meanwhile, as long as he’s collecting an extra-base hit in almost every game (he’s had 10 in 12 contests this spring), Betts seems unlikely to reconsider his willingness to attack pitches that he thinks he can drive. Much as Kevin Youkilis moved from a reputation as the “Greek God of Walks” to status as a slugger who punished mistakes in the strike zone, Betts is looking to adapt his game to balance plate discipline with an aggressive approach on pitches he can hit.
“Can’t walk to Fenway,” he said.