Part of getting a feel for how a trio of young outfielders would mesh for Red Sox acting manager Torey Lovullo was first understanding that they all took different paths to get there.
Mookie Betts had been in center field since last season, but he was far from a natural outfielder. He was raised by his mother to be a middle infielder. The outfield was the landing spot after his meteoric rise through the minors.
Rusney Castillo had played center field and right field for years, but he did it in Cuba’s Serie Nacional. The baseball there was different. When he came to the Sox last season, he had to go through the process of learning the pro game.
Jackie Bradley Jr. was a center-field savant, but during his first stint in the majors, his glove was light-years ahead of his bat. It took toiling in Triple A Pawtucket to rediscover his swing, but when he returned, center field was occupied and the only space for him was in right.
Their talents can be seen whenever Castillo plays a carom off the Wall and holds a runner to a single or Betts chases down a ball in the triangle to save an extra-base hit or Bradley fires a missile to the plate to gun down a runner.
“Three real good athletes, three playmakers,” Lovullo said.
The goal for the past month has been seeing how those three pieces fit together.
“They are the guys that are going out there and making things happen and I think that’s a tribute to their ability, to their instincts,” Lovullo said. “They are on different levels and different paths have gotten them here, but they timed well together and they’re playing well together and that’s what’s really fun for us to watch. And you can see, since those three guys have been inserted in the outfield, that they’ve done some spectacular things.
“They come from different origins. They’ve come from different places. But they’re all playing really well together.”
Lovullo has been experimenting with his outfielders at different spots, getting a feel for where they fit best. For the time being, Betts is manning center field, but the plan is to test him at one of the corners (likely right field) in the near future. Bradley has been playing right, but it almost feels like a waste of his talent. He’ll likely get to roam center again with Betts in one of the corners. Since injuries have limited Hanley Ramirez, Castillo has gotten a chance to get familiar with the Green Monster, spending his past six games there.
The Wall has made fools of more than enough players, but in his short time there, Castillo’s managed to tame it.
“Rusney with the Wall, he’s probably the best person I’ve ever seen play with the Wall,” said Betts, who played only briefly with another Wall-tamer, Jonny Gomes, but spent most of his time in the outfield watching the Wall get the best of Yoenis Cespedes and Ramirez. “He knows how to go about it and I tell him be aggressive with it and I’ll be there behind him. So I think it works.
“I didn’t expect him to be so good at it so quick. But he works hard at it. He doesn’t really take many days off on learning the Wall and I think it’s starting to translate.”
Adapting so quickly came from tireless work with Sox outfield coach Arnie Beyeler.
“I feel really comfortable out there right now and I think that’s a result of a lot of hard work with Arnie. I feel really good about where I’m at,” Castillo said through interpreter Adrian Lorenzo. “The good thing is we’ve been aggressive about it and things have gone our way.’’
But Castillo also took mental notes when he watched teammates play bounces off the Monster.
“Watching it a lot, like in BP especially is the best way to do it just to see how the ball bounces off,’’ Castillo said. “Also the depth at which we’re playing depends on if you’re going to go for it or if you’re going to back off and try to play the hop or play it straight off the wall.”
What’s easy to forget about Betts is that he still doesn’t have a full season’s worth of games at center field. He was converted in the minors a year ago and has been learning on the job. He’s made a collection of highlights — sacrificing his body at times in the process — that make it easy to believe he’s played center longer than he has, but he’s gone through a maturation process in the 150 games he’s played there.
“We’ve watched Mookie’s instincts improve in center field and when that ball’s hit his way, he’s already moving in that direction,” Lovullo said. “Early on last year, when we put him out there, there might’ve been a little bit of pause where he’s reading and reacting and maybe making the wrong read. But through the course of this year, that has improved and those instincts and those reads have been really clean and crisp.”
Betts played 230 minor league games at second base, but he’s settled into the outfield.
“For a while, now I feel like I’m an outfielder,” Betts said. “I feel at home in the outfield.”
Whether he’s playing with the Wall at his back, grazing in the spacious grass in right or patrolling center, Bradley been at home wherever he’s been slotted this season. He’s played 25 games in right, 13 in left.
But he’s played just 15 games in center, despite being one of the game’s most dynamic players at the position. The dilemma with having both Betts and Bradley in the outfielder is that Betts is already a more than capable center fielder, but Bradley is an elite talent at the position.
The two say they don’t care who plays the outfield’s glamour spot.
“To me it doesn’t [matter],” Betts said. “As long as we’re out there, essentially we’re doing the same thing, trying to win the game. I think whether center or right, wherever we are, I think we’ll go out there and try to make plays.”
Their focus has been on jelling as an outfield. They’ve developed a rapport, communicating on fly balls, backing each other up, delegating who covers each other in the gaps, and making sure they’re all constantly on the same page.
“I think we’ve made it a point to have better communication out there,” Castillo said. “Just good communication period.