FORT MYERS, Fla. – A simple statement from Mookie Betts carried peculiar weight.
“I just want to be the same guy I was last year,” Betts said after drilling a three-run home run against Boston College in the Red Sox’ first game of the spring on Monday. “Nothing more, nothing less.”
The sentiment is understandable. In his first full season in the big leagues, Betts was one of the best all-around players in the game, a dynamic leadoff hitter who posted a .291/.341/.479 line with 18 homers, 68 extra-base hits (ninth in the American League), and 21 steals, all while playing excellent defense in center field and, at the end of the year, right field.
“He’s fun to watch. He’s fun to be around. He’s a student of the game,” said Farrell. “We’re all looking forward to what Mookie can do between the lines. … He’s got a chance to impact the game in three different ways and it’s fun to watch.”
It’s no surprise that others view Betts in such terms. But the true surprise comes in how Betts now views himself. For the first time, the 23-year-old has come to believe in his own talents, to understand that he has a chance to be one of the best players in the game.
“I’m still learning who I am, what’s going to be my niche to stay. But there’s definitely more of a sense of comfort now that I’ve been here for a little bit of time and understand how it works,” said Betts. “You look at the best guys around the league, and you’re doing things similar to them – not the same, but similar – it gives you some confidence that you can stick around, you can hang around, and play with the best of them. That’s kind of how I view last year and that’s my mindset going into this year. I can stick around and be one of the best of the best, but within the team framework of doing things. I can help the team if I’m one of the best of the best in every aspect.”
‘Did he say that?’
Apprised of Betts’ self-assessment, Bruce Crabbe broke into a surprised smile.
“Did he say that?” Crabbe, Betts’ manager in Lowell in 2012, marveled. “For him, that’s a big difference. I’d never thought I’d have heard that five years ago.”
After the Red Sox selected Betts in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, Betts admits he never thought he’d reach the big leagues. He considered it far likelier that he’d spend five seasons in the minors (thus collecting the $750,000 bonus that was spread over that duration) before going to college.
He committed three errors in his first pro game (in the Rookie Level Gulf Coast League, the lowest rung of the American minor league ladder) and wanted to crawl into a hole. The next year, he opened the season in Lowell and committed another half-dozen errors in 12 games at short. Through 18 games that year, he was hitting .246/.274/.275 and looked lost.
At that point, what level of awareness did Betts have about his raw abilities?
“There was none,” laughed Crabbe, now a coach in Triple A Pawtucket. “He was the bright-eyed kid from Nashville. He didn’t know what he was getting into. Then he started playing, facing what he was facing, trying to perform and succeed, and wasn’t having success. I think he went in the dumps a little bit.”
A decision to move Betts from shortstop to second base on a full-time basis that June proved transformative.
“He became that budded flower that just started to bloom. The freedom of his abilities started to just evolve,” said Crabbe. “In the click of a button, it just happened – and I saw it.”
‘I can build on it’
Still, even as Betts started to perform in Lowell, even after the breakout season in 2013 when Betts put himself on the prospect map with huge performances in Single A Greenville and High A Salem, even as he stayed on a rocket through the minor league ranks that brought him to the big leagues as a 21-year-old in 2014, Betts continued to seem almost sheepish and uncertain of his talents.
It wasn’t until this past offseason that Betts recalibrated his self-understanding – recognizing that what he had done had allowed him to be one of the better players in the game, particularly once he got past his stumble out of the gate. After a spectacular spring, Betts was hitting just .189/.274/.297 through his first 18 games, and .234/.294/.364 two months into the season on June 10.
From June 11 through the end of the season, however, he performed at the level of one of the best all-around players in the game. He hit .328 (9th in the majors in that stretch) with a .371 OBP and .552 slugging mark (12th) over a nearly four-month stretch.
“In the offseason, I looked at it and said, ‘That was good, but I can build on it,’” said Betts. “I had a long, long stretch of struggling. I bounced back from it pretty well. I’ve still got a lot to learn and a long way to go, but if I can eliminate those stretches for so long – because you’re going to go through those stretches – if I can eliminate those long stretches, those guys are the best of the best.”
Betts has shown the possibility that he might be included in such a conversation for years to come. And for the first time in his career, he seems to recognize the gifts that define that place – though even now, some members of the Red Sox insist that Betts’ understanding is incomplete.
“The way he carries himself, the way he plays the game, he plays all-out, all the time. That’s what you look for in a player like that. I think he understands what kind of player he is, he knows he can make an impact in a game,” said Blake Swihart, Betts’ longtime teammate in the minors and now big leagues. “But he still doesn’t understand how good he is.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.