Mookie Betts is not supposed to be able to hit the ball this hard. He’s not supposed to be able to go on home run binges where he clears the fences with the regularity of a prototypical middle-of-the-order hitter.
Yet early in a 2016 season in which the 23-year-old has endured inconsistent results, Betts entered the weekend series in Toronto on pace for 79 extra-base hits after having 68 a year ago. His nine homers project to 31 for the year.
Those power totals aren’t supposed to be possible for a player who is listed at 5 feet 9 inches.
“I wish I could tell you that I saw all this coming, but I didn’t — not this,” said Danny Watkins, the Red Sox area scout who led the team to select Betts in the fifth round of the 2011 draft. “A guy that I thought his career might possibly parallel or there could be some comparisons would have been a Craig Biggio. He could hit the ball out of the park but was really a doubles guy. To me, that was the best-case scenario of what he could provide power-wise.
“I did not see home runs like this. Honestly, I thought he could have some impact with power, but I really thought it would come in the form of doubles more than home runs. Knowing what I saw, it would still be very difficult for me to go back and project this type of performance by this age.”
There’s no shame in the admission. Betts’s ability to drive the ball is startling chiefly because of his physical stature. It’s hard to look at a player who is 5-9 and project power — especially power early in his career, before he’s arrived at his peak strength — given the paucity of players who have paired such a frame with that particular ability.
“I don’t remember a thinner, smaller guy in that regard who generates the type of power he does,” said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “He’s just got exceptional talent.”
If Betts hits 30 homers, he would become just the third player 5-10 or under to hit that mark by his age-23 season, joining Mel Ott and Willie Mays, who combined for 1,171 homers.
He’s already in select pint-sized power territory after a 2015 season in which, as a 22-year-old, he walloped 68 extra-base hits, making him the ninth player to pair a smallish frame (5-10 or under), youth (age 23 or under), and power (60-plus extra-base hits). Six of the first eight players are in the Hall of Fame: Mays, Ott, Paul Waner, Joe Medwick, Arky Vaughan, and Enos Slaughter.
Growing up, Betts never envisioned himself as a power hitter. He did, however, love to educate opponents who underrated his ability to drive the ball because of his size.
“As I was younger, kids would move in. When you see a small hitter, kids would move in. Coaches would move them in. My dad would really just say, ‘Hit it over their head.’ For some reason, I was always able to do it, even being a little smaller,” said Betts. “As I got older, the field got bigger and I really couldn’t do it as much. Through high school, I hit a couple home runs, but hitting it over people’s heads wasn’t my forte.”
Nor was it at the start of his professional career. Betts didn’t go deep a single time in his first minor league season, with Lowell in 2012.
But he started launching rockets in 2013 and hasn’t stopped. Between the minors and big leagues, he has had three straight years between 16-19 homers. Now it appears he’s taking another step forward.
So how does he do it?
“That’s not something that I go into the science room and try to evaluate,” Betts chuckled.
If he did, however, Betts would recognize that his ability to generate power would represent a fascinating case study in both neuroscience and biomechanics that have made him atypical.
Betts has hit 45 balls this season with an exit velocity of 100 miles per hour or faster. Of the other 17 players to hit that many, all but one are at least 6 feet tall. The one other undersized exception, A’s slugger Khris Davis (5-10), has to swing from his heels to impact the ball in that fashion, resulting in a roughly 9-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and punchouts in more than a quarter of his at-bats. Betts is far more under control, with better than a 3-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio and strikeouts in fewer than one of every seven plate appearances.
What attributes allow a smaller player — of the 495 position players with an at-bat this year, Betts is one of 28 at 5-9 or shorter — to hit the ball with such authority?
“How the hell did Joe Morgan hit so many homers?” Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis said by way of comparison. “They’re not big guys but they generate bat speed, and that one area, if you make a mistake, it’s their do-not-disturb area.”
But how does Betts get in position to unload so forcefully on pitches on the inner half of the plate?
Most evaluators start with Betts’s quick hands and strong wrists, the latter of which may have gotten an assist from his past as a bowler — a sport that also may have contributed to the concentration and precise control of his hands.
Yet those traits alone don’t quite explain why Betts would be an outlier of outliers. For that, it’s necessary to take stock of additional physical and mental attributes.
A larger player can mis-hit a ball but still have it fly. That’s not the case for a player such as Betts, who requires greater coordination of movement.
Betts’s eyes give him tremendous pitch recognition, and his brain processes visual information exceptionally well, something that was reflected in his strong scores when the Sox had him take part in neuroscouting (measured hand-eye coordination) exercises prior to drafting him.
“He’s able to react and see things a little bit better than the best,” said Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo. “In his pre-draft meetings he was top of the class [in neuroscouting]. He rated as high as anyone has ever rated.”
That reaction time permits him to have an aggressive yet controlled swing.
“There’s a lot that goes into hitting the baseball the way he does. On top of that, he’s a master of swing fundamentals. He’s got a really good swing plane and his timing is always perfect,” said Lovullo. “That, in combination with the raw athletic ability, the mind that he has, the positivity he has towards the game, led to a pretty special player.”
Betts also has an understanding of what he’s trying to do at the plate that puts him in a position to hit the ball with authority.
“He’s not just looking for a strike. He’s looking for this one strike, and if he gets it, he’s going to hit it. That’s what really good hitters do, great hitters,” said Davis. “Mookie, he’s developing into that type of hitter right now.”
There are no guarantees based on his early-career performance, as his uneven season to date suggests. Yet the fact that the most noteworthy comparable players to Betts in terms of size and early-career shows of power landed in the Hall of Fame after lengthy runs as elite power hitters suggests that as impressive as Betts has been thus far in his career, there’s a chance that he could emerge as something more.
“Mookie drives balls to center. They die at the wall,” said Davis. “But give him another five years. They might be going out of the park.”
Even if they don’t, however — and there’s some evidence that smaller players such as Betts and Dustin Pedroia arrive at their physical primes earlier than larger players, meaning there’s less of an upward trajectory from their early to late 20s — the Red Sox will gladly sign on for what Betts is doing now.
“In this case, you almost have the perfect storm with aptitude, physical ability, natural athleticism, a work ethic. There are just so many things that came together and are coming together,” said Watkins. “I don’t feel comfortable with this phrase, but it’s almost like lightning in a bottle.”