BALTIMORE — Mookie Betts’s two-game show of power is as dazzling as any in history. With two homers Wednesday, he had launched five over two games, matching the major league record.
Betts became the third Red Sox player with five homers over a two-game stretch. He is on pace to launch 43 homers this year, which would surpass Ted Williams for the most by a Red Sox player at age 23 or younger.
“You rarely see it. Sometimes you never see it in a career,” said Red Sox manager John Farrell. “We’re blessed to be able to watch Mookie every night from our dugout.”
In its own right, the explosion is extraordinary. Given Betts’s pro baseball origins, it’s almost unfathomable.
The Sox plucked Betts in the fifth round of the 2011 draft, in time for him to play just one memorable Rookie Level Gulf Coast League game in which he had a pair of singles and committed three errors.
He spent the following year with the Lowell Spinners. In 71 games, he cleared the fences exactly zero times. It wasn’t until the 76th game of his pro career, with Single A Greenville on April 10, 2013, that Betts finally hit his first career pro homer. Few more were immediately forthcoming, as Betts proved a walks machine but did little else over the season’s first four weeks.
On May 2, he went 0 for 2 with two walks. His average for the 2013 season dropped to .145 with a .340 OBP and .263 slugging mark. In his 95-game professional career, he possessed a .242 career average and .299 slugging mark.
Even as he hit the ball harder in 2013 than his average would suggest — the Greenville coaching staff noted repeatedly that he was lining into an uncanny number of outs — then-manager Carlos Febles saw a player who needed a break from his drought, and who could use a chance to recalibrate his offensive approach.
“He was struggling at that time, but he was putting his work in every day and playing the game extremely hard,” said Febles. “At one point, he was hitting the ball at least three times hard during the game and not getting hits. I remember giving him an extra day just to give him a mental break.”
Ahead of a Saturday off-day, Febles wanted Betts to get a day in the batting cages with Greenville hitting coach U.L. Washington. At 59, Washington was in the 25th season of a coaching career that had included one landmark transformation of an eventual Red Sox, when Tim Wakefield (then in the Pirates system) moved from first base to the mound as a knuckleballer. Now, he had an opportunity to take part in another.
“Betts and U.L. had an unbelievable relationship,” said Febles.
“U.L. did an awesome job of helping him understanding his swing and understanding some things he was doing at the time,” added former Red Sox hitting coordinator Tim Hyers, now the assistant hitting coach for the Dodgers. “U.L. thought he would drive the ball one day because his hands are so quick and he’s got such great body control. … It was, like, ‘It’s just a matter of time. This guy is going to figure it out.’”
On May 3, Betts and Washington focused their attention in the batting cage at State Mutual Field in Rome, Ga., on two issues. The first was mechanical. Betts had a high leg kick at the time that created timing challenges and hindered his ability to put his front foot down with a consistent rhythm.
By lowering the leg kick, Betts felt that he could “just recognize pitches and be on time more.” Improved timing, in turn, helped Betts drive the ball more consistently.
“Being able to recognize pitches and really get off my swing on time more often led to a little more power,” said Betts.
But there was more to the tete-a-tete with Washington (who retired after the 2014 season). At that time, the organization felt that Betts was too passive. When ahead 2-0 in counts, he seemed like he was trying to walk (hence the .145 average and .340 OBP), rather than looking to drive the ball.
“I just remember every time I talked to U.L., it was just, when he gets ahead in the count or is sitting on his pitch, he needs to be a little more aggressive to it and let it go instead of being too picky and drawing walks to get on base,” said Hyers. “Mookie is so coachable. He was a leadoff guy, so he wanted to get on base. At that time, we were teaching patience and swinging at strikes. Mookie knew the strike zone. He saw the ball as good as anyone I’ve been around. It was a matter of getting the leg kick under control, the body under control, plus maybe trying to pull a few more balls. That combination to me was what turned him around.”
Betts emerged from the two days off as a changed hitter. On May 8, in his third game back in the Greenville lineup – playing, appropriately enough, against the West Virginia Power – Betts jolted a homer. The evidence of the payoff from his behind-the-scenes work changed the 20-year-old’s outlook.
“I started hitting the ball hard pretty often and balls were going over the fence, so I just trusted it at that point,” said Betts. “I was like, ‘Oh, I can do that more often.’ But I quickly had to understand that it’s about the process, being on time, and hitting the ball hard more than home runs.”
He did both. He mixed screaming liners into the gaps with homers that started coming with such force and frequency that they did not so much surprise as shock. Starting with that game on May 8, Betts exploded over the next 102 games, hitting .345/.428/.555 with 13 homers and 51 extra-base hits. Amazement at the feats of a meteoric rise that bore no relationship to what preceded it became a daily exercise.
“He started to let it go a little bit and hit it hard. I remember him hitting a ball over the center field wall in Greenville. My doubt of his power was thrown out the window when I saw that. It was an absolute missile,” said Hyers. “He drew two walks in his first two at-bats and then hit one over the center field wall. It was like, ‘This guy has a chance to do it all.’”
“He started to be more aggressive early in the count. Then he went off,” said Febles. “It was amazing. He started hitting and never stopped.”
Video: Betts’ second home run Wednesday