200-hit mark just the latest of Mookie Betts’s extraordinary feats
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Frustration and concern mounted quickly for Mookie Betts early in the season. His anticipated emergence as an All-Star suddenly seemed like something other than a foregone conclusion, as a constant of Betts's game had become an absence: He was swinging and missing as never before.
In retrospect, it seems like a small sample, but it didn't feel that way to Betts at the time. Through 13 games, he struck out in 16 of his first 59 plate appearances (27.1 percent), and at a time when he was hitting .207/.220/.345, he would speak with dismay about his approach.
Then he heard the magic words from David Ortiz, suggesting to him to think less about his mechanics and simply to react to the game as he did while emerging as a phenom in the minors.
"Nothing changes here," said Betts. "David helped me a lot with that. It's just less thinking, just going out and trusting what I'm doing. It got me this far. Hopefully I can continue to do the same thing and make a career out of it."
That approach has served Betts well, as he has amassed what would represent a career year for most players. Since April 20, he has hit .328/.371/.562 with 29 homers while striking out in just 10.1 percent of plate appearances. In his last eight games, he hasn't struck out once (a season-long stretch), and of his 47 swings in 34 plate appearances in those games, just four have resulted in a swing and miss.
On Tuesday, Betts added another line on the résumé of one of the greatest age-23 seasons in baseball history. With Dustin Pedroia out for the day to rest a left knee that he twisted earlier this month in Toronto, Betts returned from cleanup to the leadoff role in which he'd excelled to start the year, going 3 for 5 (and narrowly missing a fourth hit when, for the second straight night, his long fly ball to left was hauled in at the fence).
With his second hit of the night, Betts arrived at the 200-hit plateau — a mark that signifies durability as well as the skill that had eluded Betts early in the year: putting the ball in play.
Betts knew that he was approaching the milestone thanks to a text from former Red Sox prospect Michael Coleman (with whom Betts works out in the Nashville area) on Monday night, but Coleman hadn't specified just how close the Sox superstar was.
"He just said, 'You're pretty close, keep going,' " said Betts with a grin. "They threw the ball in, and I had an idea.
"It's been a long season, and I'll give myself a little credit for just working and grinding through the whole thing. I do know there is more to go."
Yet there's already been so much. Betts is now one of seven players to have 200 hits with 30 homers in his age 23 season or younger, joining an impressive short list of Alex Rodriguez (who did it twice), Hal Trosky (twice), Albert Pujols, Vladimir Guerrero, Nomar Garciaparra, and Joe DiMaggio. He doesn't merely put the ball in play; he crushes it.
That ability, coupled with defensive brilliance (according to Baseball Information Solutions, Betts's work in right field grades as 30 runs better than an average peer at the position, making him the major league leader in DRS) and elite baserunning (24 steals in 28 attempts, and a major league-leading 9 baserunning runs above an average player, according to Fangraphs), has made him the closest thing in the majors to Mike Trout who is not named Mike Trout.
Pedroia won the 2008 American League MVP as a 24-year-old, making a multidimensional mark (.326/.376/.493, 17 homers, 20 steals in 21 attempts, 13 defensive runs saved). Pedroia's view of the similarities between Betts this year and his 2008 campaign?
"He's got 30-something home runs," said Pedroia. "I don't think I hit that. It might have took me a couple of years. He's a force. He's been awesome.
"He's been great, obviously, ever since he's come up. He's continued to get better in every aspect of his game. He can help us in a ton of ways. He's pretty special."
Betts's learning curve thus far looks different than that of all but a few players. He is moving in leaps, going from someone who hit nothing but singles in Lowell in 2012 to someone who smashed the ball all over the park in 2013; adjusting to the major leagues and finding his footing within two months of his initial callup in 2014; emerging as an elite outfielder within two years of his move from the infield; surpassing 30 homers in just his second full year in the big leagues, at an age when many are still working their way up the ladder.
Betts isn't alone in producing this kind of season. His line this year — and his low strikeout rate — look very similar to those of a pair of MVP candidates, Jose Altuve and Daniel Murphy. The difference between Betts and those two offensively is that Murphy is 31 and arriving at a new level of self-understanding of his game in his ninth big league season; Altuve is enjoying a breakout at age 26, in the sixth year of his career.
Betts is 23 and still growing stronger, still developing an understanding about his offensive approach yet already producing a highlight reel of feats this year that few players will ever match.
It's possible, of course, that Betts himself will never match what he's achieving in 2016. Trout, for instance, has never surpassed the 10.8 Wins Above Replacement he posted in his first full season as a 20-year-old in 2012, partly because it would have been almost impossible for him to have more of an impact.
Yet Betts's youth and aging curve, along with the unusual ability to hit homers without swinging and missing, creates a fascinating sense of the unknown.
"That power, speed, and hittability is a rare combination," said Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo. "You throw in the idea that he's 23 years old, and it's going to be a really fun ride for all of us to watch how special this player is."