‘He has such special talent’: Incredibly, Mookie Betts keeps raising his game
WASHINGTON — In so many ways, it seems appropriate that in baseball’s midyear congregation of stars, Mookie Betts will be the first to walk into the batter’s box in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game. After all, this has been the Season of Mookie, a time when he has made an impact matched by few — if any — in the sport, when he has elevated his game from that of a star to a level occupied by only the game’s inner-circle elites.
Betts was runner-up in the American League MVP race in 2016, a spectacular season that represented one of the best five-tool performances in Red Sox history. That fact makes his current season almost hard to fathom, given that he has been not merely incrementally better in 2018 than in that special campaign, but leaps and bounds ahead of where he was that year.
“He has such special talent,” said former teammate David Ortiz. “I’m not surprised what he’s doing. To me, to be honest with you, he’s going to get better. This is how Mookie is — Mookie is always hungry. This guy, even when he’s doing well, he wants to do better. That’s the kid that I saw coming up with us.
“If Mookie goes two days without getting things done the way he likes when things are going great, he starts going crazy,” Ortiz added. “You learn from a guy like him. Me watching him acting like that, I was the veteran, I was like, ‘Man, I like that. Even if I don’t feel that, I’ve got to get there. That’s what will get us winning.’ ”
Betts was indeed driven to improve this year after what was, by his standards, a 2017 season in which he often expressed self-doubt.
From the time he showed up in spring training in 2017, Betts questioned whether he would have a season that could match his MVP runner-up performance.
This winter, however, he reset his views, focusing less on questions about whether he had set a bar he couldn’t reach and instead focusing on improvement — something made easier with the feedback he received this spring from new Red Sox manager Alex Cora and his coaching staff, as well as new teammate J.D. Martinez.
“Just with it being a new year, you have to set new expectations and flush what already happened. That’s kind of what I did. There were some changes around me that were definitely positive. I just tried to use everything to my advantage,” said Betts. “As things started to progress through spring training and whatnot, A.C. kind of talked to me and said, ‘You can be that guy.’ I just kind of put that in my mind and decided to go be the best I can be.”
To date, he’s fulfilling that ambition. In every aspect, Betts is performing at the highest level of his career.
He is hitting for a higher average (41 points above his prior career high), hitting for more power (on pace to hit seven more homers than ever before), walking and getting on base more (his OBP is up more than 80 points from 2016, and more than 100 from last year), swinging and missing less, stealing more, and stealing more successfully than he has at any other point in his career.
Each of his in-game skills ranks among the best players in the game. Taken as an entire body of work, he’s been incredible, performing in a fashion that, in at least one aspect, he’s caught himself off guard.
“Definitely just the home runs, the power [have been surprising this year],” said Betts, who hit 23 in the first half, eight fewer than his career high for a season. “I knew I could hit. But I didn’t know I could do what I’m doing.”
Video: Watch Betts hit three homers in a game for the fourth time:
That admission offers a fascinating notion: Betts is still discovering what he’s capable of accomplishing.
He’s still early in the process of understanding how much power he has, and is just now starting to tap into his ability to drive the ball out to right-center and right field — something he didn’t think he was capable of doing prior to this spring.
His growing willingness and ability to drive the ball out of the park to the opposite field hasn’t gone unnoticed.
“He’s got a hunger. He’s always asking questions, always talking about hitting, asking me, ‘What do you think about this guy? What’s a good plan off this guy?’ ” said Martinez. “You just don’t see players like that — that caliber, to want that.”
With all of the improvements that he’s made in his career, and his interest in making more even as he is near the top of the game’s talent pool, it starts to become a bit dizzying to contemplate where his talent might take him. Where is his ceiling? Is there one?
“Wow. Who knows? It’s extremely high,” said Red Sox hitting coach Tim Hyers. “He’s Mookie Betts.”
And on Tuesday, on a night of the game’s foremost stars, he will seem very much in the right place when he is introduced first.