Mookie Betts on track to be one of the best in Red Sox history
Mookie Betts’s Red Sox career is a lot like the 2018 Red Sox season: It’s unclear exactly how it will end up, but to this point, it’s unlike anything that’s ever happened before in the 118-year history of the franchise, and it’s worth appreciating right now in the middle of the plot.
Betts broke into the big leagues on June 29, 2014. In the subsequent four years and change, he has:
■ hit three homers in a game four times;
■ produced more seasons with 20 homers and 20 steals (3) than anyone else in team history;
■ become the youngest Red Sox player to reach 100 homers and 100 steals, and just the third overall to reach both milestones;
■ joined Ted Williams as the only Red Sox players with 60 extra-base hits in four seasons through his age-25 season;
■ won back-to-back Gold Gloves while playing perhaps the best right-field defense in team history, making a lot of catches that look like this;
■ in a two-inning span, robbed a homer, stole two bases on a single play, and hit a homer;
■ and most recently, on Thursday, hit for the cycle.
That’s a very incomplete but in some ways very representative excerpt of an already-long highlight reel. Betts has amassed a career’s worth of star-caliber feats into what should just be the first small fraction of a potentially incredible career. He looks every bit like a player who can be remembered as one of the greatest in franchise history, and who is certainly off to one of the greatest career starts in franchise history.
Put another way: If Mike Trout is considered a player with the potential to be remembered as the greatest of all time, the fact that Betts is now wrestling with him for the title of best all-around player in the majors for the second time in three years says a lot about who the 25-year-old has become.
The cumulative performance of these four years and change further underscores the notion of Betts as a transcendent talent. Through Thursday, he has amassed 31.8 Wins Above Replacement — the third-highest total ever by a Red Sox position player through his age-25 season. The only players ahead of him to this point are inner-circle Hall of Famers Tris Speaker (part of Cooperstown’s second induction class) and Ted Williams.
If Betts remains on his current 2018 pace, he will surpass Williams for the second-highest career WAR by a Red Sox player through his age-25 season.
|Red Sox player||WAR through age-25|
Disclaimers: Williams missed his age 24-25 seasons to serve in the military during World War II. He almost surely would have occupied a one-of-a-kind class had he not missed those seasons. Babe Ruth, meanwhile, totaled 40.0 WAR for the Red Sox through his age-24 season before being shipped to the Yankees, but that impact was split roughly 50-50 as a pitcher and position player.
Still, that company remains mind-blowing: The only comparable or better career starts by a Red Sox to this point include Ruth, Williams, and Speaker. Betts is currently tracking to join Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Speaker, and Rico Petrocelli as the only Red Sox position players ever with seasons of at least 10 Wins Above Replacement.
In this era, since Betts’s first full season in the big leagues in 2015, only Trout ranks ahead of him in WAR. While there’s a sizable gap between the two (4.7 WAR separates Trout from Betts), there’s just as large a gap between Betts and the third-most valuable player in that time (4.5 WAR divides Betts from Jose Altuve).
It remains to be seen whether Betts cements his place as an all-time Red Sox great. Yastrzemski, after all, took his career to another level in his late 20s and then played at a high level for more than another decade. Wade Boggs was the best offensive player in the game from his mid 20s into his early 30s. And David Ortiz’s incredible 14-year run with the Sox didn’t even start until he was 27.
Moreover, beyond the question of whether health will permit Betts to sustain his incredible production, there’s also the question of whether Betts will stay in a Red Sox uniform beyond the 2020 season, or whether he’ll be enticed to head elsewhere via free agency.
But those questions about the future belong to another day. For now, it’s worth recognizing that the only real framework for understanding what Betts has done — and what he is capable of doing — is found among the retired numbers at Fenway and in the plaques of Cooperstown (and in the No. 27 uniform in Anaheim).
“You expect greatness with him every night,” Red Sox manager Alex Cora told reporters.
That greatness can’t be taken for granted.