In some ways, it seems fitting that the Red Sox’ Mookie Betts and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich are likely to claim MVP awards on the same day.
There are a lot of similarities between the two corner outfielders with wonderfully balanced skill sets: They’re batting champions who exceeded 30 homers, stole a ton of bases, posted high OBPs, and played excellent defense this past season.
“They’re very similar,” said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett, who managed Yelich in the Marlins system. “They both have happy-go-lucky, goofy personalities. They’re a joy to be around. They both work their tail off and are driven to get better.
“What comes to mind is the pitch recognition. You see Mookie right away. He lays off pitches most people don’t lay off of, and he’s able to barrel pitches most people don’t hit. Christian has that same capability. It’s almost like this different vision and body control that they possess that most don’t have.”
Betts and Yelich almost shared something else: the Red Sox outfield.
In 2011, the belief of area scout Danny Watkins led the Red Sox to make a franchise-changing selection of Betts out of high school in the fifth round — where, in retrospect, he had no business being available.
One year earlier, the Red Sox had the 20th pick in the first round. They saw Yelich as the best high school position player at that spot, with some in the organization seeing him as a potential perennial All-Star. While they ended up taking Ball State infielder/outfielder Kolbrin Vitek in the first round, multiple major league sources said they strongly considered Yelich.
“Interest was extremely high,” recalled one party to the team’s decision in 2010. “It was right there. We’d definitely have taken him [in the supplemental first round at No. 36], but we had to talk about him at 20.”
Yelich wasn’t as overlooked as Betts would be the following year, but the industry had a measured view of him. Baseball America ranked Yelich 52nd, suggesting that his arm limited him to first base, his primary position at Westlake (Calif.) High School.
His potential to hit for a high average but with limited power was evocative of players such as Casey Kotchman and James Loney. That made for a somewhat confusing profile for scouts.
“When he came in, he couldn’t throw,” said Barkett. “He looked like he was uncoordinated. Then you saw him swing the bat and you were like, ‘OK, I get it now.’
“There’s a lot of, I think, back-office things that happened around Christian Yelich. I’ve heard different stories about people trying to get him. There were a lot of people that liked him.”
The Red Sox were among them. John Burtzloff, the assistant coach at Westlake at the time, recalled them as one of five teams that showed the most interest, along with the Padres, Dodgers, Marlins, and Cubs.
In addition to sending several evaluators to look at Yelich at Westlake, the Red Sox also worked out the teenager, and he made an excellent impression with his natural instincts in the outfield.
Offensively, Yelich had years in which he was the best hitter in his league. Though he was contact-oriented, team evaluators saw him driving balls off the top of an oak tree beyond the center-field fence at Westlake and backspinning the ball to left field, creating a sense that he could tap into power as his wiry frame filled out.
Moreover, the team viewed him as an atypical high school prospect given his obvious passion for the game and attention to detail — including a willingness, for instance, to work on baserunning in his spare time.
High school position players are a hard demographic to project given the massive learning curve they face ahead, but in the eyes of the Red Sox, Yelich showed not just the physical skills but the personality traits to travel that hard path.
So why didn’t they take him over Vitek, who wound up retiring prior to the 2014 season after a rash of injuries?
First, the Red Sox were drawn to Vitek, a good athlete whose college and Cape League performances suggested a player with a decent chance at having an average to above-average across-the-board skill set at third base or in the outfield.
They had used their top picks in two of the prior four drafts on high school position players Jason Place (2006) and Rey Fuentes (2009). Both disappointed in ways that underscored the risks of that demographic.
Entering 2010, the Red Sox thought it might make more sense to use their top pick on a college player and spend on high school talent later in the draft. They hoped that Yelich might slide to No. 36, but that didn’t happen. The Marlins took him in the first round at No. 23.
Eight years later, Yelich didn’t have a recollection of the Red Sox’ interest.
“I do remember talking to them,” he said at the World Series. “It was just one of those things that ended up not working out.
“They never told me they were going to pick me, or we never had a conversation where it was like, ‘Hey, we’re really thinking about taking you with that pick.’ It was just the standard home visits and workouts, nothing I wasn’t doing with other teams at the time.”
But evaluators who were in the Red Sox draft room remember vividly how highly Yelich was regarded, and have played the what-if game. Yet to them, Yelich is less a story of one who got away as he is a lesson in the amazing difficulty of the draft.
It’s possible to do an excellent job of evaluating one player, to reduce the choice to something close to an either/or, and still go wrong at the fork in the road. In this case, it was choosing a player who never reached Triple A (Vitek) over one who is an MVP favorite (Yelich).
It’s also possible to underrate a player even when doing a great job of scouting him. After all, no one projected Betts to become an MVP finalist who was the best player on a World Series champion.
There is no clear crystal ball, only cloudy glimpses of the future. Misreads are unavoidable. The goal, then, is to have enough accurate forecasts to yield a preponderance of good predictions that serve as the basis of a championship-caliber team.
With the homegrown outfield of Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi, the Red Sox managed to do just that, even without selecting Yelich.
In that sense, if Yelich and Betts are announced as MVPs Thursday, it will serve as a moment of pride for the Red Sox — while also offering a reminder of the remarkable rewards and enormous challenges presented by the draft.