BALTIMORE — For Mookie Betts, the early-April struggles seemed like a part of the distant past Wednesday afternoon. For the better part of three weeks, the 2018 American League MVP had looked the part of, well, a reigning MVP.
Over 17 games from April 19 through May 7, Betts hit .391 with a .500 OBP and .625 slugging mark. He’d taken 14 walks and struck out just eight times during that span. He’d shown a discerning eye and the ability to hammer pitches in the strike zone, with three homers among his nine extra-base hits during the stretch.
What, then, was Betts doing on the field at Camden Yards at 2:30 p.m., taking extra batting practice more than four hours before his team’s eventual 2-1, 12-inning win over the Orioles?
“Maybe I’ve been a little better, but definitely need to continue to work to get where I want to be,” Betts said.
And where, exactly, does Betts want to be?
“Great question,” he said. “I don’t know if I have an answer for it, but I just know this ain’t it. I’m just going to continue to work to be swinging a little better than what I’ve been doing. It hasn’t been bad, but it definitely hasn’t been great either.”
Statistically, it actually has been great; but for players who actually qualify for such a designation, greatness is a pursuit rather than a destination. And so it was with amusement that assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett took stock of the early work by Betts — which was actually his second of at least four hitting sessions that afternoon.
Betts already had hit once in the batting cage by the time he took the field for early batting practice. He would have another session in the cage in mid-afternoon as a prelude to regular batting practice roughly two hours before the game.
“It may seem odd to you and the rest of the world; to me, it’s Wednesday,” Barkett said. “There were days last year when he was leading the American League in hitting by 30 points and we were in the cage for hours and I thought I was going to pull all my hair out.
“He wants to be great. He pushes himself to be great. He’s a perfectionist.”
That trait can work to Betts’s detriment at times. He is so obsessive about his swing — and so quick to conclude after one instance of bad contact that it requires tinkering — that he risks fatigue while working, and working, and working.
Sometimes Betts tinkers to the point of overcomplicating his swing. Barkett thinks Betts’s struggles in the first three weeks, when he hit .200/.305/.371, might have been a reflection of the 26-year-old outfielder “trying to replicate the MVP [season] and trying to make everything perfect.”
Still, Barkett has come to accept that Betts (and, for that matter, J.D. Martinez) will be a constant in his day. The assistant hitting coach used to show up early on Sundays to work out and enjoy a brief moment of quiet (perhaps an hour) to relax and do nothing. When Betts discovered that Barkett was regularly at the park several hours before day games, the quiet ended.
“He’ll pop in the coaches’ room, ‘A.B., I’m trying to get some work in.’ I’m like, ‘Are you serious, dude? What are we doing right now?’ ” said Barkett.
“If he can’t see or find me, I’ll get a text, ‘Where you at? I’m trying to get some work.’ I just laugh and say I’ll be there in five minutes.
“It’s normal. Greatness doesn’t happen by accident. I’m sure Mike Trout is the same way, and you can pick guys out from other teams who are the same way.
“But that’s why he’s Mookie Betts. Every day he’s out here trying to become a better player and find that. He doesn’t ever feel like he’s MVP Mookie Betts. He always feels like, ‘It’s not there yet.’ ”
Betts acknowledges that he rarely finds satisfaction with his performance, that he is restless in pursuit of betterment.
“You’ve got to hold yourself to high standards,” said Betts. “Shoot for the moon and land on the clouds.”
Or, sometimes, hit the moon. On Wednesday, after his lengthy workday, Betts blasted a third-inning home run off Andrew Cashner — the lone run the Red Sox managed through 11 innings — while walking twice.
Even so, it’s likely that Betts was less interested in his three times reaching base or his stolen base than he was with the two strikeouts and the rare baserunning blunder (he tried to advance from first to third on an infield single and was thrown out easily to end the eighth inning).
For Betts, the imperfections represent an opportunity — a riddle that he can try to solve with more work.
Barkett, with a sigh of resignation and amusement, will be ready.