DENVER — Former big leaguer Terry Shumpert had one key piece of advice for his nephew, Mookie Betts, as Betts was making his mark in the baseball world: never steal 50 bases in a season.
“I always told him when he was coming up, ‘Just steal 30 bases,’ ” Shumpert explained before the Red Sox’ final game against the Colorado Rockies Wednesday. “Thirty is a lot. It’s basically 30 timely bases. I said, ‘If you go out there and steal 50 and the next year you steal 30, you lost a step.’
“It’s not true. But that’s how they perceive it. I told him to get your 30 bases and leave it alone.”
Betts took his uncle’s words to heart. He stole 21 bags in his first full season in the bigs in 2015, then had back-to-back seasons of 26 stolen bases in 2016 and 2017. In 2018, Betts stole 30 on the nose.
However, that wasn’t quite what Shumpert was getting at. Some critics have called Betts’s 2019 campaign a down year. In 132 games, Betts is hitting .282 with an .878 OPS and 21 homers, a huge difference from his 2018 MVP season, when Betts hit .346 with 32 homers and an OPS of 1.078, capping it with a World Series title.
Otherworldly seasons can create otherworldly expectations, in Shumpert’s eyes.
“ ‘You jumped out there and stole 50 bases,’ ” said Shumpert, paraphrasing his conversations with Betts. “ ‘Now when you go back to your 30, they think you lost it a little bit.’ ”
Shumpert acknowledged that hitting isn’t like stealing bases. You can’t tell a player not to hit a certain number. But the comparison, in this case, works in Shumpert’s eyes and he believes it’s unfair to compare an MVP season to another one.
Shumpert played 14 years in the majors, including a stop with the Red Sox in 1995. He played for the Rockies for five seasons (1998-2002) and his family still lives in the Denver area. Shumpert is a huge part of Betts’s tight-knit family circle and is the one who implemented Betts’s scoop-like load with his hands at the plate. He noticed that Betts had trouble pulling the ball with the Lowell Spinners in 2012.
“A lot of that was because he was young,” Shumpert said. “I told him, ‘Try to get a little movement.’ It’s not a hitch. When you’re not hitting, they call it a hitch. But when you’re hitting, it’s timing.”
Betts’s timing has been off at points this year. Pitchers are a bit more comfortable attacking him with fastballs. But instead of catching them out in front of the plate and pulling the ball — which is Betts’s strong suit — he’s making contact too far back in the zone. As a result, he has produced a ton of deep fly-ball outs to center- and right-center field. He’s among the league leaders in fly outs of 350-375 feet.
Yet Shumpert rattled off some of Betts’s stats, which remain impressive. As of Thursday, Betts led the majors in runs (118) and ranked 11th in walk rate (14.5 percent). His hard-hit percentage puts him in the 89th percentile. He also ranked in the top 10 in the AL in hits.
“Tell me that’s not great,” Shumpert said. “Isn’t that crazy?
“He jumped out there and stole 50 on them and now they think he fell off. Nothing fell off. He’s just not going to lead the majors in hitting this year.”
Eovaldi starts Friday
Nathan Eovaldi’s last two starts haven’t been good ones. The Red Sox are still trying to build him up, but he allowed seven runs in just five innings in those starts. He’ll get the start again Friday to begin a series against the Angels in Anaheim, Calif. Eovaldi, who was used in relief when he first came back, said having a defined role as a starter now will help him. “It definitely helps you to prepare,” Eovaldi said. “Hopefully this time I go 60-80 pitches. I feel good. Hopefully I can go deeper into the game and contribute to the team.” Manager Alex Cora said one thing he wants to see from Eovaldi is him pitching up in the zone more. “We’ll make adjustments,” Cora said.” We talked about it last year; his fastball played up in the zone.
All that’s left
After Eovaldi Friday, the Sox will follow with a bullpen day Saturday, then David Price Sunday. It will be Price’s first start since he went to the injured list Aug. 5. Sox hitters will face three Angels lefties in a row: Jose Suarez will go Friday, followed by Dillon Peters and then Andrew Heaney, who has 24 strikeouts over his last two starts . . . Michael Chavis (shoulder) launched a 427-foot home run and went 1 for 4 in a rehab start for the Pawtucket Red Sox . . . The Sox made it 18 straight games with a homer Wednesday. It is the third-longest streak in franchise history (22 in 2016, 19 in 1996).