The meteoric rise of Mookie Betts continues. The Red Sox' 22-year-old phenom took over Monday's home opener against the Nationals at Fenway Park, making his mark in the field, on the bases and at the plate—all by the end of the second inning.
In the top of the first inning, with one out and one on, Betts showed off his speed, instincts and impeccable timing by robbing Bryce Harper of a two-run homer with a leaping catch in front of the Boston bullpen—a particularly impressive play given that he has just 79 games of experience in centerfield between the majors and minors.
In the bottom of the first, Betts led off with a walk against Washington starter Jordan Zimmermann, and one out later, with the infield shifted to the right side against David Ortiz, he stole second and then third base on the same play. After realizing the Nationals had nobody covering third; he popped up after the first steal and outran both Yunel Escobar and Zimmermann as they raced to the bag. Betts then scored on Ortiz's single, and the next inning he broke the game open with a three-run homer into the seats atop the Green Monster.
Have a day, Markus Lynn Betts. Via MLB.com, here's the highlight reel of those three plays:
Betts applied the coup de grâce with an RBI single in the third inning that sent Zimmermann to the showers. The Sox won the game 9–4 to improve their record to 5–2.
On a team that's coming off two last-place finishes (plus a world championship) in three seasons, Betts has suddenly become Boston's most compelling player, a symbol of the organization's success in drafting and development as well as its hopes of returning to the top of the AL East. He won the centerfield job in spring training, beating out $72.5 million dollar Cuban signee Rusney Castillo (who was slowed by an oblique strain) as well as last year's hyped prospect, Jackie Bradley Jr. Not only has he surpassed Bradley—who displayed amazing defense in 2014 but hit just .198/.265/.266 in 423 PA—but he's also moved past teammate Xander Bogaerts, who entered last season as the consensus No. 2 prospect in the game behind the Twins' Byron Buxton, on the list of the Red Sox' most promising young players.
Given all of that, Betts's rise is worth reviewing. Born in Nashville, he starred in basketball and bowling (!) as well as baseball at John Overton High School, in the suburb of Brenton. Though just 5'9", he was named MVP of his district and Class AAA All-City Player of the Year as a hoopster during his 2011 senior season.The year before that, he was the Tennessee boys Bowler of the Year, with a high score of 290; he has since bowled two perfect, 300 games. In baseball, he earned honorable mention on the Louisville Slugger High School All-America team and accepted a baseball scholarship from the University of Tennessee.
Impressed by his pitch recognition reaction times in a fascinating neuroscouting pilot program, the Red Sox drafted Betts in the fifth round in 2011, and he bypassed the scholarship, signing with Boston after agreeing to a $750,000 bonus spread out over five years. He played just one professional game during the '11 regular season, and it was a memorable one: He went 2-for-4 with two RBIs and a steal during the season finale for the Red Sox' Gulf Coast League affiliate, but also committed three errors in six chances at shortstop.
In his first full professional season, Betts hit just .267/.352/.307 with 20 steals for Rookie League Lowell in 2012, moving from shortstop to second base after making six more errors in 13 games at the former position. He began turning heads by hitting a combined .314/.417/.506 with 15 homers and 38 steals in 42 attempts split between two levels of A-ball in '13, a showing that vaulted him to seventh on Baseball America's Red Sox Top 10 Prospects list for '14, with Bogaerts first and Bradley third. Betts also ranked 75th according to BA's Top 100 Prospects list, 62nd on MLB.com's list and 61st on that of ESPN's Keith Law. While he missed the cut on the Baseball Prospectus list, the site ranked him eighth among Boston's prospects, praising his pitch recognition, mature approach at the plate, plus-plus range at second and strong arm. Notably, BP also ranked him 10th on Boston's 25-and-under list, with Bogaerts first and Bradley second.
Betts began the 2014 season at Double A Portland and hit a scorching .355/.443/.551 with six homers and 22 steals in 54 games. With Pedroia signed through '21 and with Bradley flirting with the Mendoza line a month into the season, the organization shifted Betts to centerfield and promoted him to Triple A Pawtucket in early June. By the end of the month, he was in the majors, going 1-for-3 with a walk against the Yankees on June 29; he started in rightfield for his debut, a position he had played only in his previous two games before being recalled. He spent July and the first half of August bouncing back and forth between Pawtucket and Boston before coming up for good on Aug. 19, at which point he took over the starting centerfield job from the overmatched Bradley.
Betts finished the year back at second base, however, playing the final 14 games of the season there after Pedroia underwent season-ending surgery on his left wrist. The move also allowed the Sox to get their first up-close look at Castillo, whom they had signed in late August. Thanks to a strong September, Betts finished the season batting .291/.368/.444 with five homers and seven steals in 213 plate appearances, good for a 128 OPS+ and 2.1 WAR.
Though Betts exceeded the playing time limits for rookie status and thus was not included on top prospect lists this year, BP's most recent 25-and-under list among Red Sox youngsters testified to his skyrocketing stock. The site ranked him first, just ahead of Bogaerts, who struggled to a .240/.297/.362 rookie season in 2014 and was bounced between shortstop and third.
With Hanley Ramirez newly signed to be the starting leftfielder, as well as Bradley, Castillo, Daniel Nava, Allen Craig (who slumped while missing time due to a Lisfranc fracture in his left foot), Shane Victorino (who didn't play after July 30 last year) and superutilityman Brock Holt (who played 44 games in the outfield last year) all under team control, the Red Sox opened camp with a veritable logjam in the outfield. Even so, Boston resisted the temptation to trade any of its outfielders to bolster what appeared to be a shaky pitching staff. According to the rumor mill, Betts was one of a small handful of Red Sox considered untouchable in trade talks, and the team refused to part with him in a deal that would have brought them Philadelphia's Cole Hamels.
With Castillo slowed by an oblique strain in early March, Betts got a leg up on the Opening Day centerfield job, and his sizzling .429/.467/.750 showing in Grapefruit League play made penciling him into that spot an easy decision. Castillo and Bradley were both sent to Pawtucket; the former has gone 5-for-12 but jammed his left shoulder while making a diving catch on Saturday, and the latter has gone 10-for-28. Meanwhile, Betts went 2-for-4 in Boston's 8–0 rout of the Phillies on Opening Day, hitting a solo homer off Hamels and later collecting a single off reliever Jeanmar Gomez. Between that game and Monday's tour de force, he slipped into a 3-for-22 slump, but he's nowhere near losing his hold on a starting job.
How it all shakes out in the Boston outfield remains to be seen, but logic dictates that sooner or later, a healthy Castillo will arrive and take over either centerfield or rightfield (where he's played at Pawtucket), with Betts taking the other position and Craig, Holt, Nava and Victorino all squeezed for playing time barring an injury or trade. The Sox have already entertained the idea of offering Betts a multi-year extension, making it abundantly clear that they view him as one of the team's building blocks. And while it’s a bit early to mention him in the same breath as Harper or Mike Trout—both of whom have history-making seasons under their belts, and the former of whom is nine days younger than Betts—it’s clear that fans have taken to him as well. After all, how can you not root for an undersized, dynamic underdog who answers to Mookie?