Standing in between Arizona Fall League All-Star teammates Byron Buxton and man-child Jorge Alfaro is Boston’s soon-to-be-star: Mookie Betts. Maybe you didn’t notice the 5’9″ second baseman or his less-than-impressive numbers when you were scanning the AFL leaders, but that would be a mistake. Because the last time he struggled, he made adjustments and went on a tear that will have him zooming up prospect lists this winter.
Hitting .205/.295/.256 doesn’t usually get you on an All-Star team, particularly when the average hitter in the league hits .254/.341/.380. But Betts has an exciting mixture of patience, power and contact, and talent evaluators were happy to see more of him at the AFL All-Star game. That might be because his reaction to his last similar poor stretch was so exciting.
This April arrived poorly for Betts in High-A Greenville. He hit .157/.333/.286 and had to lean heavily on his uncle — Terry Shumpert — for advice. “You can’t be negative here, you can’t be negative because then negative things happen,” his nephew remembers his uncle saying. The former major league infielder reminded the prospect to “keep positive, keep my head up and come to work every day” and good things will happen.
And Betts was walking, so it wasn’t the worst of all months. In fact, his April walk rate — 21% — was the highest monthly rate of his career. Maybe it was a little too high, actually. “I was way too patient,” Betts said of that first month in Greenville. “I was taking too many pitches — I was taking my pitches then,” he added. Sometimes the walks were just a byproduct of fouling pitches off and poor command from the pitchers, and the overall approach wasn’t working well.
That’s not to say that a patient approach isn’t a big part of Betts’ game to this day. He calls it a “work in progress” but pointed out that “pitchers are trying to get you to swing at their pitches, so if you let those go, they’re human too, sometimes they mess up and you can make them pay for it.” But there is such a thing as too patient, even for a man that walked more than he struck out in High-A this year.
Two things helped Betts break out of his funk. One was a conversation with hitting coach U.L. Washington, who told him to be more aggressive “because you can’t walk your way to Fenway.” The second was a takeaway from those men in Fenway themselves. The Boston hitters would “take those pitcher’s pitches, and as soon as they got their pitch, they were hammering them,” said Betts. Handling the pitches that weren’t pitcher’s pitches was as important as passing on the pitcher’s pitches themselves.
So Betts added a caveat to his motto. “If it’s not yours, don’t swing” needed an asterisk: if it is yours, swing.
And now Betts is struggling again, to use his own description. And the main source of his troubles may be a change in pitching philosophy at higher levels. One of the things he’s noticed in Arizona is that pitchers will start off counts with breaking balls. They’ll throw breaking balls in “advantage counts” that normally produce fastballs. “Here it doesn’t matter who you are, they’ll throw a 2-0 breaking ball, 3-0 changeup, 3-1, no matter when, you don’t know what pitch is coming.”
The higher levels certainly feature more pitchers that can command their breaking stuff and throw any pitch in any count. “That’s why I’m glad I’m here to see it, because it’s the first time I’ve ever really seen it, it’s going to be a good adjustment for me,” said Betts.
This year, you’ll see Betts in Double-A at some point, and moving up prospect lists and off of the fringe. If he takes to the new level well, it’ll be because of the “good learning” the second baseman got from facing pitchers like AFL All-Star Aaron Sanchez (Betts worked a walk). But Betts isn’t worrying about all that. “They know what they’re doing, they have a plan, it’s just my job to follow it,” he said about where the team might start him off.
Instead he’ll take an attitude that Uncle Shump would be proud of: “I try not to worry about it, I just come to play each day and let the rest fall in place.”
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