Mookie Is Coming

Mookie Betts is hitting .400. Mookie Betts has reached base in 70 consecutive games. Mookie Betts walks more often than he strikes out. Mookie Betts doesn’t have a position, but it doesn’t matter. Mookie Betts is coming.

The question is when? Since Ben Cherington took over as the team’s director of player development in 2003, the Sox have promoted 75 position players to the majors. Parsing that list for playing time, duplicates (as in someone got a September call-up but was still rookie eligible the following season) and players who weren’t really Red Sox farmhands, such as Brandon Snyder, leaves us with the following 18-player list:

Triple-A Plate Appearances for Red Sox prospects, 2003-Present
Player MLB Debut Season MLB Debut Age Triple-A PA Before MLB Debut
Kelly Shoppach 2005 25 454*
Dustin Pedroia 2006 22 493
Brandon Moss 2007 23 464
Lars Anderson 2010 22 462
David Murphy 2006 24 366
Xander Bogaerts 2013 20 256
Ryan Lavarnway 2011 23 239
Jacoby Ellsbury 2007 23 236
Daniel Nava 2010 27 220
Jed Lowrie 2008 24 209
Freddy Sanchez 2002 24 205
Ryan Kalish 2010 22 160
Will Middlebrooks 2012 23 160
Kevin Youkilis 2004 25 132*
Jose Iglesias 2011 21 92
Yamaico Navarro 2010 22 59
Jackie Bradley Jr 2013 23 0
Josh Reddick 2009 22 0

* Both Shoppach and Youkilis had some Triple-A time during their MLB debut seasons, but they played in a time before Minor League game logs, so I’m not sure how much, and instead just listed their Triple-A totals from the seasons prior to their debut.

The consensus here is that nearly everyone got some Triple-A time, and the two players who skipped Triple-A don’t exactly instill a lot of confidence for doing it again. Both Bradley and Reddick needed significant time back in Pawtucket to hone their offensive game, and Bradley’s offensive abilities are still an open question — he is currently sporting the exact same 69 wRC+ this year that he did last year in the majors.

Still, there’s only so long the team is going to be able to keep Betts out of Fenway Park. We’re used to seeing ridiculous numbers from minor leaguers, but what Betts is doing is not exactly common. Our leaderboards have minor league stats going back to 2006. Across all levels of American Red Sox farm teams since that season (ie, I didn’t include their Dominican Summer League team), here are the players with at least 150 plate appearances at a level and a 160 wRC+ or better:

Red Sox Minor Leaguers with 160 or better wRC+, 2006-2014 (min. 150 PA)
Player Year Level Age PA wRC+
Jeff Natale 2006 A 23 231 196
Mookie Betts 2014 AA 21 163 194
Jantzen Witte 2014 A 24 153 192
Garin Cecchini 2013 A+ 22 262 186
Bryce Brentz 2011 A 22 186 186
Chih-Hsien Chiang 2011 AA 23 358 185
Bubba Bell 2007 A+ 24 378 183
Jackie Bradley Jr. 2012 A+ 22 304 181
Miles Head 2011 A 20 298 175
Ryan Lavarnway 2011 AAA 23 264 172
Reynaldo Rodriguez 2011 A+ 25 237 172
Aaron Bates 2007 A+ 23 465 170
Tim Federowicz 2009 A 21 247 170
Mookie Betts 2013 A+ 20 211 166
Brad Correll 2007 A+ 26 276 166
Mauro Gomez 2012 AAA 27 426 164
Jeff Bailey 2008 AAA 29 494 164
Travis Shaw 2012 A+ 22 423 163
Daniel Butler 2010 A 23 244 163
Lars Anderson 2008 AA 20 163 162
Jon Still 2007 A 22 454 162
Chris McGuinness 2010 A 22 341 161
Mookie Betts 2013 A 20 340 160

A few things stick out in this chart. First, 23 players in more than eight full seasons is not a lot. Second, of the 23, many of them, such as Witte, Rodriguez, Correll and Gomez, were far too old for their levels to be taken seriously as prospects. Third, Betts is the only player to appear more than once. Fourth, Betts is one of the youngest players on this list. But there is also the final point that this performance in the minors guarantees nothing. Heading into 2009, it seemed preordained that Anderson would be the team’s next great first baseman. Baseball America ranked him 17th in the game overall. Fast forward to 2014, and he has only mustered 56 plate appearances and one extra-base hit in a major league career that is probably over.

Anderson serves as one reminder that we must always be careful to not get too excited, and his projections are another. Dan Szymborski was kind enough this afternoon to update his Betts projection for the rest of the season:

- Preseason: .241/.309/.362, 82 OPS+
- Updated as of 5/16/14: .256/.322/.383, 91 OPS+

That’s about as big of a jump as could be reasonably expected out of any player, but it’s still below league average. A couple of notes on this though from Szymborski’s recent piece at The Hardball Times: Minor League data isn’t great, and results tend to be stickier in-season. So this projection could end up looking conservative. Or not, but either way, it’s a baseline, not a gospel. And the baseline has improved significantly.

FanGraphs prospect writer Marc Hulet is encouraged, and thinks that Betts has the swing to produce in the Majors right now. “Betts’ swing is pretty simple from a mechanical standpoint,” says Hulet. “I doubt there is much more he could gain from AAA. I’d rather see him really challenged in the Majors. Double-A is where you prove you can hit the soft stuff. Triple-A is more for polish and refinement.” And as you can see in this spray chart of his 2014 hits, Betts is already pretty refined:

2014 season at Double-A Portland. Image courtesy of MLBFarm.com.

2014 season at Double-A Portland. Image courtesy of MLBFarm.com.

All of his home runs have gone to left-center, and his singles form three clusters in to each area of the field. Not too shabby.

The question, of course, is where will he play. Betts played center field and shortstop in high school, and the Sox are apparently not worried at all about him playing in the outfield in the short or long-term. That’s good news, particularly for a Sox club struggling offensively at three defensive positions. Using our handy new position splits, I find that the Sox are currently 22nd in wRC+ at third base, left field and center field. All could use some pep in their step. All have been underperforming a great deal. The right fit will depend on a number of factors, but one important one is the comfort level of young players.

“Part of finding a spot for Betts might come down to how many first-year players the front office/coaching staff wants to move out of their comfort zone in 2014,” says Hulet. That is a key consideration. Second base is a non-starter unless Dustin Pedroia is hurt, but Hulet notes that while Betts doesn’t have a great arm for shortstop, he “could probably be respectable, if not better, there.” But what about Xander Bogaerts? He hasn’t been consistent at the plate, but his approach is more than sound — as his 14-pitch plate appearance yesterday showed — and he has shown flashes. Would moving him back to third base make it harder for him to focus at the plate? Furthermore, if the team wasn’t willing to bring back Stephen Drew to play shortstop, it would seem odd to then bail on Bogaerts while he is producing at least respectably at the plate (101 wRC+, tied for 11th among qualified shortstops).

There are no such future concerns in left field, however. Of the four men to play left field this year for Boston, the youngest is 28-year-old Mike Carp, and he will likely never be more than a platoon player. There is of course the concern that Betts’ bat will be wasted in left, but given that the team isn’t getting much out of the position now, that is less of a concern than perhaps it normally would be. Betts’ 91 OPS+ projection would be about five percent better than what the team has received from left field thus far.

Ultimately, the team has little to lose by calling him up. The team wants to drop down to 11 pitchers, or send Jonathan Herrera down to Pawtucket (or just on his merry way). Herrera has only tallied 47 plate appearances this season, and is playing at a sub-replacement level. He won’t be missed, and aside from third base, Betts can fill in wherever Herrera has filled in. If the team wants to make Betts the starting left fielder to see if he can keep his roll going in the Majors, that would probably work out great, but playing him three to four times a week in a rotation at left, center and the middle infield is probably more realistic. Either way, Mookie is coming.




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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. He has also written extensively for ESPN MLB Insider. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


41 Responses to “Mookie Is Coming”

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  1. Jaack says:

    All Betts are off on how this development will affect the Red Sox.

    +7 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. NutButters says:

    He might hit for some sudden pop in left if he can get a locker next to David Ortiz*

    -43 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Menthol says:

      Bite your tongue. David Ortiz is on my fantasy team and thus is as pure as the driven snow.

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    • Devern Hansack says:

      What is this, an ESPN comment thread or something? He hasn’t shown up on any reports since 2003 and that report didn’t conclusively demonstrate that he used PEDs.

      +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • LG says:

        And yet, that’s far more conclusive evidence that exists for a lot of players who have accusations thrown about

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      • The report that explicitly says he tested positive for PEDs?

        Name someone else whose name was leaked and wasn’t later caught for PEDs. Ortiz was just smart enough to stop cheating when they started testing.

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      • NutButters says:

        It was a positive test. People can’t have their cake and eat it too. Ortiz is a proven steroid user, and everyone knows he was dirty last year too.

        Selig allowed Henry and Co to purchase the Sox over higher bidders, and then Selig allowed a Red Sox employee (George Mitchell) to run the steroid probe.

        Everyone and their mother knows Ortiz has been a juicer cheat for years, he just gets a pass for it (and things like bashing dugout phones) because he makes the league money. It’s a shame though, still gets an asterisk and it will keep him out of the hall of fame too. Shame that the league let it go on for this long.

        -17 Vote -1 Vote +1

      • james wilson says:

        It has been conclusively demonstrated that Ortiz is Dominican, and every last one of them used, including at all levels of the minor leagues. The Dominican is third world, but their clinics are first world and don’t have to wartch over their shoulders for the nanny state. That is where Colon went to get well.

        -16 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. Kurtz says:

    As much speculation as it might be, care to put an ETA guess out there?

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    • japem says:

      Not this year. Possibly next. He’s only in AA.

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      • Mr Baseball says:

        AA players get promoted all the time. “possibly” next year? LOL

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      • Spa City says:

        His level does not mean anything. Players this good make the jump directly from A ball sometimes. His swing looks great, his base running skills are fantastic, he had incredible patience and pitch selection. I am not sure what skills he would need to refine at AAA.

        Mookie’s biggest challenge will be learning a new defensive position on the fly. If he can learn to play 3B, he has a spot waiting for him. He does not need to be a gold glover… he is replacing Middlebrooks, so all he needs to do is play better defense than Middlebrooks (which should not be that hard for him).

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  4. Ryan says:

    Lars Anderson is certainly one cautionary tale from that list, but whatever happened to Jeff Natale?

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    • rick lancellotti says:

      I guess despite a decent hit tool, the organization didn’t see much of a future for Jeff Natale because of a lack of power and horrible fielding. There’s some info on this Yankees site after they signed him to AAA: http://riveraveblues.com/2010/05/yankees-sign-jeff-natale-28756/

      He’s currently retired and is a coach somewhere right now. I actually went to college with him and read it in our alumni newsletter a couple of years ago.

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    • ryarriz says:

      He actually was my high school baseball coach. He went to Trinity, a Division III NESCAC school in Connecticut. Mashed there, and even won Red Sox offensive minor league player of the year one season. One year in AAA ball he broke his forearm/wrist on a Edward Mujica inside fastball, was out for most of the season, and even though he came back and kept hitting and getting on base like always, he ended up getting traded away. He improved his defense over the course of his career, but never got the chance in the bigs despite his tools at the plate. He was a great coach for me, really too bad he never got a taste of the bigs.

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  5. Mike89 says:

    I hope one day the Mets and Red Sox are in the world series again and Mookie hits a soft ground ball to Lucas Duda at first base…

    +26 Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Nick says:

    It’s not gonna happen. Best case scenario is they do what they did with Bogaerts last year and he gets a mid-August or so call up.

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  7. BaseballGuy says:

    He’s SO gonna be a Miami Marlin, if not this year, next.

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  8. Satoshi Nakamoto says:

    Mookie Blaylock!

    Mookie!

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  9. Spit Ball says:

    One player not listed on this list is Hanley Ramirez. I understand why he is not on the list seeing as he had only a handful of plate appearances in a September call up with the Red Sox in 2005. He was then traded to Miami with Sanchez in the Beckett deal. He never spent a day at triple A and was ROY with the Marlins in 2006 at the age of 22. He did however spend considerably more time at Double A than Betts has to this point in time.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Jonathan Sher says:

      Hanley spent considerably more time at AA for a number of reasons:

      - Boston had Edgar Renteria at SS and he had been an all-star the previous 2 season and had been solid if not spectacular in 2005.
      - While Hanley has a strong month in AA in 2005, he bat really dropped off in 2005 – his OPS would end up at .720. He’d hit much better with the Marlins in 2006 than he did in AA in 2005.

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  10. Jonathan Sher says:

    I think Cherington’s track record suggests the key variable is the need of the big league club when considering both their position in the standings and their positional need.

    When Bogaerts was called up last year on Aug 19, Boston was just 1 game ahead of the Rays and 1.5 games ahead of the 2nd-wild card team. Both Drew and Middlesex were hopeless against left-handers. Xander was a natural fit to help the club. And there was no development downside because there was so little time left in the minor league season.

    Similarly, when Reddick was called up July 31, 2009 and skipped AAA, Boston was 1.4 games behind NY and 1.5 games ahead of Texas for the wildcard. Adam LaRoche had just been traded and Boston needed outfield depth.

    I raise those two as examples because in Bogaerts case, he was the #2 prospect in all of baseball but got AAA at-bads, while Reddick skipped AAA even though he hadn’t been in anyone preseason top 100 though he’d rise by year end to #75 in Baseball America.

    So at what point does Boston middling record and struggles at 3B and in the OF trigger a change? I suspect it isn’t imminent as in the next few weeks. His minor league manager said recently he needs another 100 at-bats to completely establish himself as dominant in AA. That would take him to mid-June. I think that if Boston continues to struggle in the standings and in certain positions, a promotion become increasingly likely after the all-star game. Consider too Boston could instead promote Garin Cecchini to play 3B.

    Some notes about Betts too. Even though he was under-rated as a prospect after being drafted in the 5th round, he was always off the charts as an athlete — Baseball American ranked him the best athlete in Boston’s minor leagues. That speaks well of his ability to adapt to the outfield. It also distinguishes him from many of the high-performing batters listed in the article. He faced the usual bias against short players. But I can’t readily recall prospects who combined his hitting prowess with unbelievable plate discipline, stellar base running and plus-defense.

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    • grassyjones says:

      even if he went 0 for 100 during those “establishing dominance” AB’s in AA he’d still be at .236 … kid is doing some serious work down there

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      • Jonathan Sher says:

        Agreed. But regardless of what you or I think about the utility of more AA at-bats, Betts’ minor league manager will have more influence on when he is promoted, so his views are relevant to the question of when we might see Betts in Boston.

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    • Sam says:

      My lord you are spot on.

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  11. Pr says:

    Would he be better defensively at SS than Bogaerts? If Middlebrooks doesn’t work out, could move Xander to 3B but was curious if that’s a defensive upgrade for left side of the infield from now?

    Also curious where he would rank now in minor league rankings? Top 5, 10? That production with that athleticism….

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  12. Rufus T. Firefly says:

    Why have they chosen not to move Betts to AAA right now?

    Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Izzy says:

      In the past the Red Sox have waited until after the minor league all star game. I think it’s a way to reward the player for their great play. Mookie seems more than ready to join Pawtucket now, however.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  13. Value arb says:

    That’s what she said…

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  14. Pj says:

    Garin Cechinni is not far behind either.

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  15. james wilson says:

    Poor Middlebrooks. He reminds me how hard it is in the batters box.

    The Sox are determined to leave Bogaerts at SS to develop into an average SS with plus offense. Cechinni will come up this summer if Middlebrooks gets worse just because it’s hard to watch. Having Betts as a supersub is interesting but all in all the Sox at this point probably see their destiny as tinkering around the edges just to stay around .500 and won’t jerk Betts around unless they find themselves in contention late in the year.

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  16. shthar says:

    Has there ever been a bad player named Mookie?

    I don’t think so.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  17. Swfcdan says:

    Don’t tell me, I drafted Josh Bell over him in my offseason prospect draft. Gah!!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  18. Parker says:

    Betts started in CF yesterday (went 1-3 with R, SB, and BB). Looks like Boston is giving him OF experience so he can be called up sometime this year.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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