What Might Mookie Betts Be?

Over the weekend, the Red Sox summoned Mookie Betts from Triple-A; he made his big league debut last night, going 1-3 with a walk. While no single game will ever reveal much about a player’s skillset, the process by which he approached the game seems to fit with his minor league profile:

He didn’t chase pitches; he swung at only two of 11 out-of-zone-pitches.

He makes contact; he put the bat on the ball on all eight in-zone swings.

According to MinorLeagueCentral, Betts only swung at 34% of the pitches he was thrown in Pawtucket, and he made contact on 88% of his swings. Minor league data isn’t as reliable as major league data, but in general, swing and contact rates are pretty easy things to track and should at least be in the ballpark. While Betts will almost certainly see more in-zone pitches and be forced to swing more often in the big leagues, he has shown a pretty disciplined eye at the plate, and we shouldn’t expect him to expand the strike zone even against big league pitching.

And swing/contact rates do tend to carry over from the minors to a decent degree. For instance, if we look at the other prospects of note who have been promoted from the International League this year, we see that their swing and contact rates in the big leagues were in the same general range as their were in Triple-A.

Player AAA Swing% MLB Swing% AAA Contact% MLB Contact%
Gregory Polanco 40% 39% 77% 78%
Tommy La Stella 42% 44% 88% 83%
Kevin Kiermaier 51% 48% 82% 76%
Danny Santana 50% 51% 79% 81%

Betts will have to swing more and probably make less contact, but even if we regress his numbers back to something like a 40% swing rate and an 85% contact rate, that still gives him a chance to be a hitter who controls the strike zone in a significant way. For comparison, here are the major league hitters who are around those numbers.

Name Team PA Swing% Contact% BB% K% ISO BABIP
Kyle Seager Mariners 324 42% 83% 8% 19% 0.212 0.317
Coco Crisp Athletics 265 40% 86% 14% 13% 0.157 0.309
Anthony Rendon Nationals 343 41% 86% 8% 16% 0.201 0.306
Casey McGehee Marlins 354 40% 86% 10% 15% 0.076 0.362
Christian Yelich Marlins 290 39% 83% 11% 20% 0.165 0.314
Ben Zobrist Rays 306 39% 85% 11% 14% 0.145 0.281
Jason Heyward Braves 359 42% 83% 12% 16% 0.129 0.278
Jimmy Rollins Phillies 345 40% 84% 11% 17% 0.136 0.280
Joe Mauer Twins 331 39% 85% 10% 18% 0.081 0.332
J.J. Hardy Orioles 297 41% 84% 4% 16% 0.072 0.339
Omar Infante Royals 267 41% 87% 6% 12% 0.115 0.265
Average   316 40% 85% 10% 16% 0.135 0.308

By and large, these guys strikeout less than the average hitter, walk a little more often, and have below average power. It is a list, not surprisingly, made up of middle infielders or guys who have shown significant defensive value, and many of them are also good baserunners. This is the kind of skillset that is often found among athletic players who might not be great hitters but are quite valuable across the board. As a group, they’ve averaged a 109 wRC+ this year, but have combined for +20 WAR in just under 3,500 plate appearances, or an average of about +3.5 WAR per 600 PAs. These guys are not superstars, but quality above average big leaguers with a broad base of skills.

Of course, because we only filtered based on swing and contact rates, there’s a pretty wide variance in production. Saying Mookie Betts is comparable to a group that includes Anthony Rendon is exciting; noting that it includes Omar Infante less so. Seager and Rendon have been the best hitters in the group because they’ve hit for the most power, and given Betts’ size, his eventual power output is always going to be a question.

But Coco Crisp is kind of an interesting comparison, because like Betts, he’s not particularly reliant on the home run ball to create offensive value, but he’s also not a slap-hitting singles guy. He’s more similar in stature to Betts than Seager or Rendon, and based on physique, this seems to be a more realistic short-term power ceiling. And late-vintage Coco Crisp has quietly developed into a pretty solid hitter, posting a 116 wRC+ since the start of the 2012 season. Combined with his speed and defense, Crisp has been one of the game’s most underrated players, and a key reason for the A’s dominance over the last couple of years.

Of course, Crisp didn’t begin to control the strike zone to this degree until recently, in his mid-30s. Plate discipline is often referred to as an old player skill, as walk rate peaks in the second half of a player’s career. If Betts is already somewhat close to where Crisp is, but he’s there at 21, what does that mean for his long term future?

That’s a little less clear, to be honest. Using the filters on the leaderboards, I’ve created a list of young players who — in the last 30 years — controlled the strike zone while hitting enough power to avoid the slap-hitter label but not enough power to be a serious middle-of-the-order guy. At the top of the list, you see a name like Roberto Alomar and see the obvious potential in a guy who can handle the bat, hit for some power, play good defense, and steal a lot of bases. Dustin Pedroia and Barry Larkin are also reminders of how good these types of players can be, and that Betts doesn’t have to turn into a big time home run guy in order to be a star.

But there are a lot of guys on that list who peaked early as well. Maybe Jason Kendall and Russell Martin would have hit for more power later in their careers if they hadn’t been subjected to catching, but both had very similar offensive skillsets at a young age and were at their best early in their careers. Gregg Jeffries never really quite amounted to what he was thought of as a prospect. Denard Span has settled in as an average hitter, and is kind of a better defensive version of Shannon Stewart, who also is on the list. Edgardo Alfonso had a nice peak, but was washed up at age-29.

It’s not entirely clear that Betts’ skillset will follow the traditional peak-at-27 model. With an advanced approach at the plate and limits on his eventual power by his physique, Betts might be more likely to top out as a good player rather than a great one. That isn’t to say he couldn’t surpass expectations and turn into Roberto Alomar or Dustin Pedroia, but it seems more likely that he settles in to the mold currently filled by the likes of Crisp or Brett Gardner, with maybe a little more power than either one.

That’s certainly not a knock on his future value, as an improved version of Crsip or Gardner is something like a +4 WAR player on an annual basis. Even as an outfielder instead of a second baseman, Betts could make a significant impact on the Red Sox, and his skillset looks like one that could translate well in the short term. With Shane Victorino, the Red Sox saw last year just what an undersized outfielder who specializes in contact and line drives can do, and while Betts isn’t a Victorino clone, he could provide similar value going forward.

He might not have the kind of tantalizing upside of Xander Bogaerts or Gregory Polanco, but don’t be too surprised if Betts outplays them both the rest of the year. Both might eventually turn into better players as they grow into their power, but Betts present skillset is plenty good, and as long as he handles the outfield conversion well, he’ll be a valuable contributor for the Red Sox both in 2014 and beyond.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


32 Responses to “What Might Mookie Betts Be?”

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  1. sweetdickwillie says:

    Where would you rank Betts among 2B ROS?

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    • bobbybonilla says:

      He wouldn’t because fantasy baseball is stupid.

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      • baseballguru717 says:

        Bonilla,

        You’re a cancer. He didn’t mention fantasy. I would rank Betts just outside the top 10… plenty of runs if they move him up towards the top of the lineup.

        ps. how’s your mom’s basement, bobbay?

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      • Quetzalcuddyer says:

        I might be wrong here, but I believe Dave Appelman started this site because of fantasy baseball.

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    • Ben says:

      He’s only eligible at OF on ESPN

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      • Garrett's Mom says:

        …and SS in Yahoo. Not sure he’s even going to get 2B eligibility.

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        • YoMommaSoUggla says:

          And he hasn’t played SS since 2012.

          He’s litterally played more games at 2B than any other position in his career. Almost 300 games at 2B compared to 14 at SS and 29 in the OF.

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        • Garrett's Mom says:

          Sounds about right. No idea why he’s a SS, but I’m definitely not complaining.

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    • G-foz says:

      I plugged what I thought to be moderate projections for him into my “points above replacement” formula and he graded out as the 3rd best 2B in roto behind Cano & Kipnis. Part of that is my league using SB minus CS as a stat and I had him at +28 which is a big number. Of course he went out and got caught in his first attempt. Basically my feeling is that if he plays well enough to stick, and he finds his way to the top of the lineup (with his on base skills, why not), he’ll be very productive.

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      • It’s possible he contributes in fantasy right away, but if you have him as a top-3 second baseman, ahead of guys like Altuve and Kinsler, your projections probably aren’t “moderate”.

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        • G-foz says:

          Without checking it was about .285-83-10-60-28, as a full season pace. You’re right, not moderate, but also doesn’t feel out of his wheelhouse right now. We shall see. I’m clearly super high on him and think he has a good shot to be the biggest impact rookie hitter.

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  2. tz says:

    What are the odds of the most Pedroia-like prospect in memory being a top prospect for the Red Sox while Pedroia is still active and productive?

    Betts’s minor league stats look way too much like Pedroia’s, trading a little pop for some crazy SB% numbers.

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    • The most Pedroia-like prospect in memory is currently hitting .363/.444/.615, with 9 HR & 12-12 SB, in Double-A Portland. He’s 10 months older than Betts and is named Sean Coyle.

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      • tz says:

        I’d still have to give the edge to Betts because he’s managed Pedroia’s great low K% while Coyle’s posted a more human 20% level K rate.

        But if anything, that gives the Red Sox the top three players in Pedroianess that I can recall. Maybe Boston is working on a way to use all three at 2B in some sort of extra-radical defensive shift.

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      • AF says:

        Coyle hit 242/.326/.500 in 2013, 2012 249/.316/.391 in 2012, and .247/.362/.464 in 2011. He doesn’t have the minor league track record that Betts has.

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      • Jim says:

        There’s nothing Pedroia-like about his command of the strike zone

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      • T-Bone says:

        Uh, how can you begin to consider Coyle as an accurate comp to Pedroia when his K% has been 22+ throughout his minor league career, while Pedroia’s career K% is below 10?

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  3. ace_hunter1982 says:

    Is McCutchen too much of a stretch as a comp? Similar physique. Good strike zone discipline. McCutchen hit for less power in the minors than Betts and McCutchen’s power didn’t really show up til his mid-twenties.

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  4. Spit Ball says:

    Thorough statistical analysis. Thank you. He’s probably never going to be a twenty home run guy but he swings harder than Gardner having consistently watching him at Portland this season. I live a half mile from Hadlock Field (Sea Dogs home park and “Little Fenway” complete with a Monster and all) I saw all but two of his home games in AA. He obviously looked like the laser show on steroids there and he is so young. He used the “mini monster well.” The plate discipline really stood out as well as the contact percentage. The contact was generally hard though. A few bleeders with speed helped but it was mostly hard contact. I can see a string of 60-65 extra base hit seasons if he can handle big league changeups. If you can hold off on a AA slider, you can generally handle a big league slider. It’s the good changeups in the Bigs that throw some prospects timing off. Anyway his hit tool and plate discipline are his best tools with his speed and INFIELD defense right behind. I’ve watched all the Boston guys and a couple Florida guys come through Portland and Betts is between a 22 year old Pedroia and a 21 year old Ramirez and a 20 year old Bogaerts. Ramirez’s tools were evident but he had some lazy tendencies back then because of his raw talent. Betts is a tick below Ramirez on the Talent scale obviously but his skills are more refined and he has more of fire like Pedroia. He won’t steal like Ramirez or Ellsbury but could be good for 40/50 bags in the majors. I’d like to go back to his defense though. He is the BEST infielder as far as range and instincts go that I have seen play and his arm is undersold. He’s got better Shortstop skills than Bogaerts and nearly as good of an arm, maybe equal. Watch his throws from the outfield. You will see some peas. I realize a crow hop and a throw is different than planting on a ball in the hole. I still think that eventually Bogaerts ends up at third and Betts at Short unless they really like his outfield defense and his bat plays up. Pedroia type offense is by no means out of the question. So many similarities at the plate

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    • tz says:

      Thanks Spit Ball.

      I’d seen just the scouting reports and hadn’t observed his defense, so it’s great to think that instead of shifting into the outfield, Betts has the arm to shift to shortstop. After all, if Eckstein could shift over to SS after playing 2B throughout his minor league career, I’d take the chance with him as the long-term SS and move Bogaerts to third full-time as you say.

      With these guys manning the infield and Brock Holt backing them (and everyone else) up, this would be a great future for the Red Sox.

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  5. Josh M says:

    How is Brian Roberts for a comp?

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    • Spit Ball says:

      2014 or 2006?

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    • T-Bone says:

      Not a bad comp, but I think Betts will have a slightly lower K% and/or a better BABIP.

      Roberts’ career wRC+ is only 101… right now I’d give Betts the benefit of the doubt and say he ends up at 110 or higher (especially playing in BABIP-friendly Fenway).

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  6. Brock Holt says:

    A leak plugger?

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  7. MrKnowNothing says:

    If you produce a 3.0+ player you’ve done well as an org.

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  8. Tom says:

    Dave, I’m gathering from this that you would be willing to include Betts in a Stanton trade if you’re the Red Sox, yes?

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  9. Mr baseball says:

    Coco crisp cloned

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  10. everdiso says:

    Isn’t it a bit concerning that for the most part all the hitting comparables in this article have elite defensive value?

    I know mookie is athletic, but does a guy who couldn’t even stick at a key defensive position in milb (and didn’t get rave reviews even for his D at a middling defensive position) really project to that kind of defensive value in mlb?

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