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.





Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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