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May 1, 2014

Prospects Will Break Your Heart

What Did I Miss: Mookie Betts

by Jason Parks

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I was first introduced to Mookie Betts on a baseball field back in 2012. It was the New York-Penn League, and the setting was pleasant even if most of the talent would eventually need to buy a ticket to participate in a major-league game. Betts was small and thin, and I didn’t pay much attention to him other than to highlight his name because he was drafted relatively high in the 2011 class and that alone is enough to justify a deeper look in the late-round mecca that is short-season ball. That was my first offseason to rank prospects, and Betts didn’t sniff the Red Sox top 10 list, and I don’t recall his name coming up in the discussion for the “On the Rise” candidates either. We ranked Bryce Brentz over Betts, if that gives you any indication how far off our radar Betts was at the time.

After a strong start in Low-A in 2013, Betts was promoted to High-A Salem, where I was in the right place at the right time to watch his first Carolina League experience. At the time I was too busy salivating over Blake Swihart’s skill set and pissing on Brandon Jacobs’ profile to appreciate Betts, whom I considered a catalytic player of limited upside based on that initial series, but I was intrigued enough to keep regular tabs on his performance through a scout friend who had him in his coverage area that season. What I saw at the time—in the obviously small sample—was a player with more than enough athleticism to stand out, but the strength dilemma and overall profile gave me initial pause and no doubt influenced the utility profile I bestowed upon him. His range at second stood out the most, as he seemed to cover the entire right side of the infield by himself, with silky actions to go along with the bag-to-bag range. In infield drills the arm played fine, and in game action the arm looked even more impressive on the double-play turn, as he put more than enough mustard on the ball while coming across his body with a runner barreling into his mix. Betts could play second base, but I wanted him to be a shortstop because I love shortstops and I prefer shortstops, and I judged him for the positional assignment like I judge vegetarians for not eating bacon.

Betts finished the 2013 season strong, and carried over his Carolina League triumphs by turning even the most pessimistic heads in the prospect-heavy Arizona Fall League, where the bat started looking more like a future major leaguer than a guy just beating up on lower-level arms. With all this information at my disposal, Betts still failed to crack the Baseball Prospectus 101 but he did find a home on the Red Sox top 10 list, coming in at number eight, behind Henry Owens (a player I’m not very high on), Swihart, and Allen Webster. Betts has rewarded my lack of faith by physically assaulting the Eastern League to start the 2014 season (which I was able to witness), hitting over .400, showing over-the-fence pop, and stealing bases at a productive clip. While I'm not unique in the scouting miss, his strong production accompanied by strong scouting reports has magnified my miscue, as Betts is looking like a lock for the mid-season top 50, a distinction I wouldn’t have even considered possible based on my initial looks at the player.

What did I miss?
First of all, as much I appreciated the obvious fast-twitch athleticism, my initial concerns focused on his strength, as I thought he would get the bat knocked out of his hands against better stuff. He didn’t. Betts is much stronger than his measurables might indicate, and when he puts his bat to the ball, it comes off like a shotgun, noisy and rambunctious, baseballs sprayed like buckshot. He treats lefties like new fish in prison, and the maturity of his approach keeps him in counts against righties, where his plus bat speed can square velocity and his body and bat control can keep him back against off-speed.

In the field, Betts can pick it at second, a reality I was already accepting of. Even though I discount prospects that don’t play on the left side of the infield, Betts has some of the necessary components to fill those specific positional demands, another reason I initially put Betts in the utility infielder box, thinking the speed and the glove could carry his value even if the bat turned out to be more contact oriented and not sufficient to play as a regular.

Despite warnings to the contrary, I abandoned or ignored one of the central tenets of scouting, which is “good hitters hit.” As reductive as it sounds or reads, good hitters will always put good wood on the ball, regardless of the level of competition or the current status of the development arc. If good hitters always hit, and Mookie Betts has always hit, Mookie Betts is a good hitter. I fell victim to size and positional discrimination, and to the size of the samples of my eyewitness experiences with the player. I got too caught up in what Betts wasn’t instead of focusing on what he was. In the short term it will look like a scouting miss, but the long-term gains from such a miss will outweigh the professional disappointment that comes with being late to the party on a player who clearly belongs on the dance floor.

Admission complete and responsibility taken, but I’m still not comfortable going to ludicrous speed when it comes to Betts’ future. Perhaps I’m just stubborn and unable to break away from certain biases—such as the aforementioned size/strength argument—but the statistics are starting to suggest an elite bat, a hit tool capable of future major-league batting averages north of .300, coupled with high on-base potential and legit pop, both in the gaps and over the fence. If Betts becomes the player his numbers suggest, his profile is that of a perennial all-star, a batting champion candidate aho plays a position of value, bringing power and speed components to the table as well. That’s not a normal player. That’s a franchise player. That’s a $100M player in the modern game.

I’m not ready to push Betts to those monumental heights—regardless of the current production—and I’m not even completely convinced he’s a first-division talent when the developmental music stops, which either speaks to my scouting instincts or lack thereof. But he’s more of a prospect than I gave him credit for, and his omission from the Baseball Prospectus 101 is both notable and foolish only months after its release. In hindsight it was a miss, and perhaps I will continue to undersell the player to the point of necessary reflection on the process involved. But if I can learn from the whiff, much the way a hitter learns to refine his approach in order to put him in more favorable conditions, my scouting process will benefit even if my pride takes a hit—so to speak.

Jason Parks is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jason's other articles. You can contact Jason by clicking here

Related Content:  Boston Red Sox,  Scouting,  Minor Leagues,  Prospsects

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