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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

28 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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Behemoth

Assuming the bat does continue to develop promisingly, what would you do with him defensively, given that Boston isn't likely to need a second baseman for the foreseeable future, and presumably wouldn't want to trade a player who could reach the all-star/franchise player level.

May 01, 2014 05:34 AM
rating: 0
 
Mtn Jam

Seeing how he's blocked at 2b in Boston, and assuming Boston wants to keep him, when would you start the transition to other positions? Would you send him to the AFL and ask the coaches to play him everywhere? I think that's where Billy Hamilton made the transition from SS>CF. In a perfect world he would become a Ben Zobrist type....somebody capable of holding his own all over the diamond until establishing himself in some sort of regular role.

May 01, 2014 06:04 AM
rating: 0
 
Mtn Jam

Obviously I know Zobrist is 6-3 vs Mookie's 5-9.

May 01, 2014 06:05 AM
rating: -1
 
piraino

If the Bosox ever let Ortiz retire, they can carry redundancy in the infield, using DH for half rest days like a normal team. Then you could have Betts, Pedroia, Middlebrooks, and Bogaerts sharing DH and the 4,5, and 6 positions. Of course, you're still in a position where there's no place for Cecchini, Coyle, or Marrero and it seems likely one of those guys will be good enough to play. Maybe you bundle some of these guys together into a prospect backed security and flip it for pitching.

May 01, 2014 06:57 AM
rating: 1
 
vydra3

How does Betts compare to Odor?

May 01, 2014 05:39 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I'm very familiar with Odor, which explains my preference for the player. I think Odor has a chance of developing into an above-average 2B with a very good bat. Similar to Betts in that regard, although younger and playing at the same level (although the production at this point isn't comparable).

May 01, 2014 08:21 AM
 
touchstoneQu

Excellent piece! I was eagerly awaiting Jason's next chat to put the Mookie Betts question to him. It's interesting how cautious he and the other prospect guys remain. Why, just yesterday, Jeff Moore said Betts' hit tool "will be enough to carry him to the majors," and he "may have enough power to be an impact bat," hardly effusive for a 21-year-old hitting (as of this morning) .430/.481/.688 in his first 106 AA PAs.

The caution seems unusual. If another prospect showed the same meteoric development as Betts with the same numbers (8 K!), and flashed the same glove and baserunning skills, I doubt he'd earn only grudging acceptance that he might have a chance at being an MLB regular. I suspect there'd be talk of #rig, sexiness, and street maps of Portland, Maine, passed around to facilitate the stalking.

Kudos to Parks for the self examination, though. One question: does the fact that Betts plays in the Boston organization -- and all the frenzied fan hyperbole that follows it -- play a role in the reserve? You know, as a reality check against the folks who are already polishing the kid's Cooperstown plaque?

Me, I'm abandoning all pretense. I want this kid to be the next Roberto Alomar.

May 01, 2014 06:21 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

If Betts played shortstop, I would be more excited, as I suggested in the article. It also has nothing to do with Red Sox fans or fans in general. My issues with Betts were discussed in the piece (strength, size, positional assignment).

May 01, 2014 08:19 AM
 
Shawnykid23

I know MLB comps can be lazy and unfair, but as a Sox fan I can't help but think he could be another Pedroia. How would you compare the two tools-wise at this point in their development- ie. Double A?

May 01, 2014 06:54 AM
rating: 0
 
hmamis

The Red Sox blogs report that he goes out to CF after his turn at batting practice.

Harrym

May 01, 2014 07:31 AM
rating: 1
 
Alan Nathan

"If good hitters always hit, and Mookie Betts has always hit, Mookie Betts is a good hitter."

You realize, I hope, of the logical flaw in that statement.

May 01, 2014 07:55 AM
rating: 2
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I'm fine with it, actually. It speaks to the implied simplicity of the tenet I referenced, and is effective in that particular context.

May 01, 2014 08:17 AM
 
TheCookieMonster

"Penguins are black and white, and old tvs are black and white, therefore penguins are old tvs"

May 01, 2014 11:55 AM
rating: 6
 
spencersilva

"If good hitters always hit, and Mookie Betts is a good hitter. Then Mookie Betts will always hit."

Doesn't sound as good doe.

May 01, 2014 12:35 PM
rating: 2
 
jrcookson

Prof Parks, you mention the speed a few times in the article but that seems to be the one tool you're still overlooking a bit in the overall package. Betts is 69 for 80 in steal attempts in the minors. So the full package to dream on is a .300+ hitter with good D, unexpected pop, and 30-40 stolen bases a year. A potential monster... if they can figure out where to play him.

May 01, 2014 08:25 AM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Not an easy task to steal 30-40 bases at the major league level, given the fact that pitchers are more adept at holding runners, faster releases to the plate, and better catchers. He has legit speed and is a smart base runner, but I don't feel as comfortable projected high SB totals based on that criteria because of the extreme difference between stealing in the minors and the majors.

May 01, 2014 08:29 AM
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

I feel disappointed that I didn't use the word "Mookie" enough in the article. Even when it comes to names, I undersell the prospect.

May 01, 2014 08:42 AM
 
jrcookson

Your line "he treats lefties like new fish in prison" was worth at least 5 Mookies.

May 01, 2014 12:03 PM
rating: 13
 
DNicholas

"...like I judge vegetarians for not eating bacon." Yes! Great line.

May 01, 2014 09:04 AM
rating: 2
 
balticwolf

Why I love reading Jason Parks: "...and I judged him for the positional adjustment like I judge vegetarians for not eating bacon." Great line (and my sentiments exactly).

I also appreciate the fact that he's willing to eat humble pie. Good hitters do hit, at any level.

May 01, 2014 09:05 AM
rating: 3
 
danrnelson

Too many people bitch, even when you admit you were wrong about a guy. Jason, I'm glad you're willing to take us through your process of changing your mind on a player. I imagine it's something you have to go through all the time and it's not easy to share, because you have to admit being wrong. The fact that you can self-evaluate honestly will only make you a better scout. Keep up the good work and thanks for answering 1000s of our twitter questions and article comments so that we grown men can salivate over our org's teenagers.

May 01, 2014 09:18 AM
rating: 8
 
BP staff member Jason Parks
BP staff

Of course. I appreciate the thoughtful comment.

May 01, 2014 09:21 AM
 
leites

Articles like this are why I am glad to subscribe to BP. Thanks!

May 01, 2014 09:30 AM
rating: 5
 
lipitorkid

As soon as I create the right graphic I'm putting this on a bumper sticker: "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."

May 01, 2014 11:31 AM
rating: 1
 
lipitorkid

Speaking of prison. I'm wondering which MLB player could/should ever earn the nickname #prisonriot

May 01, 2014 11:32 AM
rating: 1
 
skoormit

Is Carlos Gomez too obvious?

May 01, 2014 11:58 AM
rating: 9
 
hmamis

A long time ago BP wrote an article "what would it take to get Stanton"! Well, kookier could well be a part of a package in a trade.

Harrym

May 01, 2014 19:44 PM
rating: -2
 
brucegilsen
(999)

Thanks for an excellent article Jason. I realize you're not a fantasy guy at all, but fantasy players go through an analogous process - downgrading a guy for a while and then having to admit we were wrong. I did it with Kyle Lohse this year.

May 03, 2014 06:36 AM
rating: 0
 
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