Red Sox’s Betts drawing (really) big-name comparisons

 

When the Red Sox’s Shane Victorino recently compared Mookie Betts to the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen, I thought, “Whoa, slow down.”

To verify my opinion, I sought out a rival scout who followed the Red Sox this spring, a scout who does not dispense praise easily.

“You buy that?” I asked.

“Yes, I do,” the scout said. “He is a talented player, better than I thought. The only thing he wasn’t top-shelf at was center field, but he is athletic so I give him a chance.”

Well, then.

I know what you’re thinking, at least if you’re not a card-carrying member of Red Sox Nation: Here we go with another over-hyped Sox prospect, the next greatest thing ev-ah.

Wasn’t center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. the Sox’s big phenom two years ago? And what about shortstop Xander Bogaerts, who has yet to recapture the brilliance he flashed during the 2013 World Series?

Fair questions. So on Sunday, I journeyed to Fort Myers in search of The Truth About Mookie, or at least, the truth according to Betts’ teammates, coaches and manager.

AROUND THE HORN

Needless to say, they’re a little excited.

Betts has been the Red Sox’s best player in the Grapefruit League, batting .452 with a 1.334 OPS and adapting to center field, a position he did not play professionally until last season.

Victorino is not backing off. He sees McCutchen in Betts, and not just because of the resemblance in stature (McCutchen is listed at 5 feet 10, 188 pounds and Betts 5-9, 180, though McCutchen says he is heavier and Betts may be lighter).

“His swing, the way he finishes, the whole swing, the way it looks. The way he plays the game,” Victorino said.

“It’s a tough comparison to make — Andrew is one of the elite outfielders in the game. But when you see certain things, the way (Betts) goes about playing the game, with that little swag … there’s something about him.”

“I saw that at Triple-A (on a rehabilitation assignment last season). And I said, ‘Whoa, this guy reminds me of McCutchen.’ It’s almost creepy.”

Designated hitter David Ortiz agreed — and then some.

“I’d even go further,” Ortiz said. “He’s better than McCutchen at that time in McCutchen’s career. Go and double-check that.”

So I did.

McCutchen started his age 22 season at Triple-A, then made his major-league debut on June 4, 2009. He played 108 games for the Pirates that year, batting .286 with an .836 OPS.

Betts produced similar numbers in his 52-game call-up with the Red Sox last season, batting .291 with an .812 OPS.

At age 21.

NO, MAYBE HE’S HANLEY! OR PAPI!

Ortiz said that Hanley Ramirez was the last Red Sox prospect he could remember “coming out of the minor leagues on top of his game every day” like Betts has.

Ramirez, though, appeared in only two games with the Sox before getting traded to the Marlins with right-hander Anibal Sanchez and two others for righty Josh Beckett, third baseman Mike Lowell and reliever Guillermo Mota in November 2005.

DRAFT. PLAY. DOMINATE

Almost a decade later, Ramirez is back with the Sox after signing a four-year, $88 million free-agent contract. He, too, has a comp for Betts, but it isn’t McCutchen.

“Me,” Ramirez said.

You?

“He’s not quite up there, but if he works a little bit more, he can one day be like me,” Ramirez said.

It reads worse than it sounded; Ramirez didn’t intend to be arrogant. But in Betts, he genuinely sees his younger self.

“You remember me,” said Ramirez, who at 6-2, 225 is considerably bigger than Betts and was even in his younger days. “I used to steal bases, hit home runs, doubles, triples — whatever the team needed in that situation.

“He can lead off. But he can hit homers. And he can drive runs in. And steal bases. He’s a five-tool player.”

Ortiz, meanwhile, also sees something in Betts that reminds him of himself: plate discipline.

Betts had more walks than strikeouts in 1,311 minor-league plate appearances, then a .368 on-base percentage in about a third of a major-league season.

More than one Red Sox player says Betts reminds him of Pirates star Andrew McCutchen.

“This guy, he has my approach at the plate,” Ortiz said. “If you don’t give him a pitch to hit, he won’t swing at it.

“To me, that’s better than any other tool for a young position player. It’s hard to be selective at that age. He stayed like that all year last year. And you look at his spring training, you’ve seen an even better hitter. It’s crazy.”

Actually, Betts has been a different hitter this spring — he did not draw a walk until his 37th plate appearance and has only two in 44 plate appearances overall.

His increased aggressiveness is by design — Betts told the Boston Globe’s Alex Speier that he needs to swing more because major-league pitchers are more around the strike zone, citing Derek Jeter’s march to 3,000 hits as a model.

“Can’t walk to Fenway,” Betts said.

WAIT, MAYBE HE’S JETER!

Chili Davis, the Red Sox’s new hitting instructor, offers another take on Betts — and yes, he invokes the recently retired pinstriped legend.

“You know what I love about Mookie? He’s got a knack for a young player, kind of like Jeter — no matter where the pitch was, they find a way to get the barrel on the ball,” Davis said. “Mechanically, what do you say to a kid who already knows how to do that? He’s his own biggest critic. He’ll take BP and go, ‘That was a terrible BP. That was a terrible round.’ So, what do you do?

“You can’t go up to him and say, ‘Do this with your hands.’ I tell him, ‘You know what? That was brutal. Let’s make the next one better.’ Or, ‘Just forget about your swing and hit with your eyes this one time.’ Any stupid thing like that. He’ll do it. He’s so athletic, so smart, he’ll figure it out.”

Like Derek Jeter, Betts makes sure he gets the most out of every at-bat.

The loose hands, the bat speed, the surprising power … to borrow a phrase that the Red Sox often use when talking about Betts, it’s fun to watch.

“(The Mets’) Matt Harvey was in here one day, throwing 95 to 99 with two other pitches,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said. “It’s about an eight-pitch at-bat, and he throws him a 3-2 changeup that Mookie hits off the wall (for a double). And it’s like, ‘OK, he’s fouling off three different types of pitches and he still gets it.’

“Another game, we’re facing (Braves ace Julio) Teheran. He goes, ‘Skip, what’s this guy got?’ I say, ‘He’s got four pitches.’ And he says, ‘Should I? …’ He starts to go down this path of asking questions. Then he stops himself and goes, ‘That’s a dumb question.’ I say, ‘Yeah, just keep doing what you’re doing.’

“Second pitch, line-drive base hit up the middle. Next at-bat is like a seven-pitch walk, the next a two-run dinger to left.”

Granted, it’s only spring training, but Harvey and Teheran are two of the best young pitchers in the game.

Anything else?

OH YES, DEFENSE

Center field is not Betts’ natural position. Yet no less an authority than Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia said: “It looks like he has played center for a long time.”

Betts spent most of his minor-league career at second, but a change in positions only made sense with Pedroia under contract through 2021.

To this point, Betts still has only 73 games of professional experience in center, 28 in the majors. But he learns quickly. Heck, he does pretty much everything quickly, considering that four years ago he was in high school and two years ago he was in low Class A.

“He confronts his limitations as well as any young player I’ve ever seen,” Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo said. “He is fearless in his approach to getting better and becoming a complete player.”

As an example, Lovullo cites a period earlier this spring when Betts was experiencing going back on balls at the Red Sox’s spring park and “might have gotten a little wall-shy.”

“He missed a ball, came in and told (outfield instructor) Arnie Beyeler, ‘I need to work on this.’ For two or three days, he relentlessly worked on going back on balls with these dimensions and kind of erased his fears.

“Most young players run from their limitations. This guy looks to eliminate all of his.”

Beyeler, referring back to those sessions, said the last thing an outfielder must refine is how to turn his head and go to the correct spot on flyballs. It comes through repetition. And for Betts, it remains a work in progress.

But probably not for long.

“His work ethic is off the charts. That’s why he’s getting better so quickly,” Beyeler said. “He’s constantly picking himself apart, trying to find something he wants to get better at.

“He’s very athletic and can play pretty well just putting him out there. Now the fact that he wants to get better and do a better job at routes and reads, throwing to bases, strengthening his arm, that’s all you can ask for.”

All a coach can ask for, Beyeler means. Betts, it turns out, has his own questions. And more questions. And then a few more after that …

THE 500-HOME RUN CLUB

EXCUSE ME, PAPI  …

The Red Sox veterans not only think highly of Betts as a player, but they also like his makeup, the way he carries himself. Betts is eager, respectful and inquisitive — sometimes to a fault, when it comes to the latter.

“He wore me out asking me questions last year,” Ortiz said. “He said, ‘Does it bother you that I ask a lot of questions?’ I said, ‘No. I like that. That tells me you want to get to the point where you’re a superstar.’”

Ortiz said he had the same goal when he was younger, but teams then functioned as “more of a military, where the veteran players wanted you to stay away from them.” Now, a youngster such as Betts is freer to pick the veterans’ brains.

“I’m pretty sure he does the same with Pedroia, with Nap (Mike Napoli), with the rest of the guys,” Ortiz said. “But he’s not just asking questions. He puts it in play.”

Pedroia confirmed Ortiz’s hunch, saying that Betts “wants to learn. He’s asking about pitchers already that he hasn’t faced, trying to get scouting reports on them, approaches, things like that. You don’t see that often. He’s ahead of the curve.”

Victorino goes back to his earliest memories of McCutchen, recalling him as soft-spoken, a young player who acted quiet but played loud. Last season, when the Red Sox played the Pirates, McCutchen impressed him again.

Recalling the memory, Victorino again thought of Betts.

“Travis Snider (then with the Pirates) came over to me and was like, ‘Hey, Cutch is trying to get us to do this thing in the outfield when you go to catch a flyball, how you go into one motion — as you’re catching it, you’re kind of receiving and throwing at the same time,’” Victorino recalled.

“To hear that McCutchen was trying to learn a skill, that told me, ‘Wow, this guy as good as he is, still wants to try certain things that will make him better.’ And that’s what I see with Mookie.”

SO, WHAT ABOUT IT, CUTCH?

The Baseball Prospectus annual breaks down every player with statistics, projections and summaries of about 100 to 150 words.

The summary of McCutchen, though, consists of just five words:

“Practically the perfect franchise player.”

If Betts can be that good — or even close to that good — it’s easy to understand why the Red Sox have zero interest in trading him for Phillies left-hander Cole Hamels or anyone else.

Still, I wanted to hear how McCutchen responded to Victorino’s comparison, whether he was offended, flattered or something in between.

STORIES WORTH SHARING

McCutchen, sitting at his locker at the Pirates’ spring facility on Monday, smiled when I asked him about Betts. He wasn’t aware of Victorino’s remark. He hadn’t seen Betts play all that often. And he wasn’t interested in proclaiming Betts “Cutch II.”

“I’m not a comparing type. I don’t like to do that,” McCutchen said. “We compare enough in this game already. I’ll let him be his own guy.”

McCutchen did recall being about Betts’ weight, 170 to 175 pounds, when he first broke into the majors. And he certainly was aware that Betts was a highly regarded talent, “definitely an all-around good player.”

Sort of like you-know-who, only not quite there yet.

“If they’re going to compare him to me, he has to be a good player,” McCutchen said, chuckling.

He is good. He will be good. And one day, I suspect that I will be writing about a kid who could be the next Mookie Betts.