Mookie Betts Poised to Become One of MLB's Big 2015 Breakout Stars

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterFebruary 25, 2015

Boston Red Sox center fielder Mookie Betts (50) during a baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston, Monday, June 30, 2014. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa/Associated Press

If it feels like you've heard Mookie Betts' name a lot this offseason, you can thank the Cole Hamels trade rumors for that. The rumor mill has been consistent in saying that he's one player the Philadelphia Phillies would accept from the Boston Red Sox in exchange for the ace left-hander.

If you're wondering why the Red Sox haven't yet traded Betts for Hamels, well, just know there's a reason for that too:

Starting very soon, odds are he's going to be very good.

After beginning his pro career as less than a blue-chip prospect, the 22-year-old Betts' rise to power has been nothing less than meteoric. He turned heads with a .903 OPS, 16 homers and 46 steals in the low minors in 2013 and followed it with a climb through the ranks in 2014 that ultimately looked like this:

Mookie Betts' 2014 Season

It's true that the MLB level knocked Betts down a few pegs. But once you realize the average MLB slash line in 2014 was .251/.314/.386, you realize he was above average across the board in the third of a season he spent in the majors. So, in all, Betts had one fine year of baseball.

Granted, there's currently no guarantee that Betts' 2014 breakthrough is going to lead to significant playing time in 2015. His move from second base to the outfield got him out of Dustin Pedroia's shadow last year but into a crowded outfield competition this year.

Betts' odds of cracking Boston's outfield recently got slimmer, as Boston skipper John Farrell said Shane Victorino will be his right fielder if he's healthy. With Hanley Ramirez locked into left field, Betts may have to beat out $72.5 million man Rusney Castillo in center field to break camp as a starter.

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But regardless of whether it comes sooner or later, the playing time should be there for Betts in 2015. He performed like a future star in 2014, and it doesn't look like a mirage under a microscope.

It's no secret that offense has become hard to come by in Major League Baseball, but it is becoming less of a secret that maybe the biggest reason for that is the strike zone.

Jon Roegele of The Hardball Times can tell you all about how the strike zone is ballooning in size, but the effects aren't hard to see. As FanGraphs can show, it's leading to more strikeouts and fewer walks.

In an environment like this, hitters who are good at working pitchers and making contact have become hard to find. They're like needles in a haystack, except the haystack is growing larger every year.

And that brings us back to Betts.

Let's make this simple and compare how often Betts swings (Swing%), chases pitches outside the zone (O-Swing%) and swings and misses (SwStr%) relative to the average major league hitter:

Mookie Betts' Plate Discipline
2014 SplitSwing%O-Swing%SwStr%
MLB Average46.731.39.4

Those are some big gaps you're looking at, and they're the good kind. Compared to today's average hitter, Betts showed in 2014 that he's far more discerning, has a far better feel for the zone and is far better at hitting what he swings at.

If you want some comps, there are two good ones. Regarding Swing% and O-Swing%, Betts had more than a passing resemblance to Matt Carpenter. Regarding SwStr%, he was slightly better than Jose Altuve, the 2014 American League batting champion.

"For a young player, he’s got such a unique combination of on-base ability and strike zone awareness," Farrell told Jen McCaffrey of MassLive.com. "He’s a good looking player and you kind of marvel at the aptitude he shows at an early age and that’s an exciting thing."

Because qualities like Betts' don't just materialize overnight, it's no surprise they didn't. You can dig into Betts' scouting reports and find ESPN.com's Keith Law praising his "feel for the strike zone," Baseball America praising his "improved patience" and Baseball Prospectus praising his "excellent hand/eye coordination."

In other words: Yeah, Betts proved in his 213 major league plate appearances that he's precisely the hitter he was supposed to be.

Pictured: one of many good pitches Betts chose to swing at in 2014.
Pictured: one of many good pitches Betts chose to swing at in 2014.Elsa/Getty Images

Mind you, Betts has more strengths at the plate than just his discerning eye and his ability to make contact. Those are darn good things for a hitter to have, but they're only worth so much without pitch recognition and plate coverage.

In both those categories, however, Betts offers things worth liking.

According to Brooks Baseball, Betts only hit .217 with a .239 slugging percentage against breaking stuff in 2014, which is something to improve on. But at the same time, he made good on Keith Law's insistence that he would excel at adjusting to off-speed stuff. Like so:

  • Against hard: .315 AVG, .491 SLUG
  • Against off-speed: .314 AVG, .571 SLUG

As for Betts' plate coverage, he does himself a big enough favor by keeping his swings confined to the zone. But more important is how he showed he can handle both the top and the bottom of the zone.

According to BaseballSavant.com, the league hit .260 in the upper third of the zone and .292 at the bottom third of the zone. Betts did considerably better, hitting .458 at the top of the zone and .327 at the bottom. 

Everything we've discussed to this point bodes well for Betts. But given the direction the league's pitchers seem headed, this might bode especially well.

Here's Jeff Sullivan explaining the situation at FoxSports.com:

For years, pitchers worked to throw down more and more often. There was a greater emphasis placed on generating grounders and avoiding balls in the air. The league has started to respond, with hitters focusing more on making good contact with those low pitches...So now the league will eventually respond to the response, re-establishing the upper parts of the zone.

Basically: Whereas pitchers have recently been focusing on the bottom of the zone, they're probably going to establish a more equal focus between the bottom and the top going forward. That'll make life complicated for all except those who can handle both areas, and Betts looks like one of them.

Long story short, Betts has everything he needs to be a consistent hitter in the big leagues. At a time when such hitters are few and far between, that alone will make him worth your attention.

But here's another very real possibility: Betts could be a better power/speed combination than expected.

Consult the projections, and you'll see a general agreement for how many homers and steals Betts should provide in 2015. According to FanGraphs, ZiPS sees 13 and 30 and Steamer/600 sees 13 and 25. Average Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA projection out over a full season, and you get around 15 and 35.

That the projections see more speed than power in Betts' immediate future is no surprise given that his plus speed only comes with a 5'9" frame. But one thing that could tip the scales is how the scales have literally been tipped.

Courtesy of Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, here's how Betts is looking these days:

Rob Bradford @bradfo

Mookie Betts enters camp at 181 pounds. A long way from his Baseball Reference page listing of 155 http://t.co/fzFSLfUV2K

That's nearly 30 pounds of extra weight. Quite a bit of that will presumably be coming off in spring training, but some of it should survive to potentially provide Betts with extra power.

It helps that he wouldn't have to do anything different to turn his extra bulk into extra power. Fly balls turn into extra-base hits the most, and it so happens another thing Betts did better than the average hitter in 2014 was hit a higher percentage of fly balls (38.6 to 34.4).

So maybe Betts won't be a 15-30 guy. Maybe he'll be more like a 20-20 guy. Combine that outlook with his hitting skills, and what the Red Sox could have on their hands is a poor man's Michael Brantley.

Really, there's only one thing that's hard to say Betts should do well: defense.

Though the defensive metrics don't think he embarrassed himself in the outfield last season, there were times when it was obvious he was playing out of position. His athleticism is plenty good for the outfield, but at last check, he clearly needed to work on reading and tracking fly balls.

But even if Betts is nothing special in the outfield—be it center field or right field—his offensive potential looks big enough to overrule any lost value on defense. Indeed, you'd expect as much from an on-base machine with a good balance between power and speed.

All of this helps explain why the Red Sox have yet to ship Betts to Philadelphia. If he's going to be a star for someone, why shouldn't he be a star for them?

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

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