MLB Megastar Mookie Betts Is Rare Master of All Trades

Yaron Weitzman@YaronWeitzmanFeatured ColumnistNovember 15, 2016

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 06:  Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox tosses baseballs prior to game one of the American League Divison Series against the Cleveland Indians at Progressive Field on October 6, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio.  (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Jason Miller/Getty Images

You know those people who seem to excel at everything? Mookie Betts is one of them.

He was always a baseball stud. This shouldn't come as much of a surprise with him hitting .318/.363/.534 this year and finishing third in overall wins above replacement. He's also the best baserunner in baseball, plays Gold Glove-level defense in right field—even though he came up as an infielder—and in just a few days could be named American League MVP. 

"I'm obviously biased, but comparing him and knowing what he's done offensively and defensively, and what he's done for our team to help get us to where we've gotten to this year, I think he deserves the award," says Bruce Crabbe, a minor league coach for the Red Sox.

Crabbe has seen Betts' Midas touch from the earliest stages of pro ball. He worked with Betts during his first full year in the Red Sox's minor league system. There he also saw how Betts developed the rare areas of the game that didn't come naturally and how he went run-of-the-mill prospect to MVP-level talent thanks to a muggy afternoon spent taking hacks with his uncle. 

But we'll get to all that in a bit. First let's go back much earlier, to a time before he made his parents prophetic for naming him Markus Lynn Betts (initials: MLB). 

Let's start at John Overton High School in Nashville, Tennessee, where Betts hit .509 as a senior and swiped 31 bases, earning a scholarship offer to the University of Tennessee.

Then there was basketball, where as a maybe-5'8", maybe-130-pound ("If soaking wet," says former John Overton basketball coach James McKee) pass-first point guard, he earned All-Star honors.

"He was almost unselfish to a fault," says McKee. "If he wanted to, he could have scored 30 every game."

One game stands out in McKee's memory more than the rest. John Overton was playing a bigger and better team from Memphis. At one point in the fourth quarter, a forward—McKee doesn't remember his name but does remember him being about 6'9"—lowered his shoulder, turned his head down and drove the ball to the hoop, only to find Betts standing in his way. 

"I think it was the only charge Mookie ever took," McKee says. "The kid crushed him."

Betts, according to McKee, responded by tying the game with less than five seconds left—and then led John Overton to a win by scoring "about 13 or 14 points in overtime," McKee recalls. "He also dunked on that kid who drove at him earlier," despite being the smallest player on the court.

So, yes, in high school, Mookie Betts was one of the best baseball players in all of Tennessee and could hold his own on the hardwood, too. Let's not forget Betts' bowling prowess, either, which has been well-documented (it seems to lead every profile about him, and from conversations with Betts' agent, it's clear Betts is a bit tired of talking about his Big Lebowski-like skills) but is also worth revisiting.

Betts, after all, was named Tennessee's boys Bowler of the Year in 2010. He averaged a score of around 230 in high school—the highest average score in the Professional Bowlers Association in 2015 was 227.82—and has bowled multiple perfect games.

"We used to have a family bowling event every year," Betts' uncle, former Major League Baseball player Terry Shumpert, says. "And one year, when Mookie was about 13, he insisted on bowling with the adults. His mother [Shumpert's sister] said we should let him bowl with us, and we did and he beat me, and I was good, too." 

Shumpert laughs for a moment, then continues.

"I haven't bowled since. I said if some tiny 13-year-old who looked so little holding the ball could beat me, well, he killed my ego."

Talk to those who know Betts well, and myriad stories like these pop up.

There's the time in 2013 that he bought his first set of golf clubs and then joined his minor league teammate Matthew Gedman on the greens.

"I think he shot in the 90s," Gedman says. 

His Ping-Pong and pool matches with teammates routinely end with lopsided scores. "He was always beating me, like, 21-4, 21-5," Gedman adds. "And I like to think I have pretty good hand-eye coordination."

CLEVELAND, OH - OCTOBER 5: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox plays ping pong during a team workout before game one of the American League Division Series against the Cleveland Indians on October 5, 2016 at Progressive Field in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Gedman doesn't stop there.

"We'd go fishing and he'd catch all the fish."

Anything else?

"He can do a Rubik's Cube in less than two minutes."

Betts might not have been blessed with superior size, but his hand-eye coordination and fast-twitch muscle fibers are the stuff of legend, even when they're not working at full capacity. 

Take this story, for example, courtesy of another one of Betts' minor league teammates, Bryan Johns. It was 2013, and Betts and Johns were playing for the High-A Salem Red Sox and staying in a hotel along a boardwalk in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, for a three-game series against the Rangers affiliate. 

One the second night of the three-day stand, Betts, Johns and some other teammates decided to spend the evening playing the card game Pusoy. Only the evening turned into nighttime and nighttime turned into morning, "and before we knew it, it was about 4 a.m.," Johns says. 

Johns remembers waking up and feeling like his body had been hit by a runaway train. He remembers his other teammates who stayed up with him feeling the same way.

And then there was Betts.

"I think he ended up hitting for the cycle with like two home runs," Johns says between laughs, "while the rest of us are dragging ourselves around.

"I remember us all kind of turning to each other in the dugout and asking, 'How did he do that?'"

Great question.

The Rex Sox drafted Betts (who declined to comment for this story) in the fifth round—172nd overall—of the 2011 MLB draft. They offered him a $750,000 signing bonus, enough to entice him into rescinding his commitment to the University of Tennessee.

"I look back on our reports, and everybody had 'excellent athlete, excellent instinct,' and when I say excellent, you don't typically see a lot of those, especially with the instinct," Amiel Sawdaye, the Red Sox's vice president of amateur and international scouting, told The Ringer MLB Show's Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann in a September podcast. "So you have a guy who's an excellent athlete with excellent instinct and is a plus hitter, plus defender—everyone thought he'd be an infielder for the most part—a base stealer, a guy who's going to hit for a little bit of power, 45, 50-ish (on the standard 20-80 scouting scale)."

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 14: Mookie Betts #50 of the Boston Red Sox warms up before a game against the Baltimore Orioles on September 14, 2016 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Ah, the power, the skill that's transformed Betts into an MVP candidate on one of baseball's best teams. Looking at Betts today—or, rather, looking at his 31 home runs and .534 slugging percentage and the sheer velocity with which balls launch off the barrel of his bat—you'd never think Betts was an athlete who only a few years ago would sulk about his inability to clear the fence.

Life hadn't always been easy for Betts—his parents divorced when he was eight—but sports and games appear to have been a safe haven for him, a place where he could excel, no matter what shape the ball or size the field. He has a Midas touch with everything from Rubik's Cubes to basketball. 

"He had so much natural ability," Crabbe says. "He ran well, he threw well, he was fast, he had a great eye."

He could do everything except hit for power, and during his first full season in the minor leagues, his failures—a word and feeling he was not familiar with—were leaving him unnerved. He played 71 games that season for the Lowell Spinners, coming to the plate 292 times.

He finished the season with a .267 average and a .307 slugging percentage. He failed to hit a single home run.

"I remember one time late in that season he flew out to the warning track and came back to the dugout real upset," says Gedman. "I remember him kind of just saying out loud to himself, 'Man, when am I going to go deep?' It was the only time I've ever seen him get frustrated."

The question is, what changed between then and now? How does a 5'9", 180-pound outfielder who couldn't hit for power morph into one of baseball's most feared sluggers? 

Those who've played with and coached him over the years have their own theories. 

"He's always had this innate ability to square up the baseball and hit balls hard," Crabbe says. 

"He has this tremendous swing and this unique ability to manipulate the barrel of the bat so that he gets the good part on the ball," says former minor league Red Sox coach and current Dodgers first base coach George Lombard.

"He's got this great bat path where he's able to keep his bat in the zone for a long time," Gedman says.

Crabbe, Lombard, Gedman and others also highlight Betts' strong and fast-as-lightning hands, which allow him to turn on any pitch on the inner half of the plate.

"What's so interesting about him is that he actually has a pretty big swing, especially for his body," says Jerry Brewer, a Northern California-based hitting instructor. "He's almost selling out for power. He has a big load and he's really letting his body do a ton of the work while his hands fly through the zone.

"They key is his athleticism and hand-eye coordination. Because he's hyper-athletic, he's able to control his big swing, and his eyes and pitch recognition let him get away with taking that big hack." 

Case in point: Only 10 batters struck out less frequently than Betts this season, and only 11 swung and missed at fewer pitches. Betts also ranked in the top 20 in MLB in terms of damage done to opposing fastballs (19th), sliders (16th) and changeups (2nd).

What does this all mean?

"He's able to recognize what pitches are worth swinging at and does damage when he does," says Brewer.

But again, none of that answers the question of what changed.

To discover that, we need to travel back to the summer of 2012.

Terry Shumpert with the Rockies in 2002
Terry Shumpert with the Rockies in 2002Brian Bahr/Getty Images

Terry Shumpert was never a star. He never made an All-Star team, never hit more than 10 home runs in a season. But he did last 14 seasons in MLB, and you don't do that without learning a thing or two about hitting along the way. For Betts, ever the sponge, constantly being in the presence of a professional baseball player provided him access to insight and lessons he eagerly soaked up. 

"Me being a baseball player in the family, I think even subconsciously it gives kids in the family hope," Shumpert says. "They see that these things can happen."

Today, Shumpert and Betts speak nearly every day. They'll talk about family and baseball and life in the big leagues, and every now and then, Betts will ask his uncle to take a look at his swing. For Shumpert, it brings back many memories, but one sticks out the most.

It was just over four years ago, and he and one of his sons, Nick, were visiting Mookie at the Red Sox's spring training facility in Fort Myers, Florida. Nick remembers the hot Florida sun beaming down on the three of them as Terry tossed batting practice to him and Mookie.

Betts went first. The ground near home plate at JetBlue Park was under construction, and so he and Nick took their hacks from a makeshift spot in left field. Mookie smacked line drive after line drive, but none traveled very far. Then Nick, a high school player the Tigers would draft three years later in the seventh round, stepped up and swatted his father's pitches deep across the outfield grass.

"Mookie was so upset," Nick recalls. "My dad asked him to come hit again and he refused." 

Betts just couldn't understand—after all, he was the professional and Nick was the amateur, not to mention four years his junior. How was it possible that this kid was outshining him?

Terry coaxed Betts a bit more. He told him he had a solution. He instructed him to cock his hands up toward his chin as he lifted his left leg off the ground. Just a few inches. He said that this subtle movement could help unlock some power, that it would help Mookie put all his strength and athleticism into the swing. An irate and frustrated Betts acquiesced.

BOSTON, MA - SEPTEMBER 13: Mookie Betts #2 of the Boston Red Sox bats during a game against the Baltimore Orioles at Fenway Park on September 13, 2016 in Boston, Massachusetts.  (Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images)
Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

According to Nick, the ball started jumping off Betts' bat his next time up. "There was an immediate difference," he says.

For his part, Terry is wary of accepting the credit, saying, "It was just a timing mechanism."

Perhaps. But Betts hit 15 home runs and slugged .506 the next year. He hasn't looked back since.

In the years since that batting practice session with his uncle, Betts has evolved into one of the best players in the game. But he's more than that, too.

As baseball's recent revenue and attendance surges illustrate, discussions about the sport's supposed dwindling popularity are tired and, often, ill-conceived. But even the game's most ardent supporters would agree MLB could use a little more flair, something extra to help draw in the millennial generation that finds the game too tedious and slow.

Betts could be that. He's young, articulate and professional in nature. And like Stephen Curry, he's relatable thanks to his diminutive size. But he's also black in a league that has seen a decrease in black players and has a deal with Jordan Brand, a label primarily associated with basketball—both of which make him stand out in MLB locker rooms.

Red Sox @RedSox

This is it. Today we #WinDanceRepeat. https://t.co/23FydkzU4y

He knows how to bring some flair to the game—as his postgame dance sessions on the outfield grass demonstrate—without enraging any of the protectors of baseball's antiquated unwritten rules (Betts doesn't flip his bat or strut after home runs).

"Dustin (Pedroia) always discussed awards, he felt like he was an MVP-type player, that's just the way he goes about his business," Crabbe said when asked to compare Betts to the last Red Sox player to be named MVP. "Pedroia is filled with confidence and exudes that in his game and how he talks. Mookie is more reserved, he lets his play do the talking."

Betts is everything that's beautiful and exciting and fun about the game of baseball.

And to think, if he never mastered the one thing that didn't come naturally to him, we might never have known it. 


All quotes were obtained firsthand by Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all advanced statistics via FanGraphs.

Yaron Weitzman is a writer based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @YaronWeitzman


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