Mookie Betts

Is Mookie Betts Living Up to the Hype?

To say there was excitement surrounding Mookie Betts coming into the year would be an understatement. He was coming off a strong debut with the Red Sox in 2014, and at 22 years old appeared far from his potential. Not only was he on track to be Boston’s starting center fielder in 2015, but perhaps one day a cornerstone of the organization.

Then Betts tore up spring training, and those expectations skyrocketed. Soon, Mookie Mania took Boston (technically Fort Myers) by storm. He hit .429/.467/.750 in 19 Grapefruit League games, and began drawing comparisons to some of the game’s best players before the start of his first full major league season. Perhaps the most shocking similarity he drew came from teammate Shane Victorino, who compared Betts to Pirates’ center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

Yes, the Andrew McCutchen. He of a career 35.4 WARP, five All-Star selections and an MVP award. The one who’s helped turned the Pittsburgh from a moribund franchise to an annual postseason contender. A player with the perfect mix of speed, power and on-base ability. Arguably the best center fielder in the National League over the last half-decade.

Yup, that guy.

Those were the kind of expectations bestowed upon Betts heading into his first full season. Sure, they were a bit unrealistic, but exciting for Red Sox fans, to say the least.

So, as Betts’ first full season nears its end, it’s a fair time to ask a very basic question — did Betts live up to the hype in year one? He certainly had his share of exciting moments, none more thrilling than his double steal against the Nationals during the home opener. But he also experienced growing pains, struggling at the plate through most of April and May.

Looking at the numbers, the final product has been good. He’s sported a .280 true average, a .332 wOBA and a 107 wRC+ — not bad for a 22-year-old. Defensively, he’s tied for fourth among qualified center fielders in DRS (10) and 10th in UZR/150 (5.4). That’s even more impressive given he’s a recently converted second baseman.

But does that count as living up to the hype? In order to answer that, we compared Betts’ first full-season numbers to some of the best veteran center fielders in baseball, because with a player his age, it’s less about what he can do now and more about what he can sustain over a long career. Those comparables paint a much clearer picture of the kind of player Betts could be.

Since the bar was set at McCutchen, we started there. Here’s how it shakes out.

Betts: .280 TAv; .179 ISO; .332 wOBA; 107 wRC+
McCutchen (2009): .324 TAv; .185 ISO; .363 wOBA; 122 wRC+

Clearly Betts’ second-year production doesn’t near that of McCutchen’s, so that puts Victorino’s hyperbolic claims to rest. Does that mean Betts didn’t meet expectations? If you look at it that way, yes. But given how unrealistic it was to compare the two to begin with, it’s unfair to judge Betts strictly off that comparison.

Keeping that in mind, we looked a pair of top-tier center fielders who sit a notch below McCutchen. In this case we’re talking about AL East foes Adam Jones and Brett Gardner, both whom Betts’ skillset seems more realistically comparable.

Betts: .280 TAv; .179 ISO; .332 wOBA; 107 wRC+
Jones (2008): .245 TAv; .130 ISO; .312 wOBA; 84 wRC+
Gardner (2009): .254 TAv; .109 ISO; .325 wOBA; 91 wRC+

If Betts’ career turns out to be anything like Jones’ or Gardner’s, the Red Sox have plenty of reason to be excited. Neither one of these players had spectacular rookie seasons — in fact, Betts’ was by far the better of the three. However, both players developed into All-Stars. One could argue Jones has been the second-best center fielder in the AL since Mike Trout’s been in the league, combining speed, contact and power, as well as a solid glove, to lead the Orioles most nights. At 5-foot-9, 155 pounds, Betts will probably never be the 30-home run hitter Jones is, but the early career numbers suggest he can match him in most other areas.

Gardner seems to be the most modest comparison one can make. He’s never been among the elite players in baseball, but he’s been consistent throughout his career, steadily providing the Yankees with reliable numbers each season. Gardner was also 26 years old as a rookie. Betts’ career is off to a much faster start and it shouldn’t be long before he surpasses Gardner’s overall production.

There’s much to like about those two comparisons alone. If those numbers tell us anything, it’s that Betts is on his way to becoming an All-Star-caliber player. That’s a great sign for Betts and an even better sign for the Red Sox. Whether or not Betts lived up to the hype is open for interpretation, but his 2015 production at least justifies its existence.

That being said, Betts efforts this season certainly don’t guarantee future success. Many major leaguers failed to build upon strong first full seasons. Some even see their production slip in the following years. Two current big league center fielders who had similar success to Betts at first but who offer cautionary tales are Cameron Maybin and Austin Jackson. Both players were at one point considered top-level prospects in the Tigers organization — the fact that both were eventually traded by Dave Dombrowski is mere coincidence — but failed to live up to the billing despite promising rookie years.

Here’s what those numbers looked like.

Betts: .280 TAv; .179 ISO; .332 wOBA; 107 wRC+
Maybin (2011): .270 TAv; .130 ISO; .316 wOBA; 105 wRC+
Jackson (2010): .261 TAv; .107 ISO; .329 wOBA; 101 wRC+

Maybin has battled injuries and inconsistency since that season, seeing a dip in performance in the three following years. This season, however, has been his best. Maybin owns a .271 TAv in 2015 with a .319 wOBA and a 101 wRC+. At 28 years, perhaps his career is making a turn for the better. But even so, this doesn’t near what Boston is hoping for out of Betts. Even Jackson, who has seen his numbers fluctuate since his rookie campaign — he owns a .255 TAv this year — doesn’t provide hope for what Betts could be.

It’s hard to judge a player’s career off one season. But Betts should finish this year encouraged. It’s impractical at this point to gauge what kind of player he’ll be or who his career will emulate. However, the Red Sox went into the season excited about Betts. They should leave the year feeling the same way.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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3 comments on “Is Mookie Betts Living Up to the Hype?”


Mookie Betts is not a “rookie” in 2015. He was a rookie in 2014! Had too many appearances in 14 to qualify as a rookie in 15. Get your facts straight!

Ben Carsley

Updated. Facts now super straight. Thanks.

Jay Stevens

He’s a 4.7-win player by B-R, and a 3.9-win player by Fangraphs. He leads his team in value, playing a new — and demanding! — position. Interestingly, he’s about 4 WAR better than Cole Hamels, the player he was most commonly linked to in preseason trade talks.

Yes. He’s lived up to the hype. It’s possible he’s exceeded it, as well.

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