MANCHESTER, N.H. -- Things are changing for Mookie Betts. Both on the field and off, Betts has had to adjust to an evolving set of circumstances brought on by his breathtaking success to start the season.
Betts, a member of the Double-A Portland Sea Dogs, had a breakout 2013 campaign. He was named the Red Sox Minor League Offensive Player of the Year after hitting .314 AVG/.417 OBP/.506 SLG across two levels of Class A with 15 home runs and 38 steals.
This year, he has taken that to another level. The 5-foot-8 Betts got on base in the first 35 games of the season, recording hits in all but one of those contests. His on-base streak, reaching back to last season, grew to 66 games, 71 including playoffs. He fell five games short of the minor league record of 71 regular-season games, set by two players Red Sox fans are familiar with: Kevin Youkilis and Kevin Millar.
From the beginning of the season until the last game of the streak on May 15, Betts hit .401/.467/.619 with six home runs and 18 stolen bases, scoring 44 runs atop the Portland lineup. Entering Monday's games, he ranked among the minor league leaders in average (.366), runs (50), hits (68), total bases (107), doubles (17) and steals (22), and has been a standout in the field at second base.
But since Dustin Pedroia signed his eight-year, $110 million extension last July, there was one nagging question that followed Betts’ gaudy numbers: How would he fit in Boston once he was ready to play in the majors?
This week, we started to see how that fit might work, as Betts made his debut in center field on May 18. In the 11 games (over nine days) since, he has been the center fielder seven times, the second baseman three times and the DH once. The athletic Betts, who also excelled in basketball and bowling in high school, always has projected as a potential Ben Zobrist-type utility player, a first-division starter who can fit in several places in a major league lineup. Introducing him to center field looks like it may be the first step in developing him into such a player.
Betts was not really tested in his three games in center during a recent series against the New Hampshire Fisher Cats in Manchester, recording a few easy putouts on pop flies, but he was somewhat tentative on reads and reactions at the new position. Betts said the adjustment has been mostly mental thus far.
“You have to think about getting behind the ball, where you’re going to throw it, where are your lines, where are you going to be on the routine plays,” said Betts, who played some center field in high school. “It’s a new environment for me. I’m not standing on dirt anymore.”
Betts said he was told about two days before his first game in center field that he would begin playing the position in games -- perhaps not coincidentally, it was right after the end of his on-base streak -- but he had been working there on his own during batting practice for some time. Still, those who think Betts now has a rocket to Fenway strapped on his back should take note that it will take time for him to get comfortable in the outfield.
“It’s an adjustment because it’s been four years or so [since I played there],” he said. “[In professional baseball] there’s a lot more responsibility that goes on. In high school, you don’t really think about all that. Here, you have to. There’s always a place to be, even on the routine plays. That’s what I’m learning now.”
Meanwhile, Betts is in the process of adjusting to all the attention his play has garnered from media and fans. Even last year, during Betts’ breakout season, he was sheltered from the bright lights of Red Sox Nation in the Low A South Atlantic League and High A Carolina League. Now, closer to the majors both geographically and professionally, and with the major league club going through intense struggles, the spotlight is firmly centered on the 21-year-old.
“It’s been very different, but I feel like I’m adjusting to it pretty well,” he said. “But, yeah, it’s definitely been different coming to the field, signing more autographs, giving more interviews. It’s been fun, but … not annoying, but something to get used to.”
If Betts keeps it up, he may have to get used to even more changes, such as a new locale in Triple-A Pawtucket, and before all is said and done this season, maybe the majors.