TAMPA, Fla. -- Joe Kelly is a competitive guy, which is one reason he regrets that he had to abandon skateboarding even though he’s almost as good on the board as he is on the mound.
But the Red Sox right-hander is smart enough to know when not to throw down the gauntlet to Mookie Betts.
“Bowling, no, I heard," Kelly said, alluding to Betts’ pedigree as a state high school bowling champion. “He’s really good at pingpong, bowling, probably good at cards. I think I got him in video games and maybe golf.
“And soccer golf, footgolf, too. You haven’t heard of it? The holes are as big as trash cans and you literally kick soccer balls into the holes. Check it out."
We have yet to see Betts’ prowess on a footgolf course, but he’s leaving his footprints in ballparks all over Florida. Thursday, Betts had three more hits in Boston’s 10-6 win over the New York Yankees in George M. Steinbrenner Field, including a double off former Sox lefty Andrew Miller, giving him six hits in his first four games of spring.
Kelly has noticed Betts is pretty good at baseball, too.
"He puts the bat on the ball, he doesn’t miss too many pitches," Kelly said. “If I was pitching against him, even though he’s batting leadoff, he’s kind of an [Jacoby] Ellsbury. You almost got to pitch him like a [No.] 3 hitter. He’s not looking to walk. Most of the time he’s going to make contact. It’s going to be hard to strike Mookie out. His hand-eye coordination is just that good.
"He's pretty good at everything else, too. Watching him day in and day out, against all types of pitchers -- starters, relievers -- is pretty impressive."
The Red Sox are only one week into playing exhibition games, but it is becoming self-evident that when the regular season opens April 6 in Philadelphia, Betts will be in the lineup. The oblique injury sustained by his chief rival for an outfield spot, Rusney Castillo, increased the likelihood that Betts would draw the nod as starting center fielder, since Castillo could ill afford to miss playing time now after having played so little in the last two years.
But this isn’t just someone else's misfortune working to Betts' advantage. The converted infielder, who turned 22 just six days after Xander Bogaerts did, is offering daily evidence that his dynamic play last season was not an aberration.
And that hasn’t escaped notice in opposition dugouts.
“I think he is an exciting player," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "The fact that he is a young man who made the adjustment from the infield to the outfield, I thought he played a pretty good outfield wherever they put him last year. His at-bats are consistent. He hits the ball hard."
Red Sox manager John Farrell said the Sox have other options to bat leadoff, including Shane Victorino, who hit in the No. 1 hole Tuesday. Farrell also has used Bogaerts in that role, and can be expected to look at Castillo in that spot, too, after he gets healthy.
But Victorino's legs are worrisome, Bogaerts struck out 138 times last season, and Castillo profiles more to bat lower in the order, especially given how little he has played since his defection from Cuba.
Betts doesn’t draw a lot of walks. He walked 21 times in 213 plate appearances with the Sox last season, a percentage of 9.9 that was tied for 87th among the 394 players who had 150 or more plate appearances in 2014. But he doesn’t strike out much, either, his 14.6 percentage (31 whiffs in 213 PA) second-lowest on the club to Dustin Pedroia. According to FanGraphs.com, he swung at only 18.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone, and made contact with 92.8 percent of the pitches he swung at that were in the zone.
By contrast, Pedroia swung at 26.7 percent of the pitches that were out of the strike zone, while fellow rookie Bogaerts was at 30.3 percent.
Betts’ at-bats, manager John Farrell said, are very good.
"There were a couple of cutters the other day that gave him a little challenge against St. Louis, but he still works deep counts, he gets on base, the bat speed is there, and he obviously has got the ability to drive the baseball. He’s an exciting player and seemingly has picked up where he left off last year."
And while he may not be Jackie Bradley Jr., a Gold Glove finalist, in center field, Betts plays it well enough to impress someone with a vested interest in the quality of glove in center.
"He’s definitely learned that position quick," Kelly said Thursday. "It’s just his natural abilities and instincts taking over. I know you can teach drop steps and stuff like that, but he probably played football growing up. It’s just like catching a pass. I think he took it as a challenge and he’s doing a good job of it."
It’s still hard to fathom that he wasn’t even invited to big-league camp last spring, having just completed the previous year in Class A Salem.
“I see a guy who believes in himself a little more from the experience of last year," Farrell said. “He’s a confident kid, but at the same time he asks such good questions. He's always trying to learn the game, different situations, especially center field.
“There’s an ongoing conversation in the dugout. He’s impressive."
But can he play footgolf? We'll have to get back to you on that one.