Tag: Boston Red Sox

Red Sox Spring Training 2017 Preview: Predictions, Players to Watch and More

When the Boston Red Sox report for spring training, they’ll officially embark on a 2017 season that they hope will result in their fourth World Series title since 2004.

Oh, by the way, the magic date is February 13.

That’s when Red Sox pitchers and catchers are due to report to Fort Myers, Florida. Position players will report three days later. After that, all sorts of stretching, working out, assorted high jinks and, yes, even a few games here and there will ensue.

There’s no telling what will happen. But at the least, we can preview it and offer a few predictions. 


The Big Newcomers

With most of last year’s AL East-winning roster due to return, the Red Sox didn‘t have many items on their offseason shopping list. So they went for quality instead, with the catches o’ the winter being…


Chris Sale, LHP

The earth shook and thunder clapped in early December. That was from the Red Sox acquiring Chris Sale in a blockbuster trade with the Chicago White Sox.

Sure, they had to give up a four-prospect package highlighted by Cuban phenom Yoan Moncada and 105 mph man Michael Kopech. But in Sale, the Red Sox got back one of the league’s very best starting pitchers.

Since 2012, the 27-year-old left-hander has racked up a 3.04 ERA and more wins above replacement than all starters not named Clayton Kershaw or Max ScherzerEven in a 2016 season in which his velocity and strikeout rate took hits, Sale still dominated with a 3.34 ERA in 226.2 innings.

With him joining Cy Young winners Rick Porcello and David Price in Boston’s starting rotation, Red Sox manager John Farrell is about to get his first sense of what it’ll be like to be able to breathe easy three out of every five days.


Mitch Moreland, 1B

David Ortiz’s retirement created a need for a left-handed hitter with power. The Red Sox made Mitch Moreland the answer with a one-year, $5.5 million contract.

The 31-year-old will match neither the 1.021 OPS nor the 38 home runs that Ortiz gave the Red Sox in his 2016 swan song. But with good numbers to the opposite field, Moreland could at least be better than expected at Fenway Park. And fresh off his first Gold Glove win, he’ll certainly be an upgrade at first base over Hanley Ramirez.


Tyler Thornburg, RHP

The Red Sox had to give up Travis Shaw and well-regarded prospect Mauricio Dubon to pry Tyler Thornburg from the Milwaukee BrewersNot cheap, but also not bad relative to the absurd prices paid to relievers on the open market.

Thornburg, 28, may not be elite, but he at least arrives in Boston as an overlooked gem. He put up a 2.15 ERA and struck out 12.1 batters per nine innings last season. Alongside the flame-throwing Joe Kelly, Thornburg profiles as a capable setup man for Craig Kimbrel.


The Big Storylines

When the Red Sox aren’t gawking at their big new additions this spring, they’ll be tending to other matters. Those include…


Life After Big Papi

For the first time since 2002, Big Papi will be nowhere to be found at Red Sox camp. He’ll be busy enjoying his retirement—apparently by pursuing a new career as the Happy Gilmore of tennis.

There’s now a noticeable void in Boston’s offense, but it could be worse. The Red Sox had the No. 1 offense in baseball last year, and ESPN.com’s Buster Olney thinks they still have the league’s top lineup. Ramirez, Moreland, Mookie Betts, Dustin Pedroia, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Xander Bogaerts surely would agree. Farrell would as well, for that matter.

Of course, Ortiz also left a leadership void. But a guy who would know isn’t too concerned about that.

“We’re in good shape,” Pedroia told Jason Mastrodonato of the Boston Herald. “I think, especially what David did leadership-wise with a ton of guys, he’s leaving us in good shape. We’ll be all right.”


Pablo Sandoval Back at Third Base

Now, this. This is a real question.

The Red Sox basically got nothing from Pablo Sandoval in his first year in Boston in 2015, as he put up a .658 OPS and struggled defensively. They then got absolutely nothing from him in 2016, in which he played in just three games before undergoing season-ending shoulder surgery.

But with Shaw and Moncada out of the picture, the Red Sox don’t have much choice but to entrust the hot corner to Sandoval. This will be the baseball equivalent to trusting Keith Moon with a Holiday Inn hotel room.

The good news is that Sandoval has given every indication that he’s in good shape for the first time since signing his $95 million contract.

The bad news? Well, see above.


David Price Has a Score to Settle

As Sandoval looks to get his old job back, Price will be looking to get his groove back.

The veteran lefty didn‘t look like his usual ace self in the first season of his seven-year, $217 million contract with the Red Sox. Although he pitched 230 innings, he put up just a 3.99 ERA and allowed a career-high 30 home runs.

“Last year was the first time in my career I didn’t have fun when I was on the field,” Price told Peter Abraham of the Boston Globe. “When I’m pitching well, I’m smiling. There wasn’t a lot of smiling.”

Within that same interview, the 31-year-old also vowed to prove he can be successful in Boston. That process will start this spring. After that, anything goes.


Who’s Behind the Plate?

Ah, yes, but who will Price be throwing to? Sandy Leon, Christian Vazquez and Blake Swihart will vie for playing time behind the plate, and it sounds like each one of them has a shot at earning the starting gig.

“You’ve got three guys that can battle for an everyday job,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski told Mastrodonato. “If you said right now who’s the leading guy, it’s Sandy Leon.”

After posting an .845 OPS in 2016, Leon can claim to have the bat. Vazquez can claim to have the glove and the arm. Swihart, a former top prospect, has a shot at the best of both worlds.

In short: This could be a fun competition.


Who’s at the Back of the Rotation?

As good as the front three of the Red Sox’s rotation looks, don’t underestimate the back end. Fighting for the last two spots will be two 2016 All-Stars (Steven Wright and Drew Pomeranz) and a former top prospect (Eduardo Rodriguez).

Dombrowski indicated in a chat with Olney that it’s the two All-Stars who have the upper hand. That’s fair. Although both ran out of gas at the end of 2016, Wright (3.33 ERA in 156.2 IP) and Pomeranz (3.32 ERA in 170.2 IP) both had successful seasons on the whole.

Don’t sleep on Rodriguez, though. The lefty was quite good as a rookie in 2015. And after a slow start, he got back to being quite good with a 3.24 ERA in his final 14 starts of 2016.


Prospects to Watch

Alex Speier presented his list of the Red Sox’s top 10 prospects at Baseball America very early in the offseason. Four of them were subsequently traded, which complicates this segment of the program.

Not to worry, though. The Red Sox still have…


Andrew Benintendi, LF

Andrew Benintendi found himself in the majors just a year after he was drafted by the Red Sox with the No. 7 pick in the 2015 draft. And man, did he impress.

In 34 games, Benintendi hit .295 with an .835 OPS. He also showed well in left field, where he made one of the best catches of the season in Tampa Bay:

Technically, Benintendi is indeed still a prospect. And a very well liked one, at that. When Jonathan Mayo of MLB.com polled executives about the game’s best hitting prospect, Benintendi was the winner.

The 22-year-old won’t qualify as a prospect for much longer. The Red Sox’s everyday left field job is his to lose, and it would be quite the upset if he lost it.


Sam Travis, 1B

Although the Red Sox are short on MLB-ready prospects after Benintendi, Sam Travis is one to keep an eye on.

A second-round draft pick in 2014, Travis is now a .303 hitter with a .364 on-base percentage in the minors. Although his power is less impressive, those numbers reflect a legit hit tool.

With Moreland and Ramirez ahead of Travis on the depth chart, regular playing time should come later rather than sooner for the 23-year-old. But if nothing else, he has a chance this spring to make an impression the Red Sox will remember if a roster spot opens up this season.


Dark Horses to Watch

The Red Sox are heading into spring training with few roster spots up for grabs. That’s not the best environment for dark horses to steal the spotlight, but a few guys to watch are…


Rusney Castillo, OF

Remember Rusney Castillo? Let me refresh your memory: He’s the guy who’s crashed and burned since signing a $72.5 million contract in 2014.

Yeah, that guy. Because Castillo has struggled mightily and is now off the 40-man roster, he’s a long shot to break camp with the Red Sox.

But maybe not as long a shot as everyone thinks. The 29-year-old was last seen hitting .392 in the Puerto Rican winter league. In speaking to Rob Bradford of WEEI.com, former Red Sox infielder Alex Cora chalked this up to changes that have occurred for Castillo both on and off the field.

So…maybe? Maybe.


Blake Swihart, C

Although Swihart will be in the mix for playing time behind the plate this spring, he’s a dark horse because he has one thing Leon and Vazquez don’t: options.

Beyond that, Swihart also has some development left to tackle after getting set back in 2016. The Red Sox’s decision to move him to the outfield was questionable to begin with, and even more so after he suffered a season-ending ankle injury.

But don’t count Swihart out. His two-way talent made him an elite prospect as recently as 2015, and he’s still only 24. With a good spring, he might upset established order in Boston’s catching depth chart.


Deven Marrero, INF

With only Josh Rutledge penciled in alongside Brock Holt, the Red Sox also have a backup infielder job that could be attainable this spring.

Deven Marrero would seem to have the best chance of stealing it. Although the 26-year-old has failed to live up to being picked in the first round in 2012, he’s still a right-handed hitting infielder with versatility. With a hot spring, he could begin to look like a right-handed hitting infielder with versatility and some upside.


Robby Scott, LHP

The Red Sox bullpen mostly looks set. But given how badly he struggled in Boston down the stretch in 2016, Fernando Abad, it’s fair to speculate, is on thin ice as the club’s go-to lefty specialist.

As such, keep an eye on Robby Scott. The 27-year-old put up a 2.54 ERA at Triple-A Pawtucket in 2016 before breaking through with seven scoreless appearances for the big club at the end of the year. If Scott keeps it up this spring, he may be able to steal Abad‘s role.


A Few Bold Predictions

Let’s quit the previewing and end with some predictions of the bold variety…


Chris Sale Will Have a Lousy Spring, Prompting Panic

After the price they paid to acquire Sale, I can only imagine the amount of handwringing that will be going on if he has a rough spring.

I’m also guessing I won’t have to imagine it. Dominating in spring training generally isn’t Sale’s thing, after all. Per MLB.com, his career ERA in the spring is just 4.20, and he’s struck out just 87 batters in 96.2 innings.

Will it mean anything when Sale has another lousy spring? Not at all. The freak-out will be real, though.


The Sandoval Question Won’t Be Answered

The Red Sox’s Sandoval experiment is an unnecessary risk that’s short on assurances that it will be successful. So, I’m going to treat it as such.

It’s great that Sandoval is looking good, but nobody has any idea how comfortable he’s going to be in his new body on the field. It’s also unknown if he’ll be feeling any ill effects from last year’s surgery.

Otherwise, it’s just hard to have confidence in a guy who hasn’t seen major league pitching in 10 months and who hasn’t really hit major league pitching in over two years.

Since Shaw is no longer around to pick up the baton, I imagine the Red Sox will break camp with Sandoval at third base regardless. His leash, however, will be extremely short.


Other Than That, Things Will Be Fine

Careful not to burn yourself on this hot take, man.

In all seriousness, the Red Sox simply don’t invite many bold predictions about this, that and the other thing. They have a deep, star-studded roster with a perfect mix of youthful and veteran talent, and it’s all overseen by a front office and manager who have had the reins for a while now.

No alarms. No surprises. It’s the best spring training experience a team can hope for.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

Follow zachrymer on Twitter

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Predicting Boston Red Sox Depth Charts a Month Ahead of Spring Training

The Boston Red Sox will roll into spring training with one of the best rosters in the league.

That was assured when they went on a shopping spree during the winter meetings. They added lefty ace Chris Sale, slick-fielding first baseman Mitch Moreland and shutdown reliever Tyler Thornburg to a roster that produced 93 wins and an American League East title in 2016. 

Before the Red Sox can get going on 2017, they need to narrow down the favorites for their 25-man roster and which players will be on the waiting list to get on it should any spots open up.

With that in mind, let’s run through the names Red Sox fans should really know and which ones they should also know.

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Boston Red Sox’s Top Free-Agent, Trade Targets Post-New Year

With 2017 officially here and spring training just around the corner, the Boston Red Sox have the luxury of already having checked the big boxes on their offseason to-do list.

They didn’t need much to begin with but made a splash anyway by adding Chris Sale, Mitch Moreland and Tyler Thornburg and jettisoning Clay Buchholz. A Red Sox team that won the AL East in 2016 is now projected by FanGraphs to be the American League‘s best in 2017.

“If we started spring training right now, we would be content where we are,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said after Buchholz was traded, via Tim Britton of the Providence Journal.

However, we should stop short of seeing the 2017 Red Sox as a finished product. They do have lingering questions to answer, so let’s look at five free-agent and trade targets who could answer them.


1. Trevor Plouffe

As of now, the Red Sox have Pablo Sandoval penciled in at third base. It’s an upside play in light of his improved conditioning, but also a risky play in light of his disastrous 2015 and injury-shortened 2016.

Mark Polishuk of MLB Trade Rumors is right in thinking that third base insurance tops Boston’s remaining needs. The free-agent market has just the guy for it: Trevor Plouffe.

The Red Sox seem to already know this. Evan Drellich of the Boston Herald reported in late December that they have their eye on Plouffe, who spent his first seven seasons with the Minnesota Twins.

Beyond the fact he can likely be had on a cheap one-year contract, Plouffe’s appeal is his solid track record. The 30-year-old has been a league-average hitter in 723 major league games. He’s also played mostly passable defense at the hot corner.

If Sandoval were to prove up to the challenge he’s facing, Plouffe could also serve the Red Sox as a platoon bat. He’s a right-handed hitter with an .809 OPS against left-handed pitching. He also has experience at first base, left field, right field, second base and shortstop in addition to third base. 

Of course, Plouffe may prefer a more direct opportunity to be an everyday player on another team. That’s why the Red Sox need a Plan B, such as…


2. Adam Rosales

Plouffe isn’t the only right-handed utility type the Red Sox have on their radar. According to Rob Bradford of WEEI, Adam Rosales is on there as well.

As well he should be. Rosales isn’t so much a utility man as he is the utility man. He’s played at least 80 games at all four infield positions and also has some experience in left field and right field.

What Plouffe has that Rosales doesn’t is an offensive track record. Rosales is only a .227 career hitter with a .665 OPS, making him an easily below-average hitter.

However, Rosales is coming off a breakthrough in his age-33 season in 2016. He put up a career-high .814 OPS with 13 home runs for the San Diego Padres. He backed all this up with a 36.9 hard-hit percentage, a career best by plenty.

Rosales is certainly more appealing as a platoon player than as a possible everyday third baseman. But if he were to pick up where he left off on offense, he would have more than just a steady glove to offer while playing the hot corner.

The Red Sox need a Plan C in their search for a third base/utility type. He might be a long shot, but there’s one guy on the trade market who sticks out…


3. Hernan Perez

The Red Sox may have missed their shot at acquiring Hernan Perez. If they really wanted him, they may have found a way to include him in the trade that brought Thornburg from the Milwaukee Brewers for Travis Shaw.

But never say never.

Perez quietly found his stride in 2016. The 25-year-old played in 123 games and posted a .730 OPS with 13 homers and 34 stolen bases. He mostly played third base but also some right field, second base and first base.

Perez’s 2016 breakout didn’t end when the MLB season ended. He also starred (h/t Jim Goulart of Brewerfan.net, via Brew Crew Ball) in the Venezuelan winter league, winning the batting title and the Gold Glove at third base.

Perez’s rising star could make the Brewers want to hold on to him. But it also gives him trade value that could only go down in 2017. With Shaw locked in at third base and the other three positions on the infield also spoken for, Perez is only projected to be a utility guy.

The Red Sox would have to give up something (or somethings) of value to get Perez. But if they got him, they would get a younger, more controllable version of what Plouffe and Rosales could be for them—and with more upside, to boot.

Elsewhere, the Red Sox’s list of needs comes down to some low-risk starting pitching depth. That makes them a fit for…


4. Scott Feldman

The Red Sox traded Buchholz in part because it didn’t make sense to pay $13.5 million to a guy who wasn’t guaranteed a rotation spot.

With Buchholz gone, however, the Red Sox do have a slight depth issue in their rotation. Sale, Rick Porcello and David Price are an elite trio at the front. After them will be some combination of Eduardo Rodriguez, Steven Wright or Drew Pomeranz, each of whom has durability questions.

It wouldn’t hurt for the Red Sox to add another body to the mix. But their options are limited. They can only target guys who are in a position to accept an opportunity rather than a clearly defined role. And ideally, whoever they pick up could also be used in relief.

Hence, Scott Feldman.

The 33-year-old has been effective when healthy over the last four seasons, posting a 3.85 ERA. But he’s also no longer a lock to stay in anyone’s rotation anymore. He made just 18 starts in 2015 and found himself pitching mostly in relief in 2016.

This makes Feldman just the kind of guy the Red Sox are looking for: a veteran who could be signed for cheap as rotation insurance and could be stashed in the bullpen if no starting role materializes.

There’s one other free agent who matches this description…


5. Bud Norris

Bud Norris is a lot like Feldman. Once a semireliable starter, he’s fallen on hard times as he’s gotten older and is now in a position to try to latch on wherever he can.

Unlike Feldman, Norris hasn’t been effective when he’s been healthy in recent seasons. The 31-year-old has put up a 5.79 ERA since 2015, in which he’s started 30 games and appeared in relief in 43 others.

Norris still has some of the qualities that once made him a decent back-end starter, however. He’s maintaining his fastball velocity well, sitting in the 93-94 mph range. In a related story, he’s still a solid strikeout artist.

Norris is also a better bet than Feldman to stay healthy. Beyond being younger, Norris doesn’t have anything as serious as Feldman’s Tommy John surgery or microfracture knee surgery in his injury history.

These last two aren’t exactly sexy names, to be sure. But when a team’s to-do list is down to names like Feldman and Norris, that’s how you know that team is in good shape.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Andrew Benintendi Poised to Become MLB’s Next Rookie Superstar

This winter, most Boston Red Sox-related headlines have focused on prospects on their way out of town. Most notably, the Red Sox shipped a gaggle of young talent to the Chicago White Sox in the Chris Sale trade, including five-tool Cuban Yoan Moncada.

There are still blue chips left on Boston’s table, however. One of them appears poised to win a starting job out of spring training and become MLB‘s latest rookie star.

I’m speaking, in case that headline and photo up there didn’t give the game away, about Andrew Benintendi.

In 34 games with the Red Sox last season, Benintendi flashed big-time potential, posting a .295/.359/.476 slash line with 11 doubles, a triple and two home runs.

He also provided one of the few bright spots in Boston’s division series sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Indians when he homered in Game 1:

The seventh overall pick in 2015, the 22-year-old looks like the odds-on favorite to claim the Sox’s starting left field gig. Since he kept his rookie status intact, he’s also among the favorites for American League Rookie of the Year honors.

Are we getting ahead of ourselves based on a small sample? Possibly. The list of highly rated prospects who raked on a short audition only to struggle over a full season is long. Somewhere right now, a big league pitcher is studying film of Benintendi’s swing and figuring out how to exploit it.

Benintendi, however, has the tools and temperament for sustained success.

In August, J.J. Cooper of Baseball America called him “one of the most polished hitters of the past few drafts.” That was before Benintendi’s successful big league debut but after he’d slashed .312/.392/.540 while rocketing through the minors.

He showed excellent plate discipline in his MLB stint, swinging at just 25.2 percent of pitches outside the strike zone compared to the league average of 30.3 percent. He barreled up many of the pitches he did swing at, making hard contact 32.9 percent of the time. That compares favorably to fellow Red Sox outfielder and AL MVP runner-up Mookie Betts’ hard-contact rate of 33.4 percent.

Skeptics can point to Benintendi’s admittedly robust .367 batting average on balls in play, but patient hitters who make loud contact tend to have higher BABIPs. They might also note that the lefty swinger hit .179 against southpaws, though that came in a scant 33 MLB plate appearances.

Steamer projects a .282/.338/.439 slash line with 10 home runs and 14 stolen bases in 2017. Boston would take that, but Benintendi’s ceiling is much higher.

The mental aspect of the game is harder to quantify, but it’s equally essential for success. In lieu of stats, we’ll turn to Red Sox manager John Farrell, who had this to say to reporters during the division series:

[He’s] in the Major League postseason, and much like we talked about what makes a guy wired to perform in postseason, he’s calm. Even before the postseason started, he’s been a guy that’s never really panicked, even when he’s been in a disadvantaged count at the plate. It’s almost like you watch, his athletic movements are graceful. It’s almost like a window into what his mind is going through. It’s even, it’s under control, and he plays like that.

Benintendi made the bulk of his minor league starts in center field, but that position is taken by All-Star Jackie Bradley Jr. Rather, Benintendi will continue to learn the nuances of the Green Monster and join Bradley (age 26) and Betts (age 24) to form one of the most athletic outfield troikas in the game.

They can dance, too.

The Red Sox didn’t sign or trade for a top-tier slugger to replace retired franchise icon David Ortiz. Instead, they added ancillary pieces such as Mitch Moreland, gilded the rotation with Sale and are putting their faith in this young core to carry the offense.

They’ve got Big Papi’s stamp of approval.

“Those are the players you want on your ballclub,” Ortiz said to reporters of Benintendi, Bradley, Betts and shortstop Xander Bogaerts (the new Killer B’s?). “Young, talented, and with that mentality, that’s on another level.”

Here’s an interesting thought experiment: Imagine if Benintendi dukes it out with Moncada for ROY honors. It’s no guarantee, but it’s far from far-fetched.

If it happens, Beantown fans will doubtless feel the sting of watching the stud who changed his Sox. At the same time, they’ll be able to take solace in the one who stuck around.


All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

Read more MLB news on BleacherReport.com

Is Red Sox’s Price-Sale-Porcello Trio a True Sustainable Super-Rotation?

In a discussion about just how good the Boston Red Sox‘s starting rotation is, there are two options: Going over it with a fine-tooth comb, or just buying into it as the greatest thing since the last greatest thing since sliced bread.

Given that the genesis of this discussion only began last week, it’s oh-so-easy to choose Door No. 2. 

If by some chance you missed it, the Red Sox acquired ace left-hander Chris Sale in a winter meetings blockbuster. This would be the same Chris Sale who’s finished no lower than sixth in the American League Cy Young voting five years running now. He hasn’t actually won one yet, but that could change.

Not that the Red Sox need that in order to claim a former Cy Young winner in their rotation, of course. David Price won it in 2012. Rick Porcello won it this season. The insta-analysis of them now joining forces with Sale: That’s some trio!

Arguably even the best in baseball, for that matter. But I’ll leave that to Chris Bahr of Fox Sports:

However, this is baseball we’re talking about. The translation rate of offseason hype into on-field results isn’t overwhelmingly positive. Just look at the 2015 San Diego Padres or the 2016 Arizona Diamondbacks. Or rather, please don’t. It’s not pretty.

Strictly based on that principle, some skepticism about Boston’s supposed super-rotation is warranted. Then there’s what the fine-tooth comb turns up.

Although he’s been the best lefty not named Clayton Kershaw since 2012, Sale appears to be past his peak dominance. He’s followed a 2.79 ERA between 2012 and 2014 with a 3.37 ERA the last two seasons.

And it’s no secret that there was a concerning wrinkle in his most recent effort. After pushing his average fastball up to 94.5 mph in 2015, Sale’s average dropped to 92.8 mph in 2016. His strikeout rate also fell, from 11.8 per nine innings to 9.3. 

According to the man himself, this year’s velocity drop was intentional. Sale told Scott Merkin of MLB.com that he wanted to stop throwing “every single pitch as hard as I can every inning, every out.” If so, it’s possible he could turn the velocity back on if the Red Sox asked him to.

What’s more likely, though, is that his best velocity is gone for good. With his age-28 season due up, Sale is already past the point where FanGraphsBill Petti found that starting pitchers begin to leak velocity. 

The Red Sox are already going through something similar with Price, who they have signed through 2022. He’s fresh off an age-30 season in which he finished with a modest 3.99 ERA. His average fastball was down to 92.9 mph from 94.2. That helped push his strikeout rate further south of its peak.

Worse, bad things happened to Price when the ball was put in play off him. He served up a career-high 30 home runs, and he allowed career-worst hard-hit and pull percentages.

For his part, sitting at just 90.2 mph with his heat didn’t bother Porcello as he carved out a 3.15 ERA in 223 innings in 2016. Nor did he suffer from striking out only 7.6 batters per nine innings. The 27-year-old was the same pitch-to-contact guy he’s always been.

Except, only far more successful than usual. Porcello‘s batting average on balls in play plummeted to a career-low .269. Conventional sabermetric thinking says that what goes down must now come up.

So, there you have it. These are the reasons to worry about Boston’s trio of aces. It could turn out that two of them are past their prime and one of them got seriously lucky when he broke out as an ace.

But for every “Yeah, but…” there’s an equal and opposite “Well, actually…”

Porcello‘s exit velocity and other batted-ball data send mixed signals about how good he was at managing contact in 2016. But after Craig Edwards of FanGraphs dove deeper into the numbers, he calculated that even Porcello‘s adjusted batting average on balls in play still would have been well below average.

That is, he truly earned his roaring success on balls in play. How? By pitching!

“He’s really improved as an overall pitcher,” Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski, who also oversaw Porcello with the Detroit Tigers, told ESPN.com’s Scott Lauber in November. “Just the ability to change speeds, I mean, his changeup, his curveball, he cuts the ball. He’s really got a better pulse of changing the [hitter’s] eyesight on various pitches. You really see the growth. I think he’s taken another step further from what he was in Detroit.”

Brooks Baseball backs up Dombrowski on all of this. Porcello does have a cutter now. He does change speeds better than he used to. He is more willing to change eye levels as well.

Put another way: Even Porcello‘s rate of 1.3 walks per nine innings in 2016 doesn’t capture how in command he was when he took the mound. He’s always been a strike-thrower. He’s now a strike-thrower with a purpose.

Same goes for Price. The veteran lefty walked only 2.0 batters per nine innings in 2016, continuing a longstanding trend of him being well under the league average. And despite all the hard contact he gave up, it wasn’t like he was consistently putting the ball right down the middle. Per Baseball Savant, he actually did that far less often than he did in 2015, when he finished second in the Cy Young voting.

So despite his 3.99 ERA, it’s no wonder Price was just aces for most of 2016. He was terrible in his first seven starts. After that, he had a 3.39 ERA in his last 28 starts.

Speaking of finishing strong, it’s a good look that Sale didn’t need an uptick in velocity to go from an 8.9 K/9 in the first half of 2016 to a 9.7 K/9 in the second half. This points to two things.

One: Even with less velocity, Sale’s stuff is filthy. Per Baseball Prospectus, the action on his four-seamer, sinker, changeup and slider all rated as elite. Here’s a taste:

Perhaps because he had been watching Porcello, Sale also started being more proactive changing eye levels in the second half. He began locating his hard stuff (namely his four-seamer) higher and his off-speed stuff lower.

Sale had to take matters into his own hands in part because White Sox catchers were doing him no favors. As Mike Petriello covered at MLB.com, Sale lost more runs to bad pitch framing than any other American League starter.

Simply switching uniforms will help solve that, and Sale could even end up on the other side of the spectrum if Christian Vazquez seizes Boston’s everyday catcher gig. Baseball Prospectus gives him 20.7 career framing runs in the majors, an absurd amount for a guy who’s only played in 112 games.

Vazquez’s framing would obviously also help Price and Porcello. And it’s worth noting none of Boston’s starters should suffer from the team’s defense.

The Red Sox were 12th in defensive efficiency in 2016. The only threat to their defense going forward is Pablo Sandoval returning to third base, but he figures to be on too short a leash to become a major threat. Meanwhile, Mitch Moreland should be a sizable defensive upgrade at first base.

It’s a big ol‘ complicated picture, but the bottom line is that the Red Sox will be happy with their rotation trio if the particulars live up to their most recent performances. Had the Red Sox had Sale, Price and Porcello in 2016, they would have combined for a 3.50 ERA and a whopping 679.2 innings.

There are indeed tangible reasons to believe this won’t happen, but they’re overwhelmed by the essential truth of the Sale-Price-Porcello trio: It’s a group of truly good pitchers. One of them has never thrown hard and the other two don’t throw as hard as they used to, but all three have proved they don’t need power to survive.

In basic terms: Believe the hype. These guys are good.


Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs unless otherwise noted/linked. 

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Pablo Sandoval Comments on Struggles with Red Sox, Weight and More

Lost in the shuffle of the Boston Red Sox‘s winter-meetings activity is the return of Pablo Sandoval to the lineup after he appeared in just three games last season.

Looking back on his lost 2016, Sandoval acknowledged in a joint interview with ESPN.com’s Scott Lauber and ESPN Deportes’ Marly Rivera that he started to take things for granted.

“My career had fallen into an abyss because I was so complacent with things that I had already accomplished,” Sandoval said. “I did not work hard in order to achieve more and to remain at the level of the player that I am and that I can be.”

Sandoval was able to squeeze a career’s worth of accomplishments into his first seven seasons with the San Francisco Giants. He was part of three World Series-winning teams in 2010, 2012 and 2014. He also earned a spot in two All-Star Games and was the World Series MVP in 2012.

His success did not translate to the American League when he signed with the Red Sox prior to the 2015 season, however. He hit .245/.292/.366 in 126 games during his first year with the team and lost the starting third base job to Travis Shaw in spring training ahead of the 2016 campaign.

His 2016 season ended before it began, as he had six at-bats over three games before being ruled out for the year with an ailing shoulder that required surgery in May.

“Things definitely happen for a reason,” Sandoval said. “[The surgery and rehab process] have helped revitalize that fire in me to win again.”

There is photographic evidence to suggest Sandoval is not just talking a big game, with Dan Roche of CBS Boston passing along this image from Alvaro Hernandez:

Sandoval touched on his new routine to get in better shape and keep the weight off:

I have been following a really strict routine that has taken a lot of dedication from my part. It has not been easy to wake up every single day at 6:30 in the morning to then head to the gym and start a full day of work. But you have to have that kind of dedication if you want to achieve the goals you have set for yourself.

Weight has been an issue for Sandoval throughout his career.

During an April appearance on Toucher and Rich (via Samer Kalaf of Deadspin), CSN New England’s Sean McAdam reported the Giants made special arrangements at hotels so he couldn’t order room service.

Looking ahead to 2017with the Red Sox among the favorites to win the World Series after securing the American League East title last year and adding Chris Sale to the starting rotation in a trade with the Chicago White SoxSandoval knows the task in front of him.

“I am not taking anything for granted,” Sandoval said. “I am here to work hard. I’m not thinking about the position or not. I am starting from scratch, and I am here to show what I can do on the field.”

In addition to extending his career by getting into better shape, Sandoval said the birth of his child earlier this year has also served as an inspiration:

Watching ‘Baby Panda’ grow up and that he gets the opportunity to see his father play in the majors for seven, eight more years, to get back to the success I had, that’s my motivation every day. The people that I surround myself with now and my family, they are the key to my success. This has been a life lesson.

Sandoval has been one of the most criticized and scrutinized players in Major League Baseball since signing with the Red Sox, which is one of the pitfalls of playing in one of the biggest baseball markets in the country.

Things fell apart for Sandoval in 2016, but the upside of rock-bottom is that it leaves nowhere to go except up. He’s taking the physical steps to be in position to contribute for the Red Sox next season.

The one big hurdle left for Sandoval to clear is mental, which won’t offer a definitive answer until the games start in April.

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Chris Sale to Red Sox: Latest Trade Details, Comments and Reaction

The Chicago White Sox have taken the bold step of building for their future by trading ace starting pitcher Chris Sale to the Boston Red Sox on Tuesday.

The White Sox announced they have acquired Yoan Moncada, Michael Kopech, Luis Alexander Basabe and Victor Diaz in exchange for Sale.

Fox Sports’ Ken Rosenthal initially reported the deal.

Bruce Levine of 670TheScore.com also reported the Red Sox will pay the $31.2 million remaining on Moncada’s $63 million deal. Bob Nightengale of USA Today reported that the Red Sox refused to include Jackie Bradley Jr. in any trade talk.

Boston beat out the Washington Nationals, who tried “hard” to land the ace by offering top prospects, per Jon Heyman of Today’s Knuckleball. Jorge Castillo of the Washington Post reported the Nationals weren’t willing to give up Trea Turner and that the Red Sox’s willingness to part with Moncada led to the swap.

Buster Olney of ESPN reported that a “popular theory in the industry” is that the White Sox pushed the Nationals to the brink of a deal to use as leverage to get the package they did from the Red Sox.

Ian Browne of RedSox.com and Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe provided comments from Sale on Wednesday:

Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski spoke with reporters on Tuesday, saying talks between the sides “accelerated” on Friday.

“Sale gives us a chance to win now…At this point, this gave us a really significant chance to win,” Dombrowski said.

The White Sox seemed to be moving toward dealing Sale or Jose Quintana shortly before the trade deadline this past summer.

Heyman reported on July 22 Chicago began taking calls on the pair, though he added the White Sox hadn’t “decided how seriously to shop their stars, and there’s no certainty that either will be traded, as they love both pitchers.”

Like most trade negotiations, the White Sox were waiting to get the best deal. It’s not an unreasonable position for them to take, even as they appear headed for their fifth straight losing season, because Sale’s contract is so team-friendly.

Recently retired Red Sox star David Ortiz is a fan of the move:

Sale, who is 27 years old, has one more guaranteed year on his deal at $12 million, with club options for 2018 and 2019 that total $26 million, per Baseball-Reference.com. His contract looks even better considering 43-year-old Bartolo Colon was among the top names of the available free-agent starters.

The White Sox have taken a short-term approach to fixing their roster, signing players such as Melky Cabrera and Jose Abreu and trading for Todd Frazier, yet it hasn’t worked out. It’s time for the franchise to start acquiring as many young, cost-controlled assets as possible to avoid a total collapse.

White Sox general manager Rick Hahn told reporters he thinks Moncada can play second or third base, “but at this point we’ll have him playing second base” in the minors. Hahn added that the two sides had talked about Sale for over a year.

“If a team is interested in talented, controllable starting pitchers, we do have others,” Hahn told reporters.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox get the top-of-the-rotation starter they needed. Dombrowski has not been shy about making deals to improve the team since taking over late in the 2015 season, acquiring Craig Kimbrel in a trade with the San Diego Padres and signing David Price last offseason.

Yet things did not work out for Boston’s rotation in 2016, aside from Rick Porcello’s breakout campaign. The Red Sox finished eighth in the majors with a 4.22 ERA from the starting rotation, though, so there was upside even before acquiring Sale.

It also helps that their offense led the league in most major offensive categories last season, including runs scored, doubles, total bases, average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.

Sale is the horse Boston needs to get over the hump in October after a quick playoff exit last season.

Dombrowski has been making a lot of moves involving Boston’s prospects, but it’s such a rich farm system that he can get away with it and not leave the cupboard bare.

The White Sox could afford to move Sale because they still have Quintana to build a rotation around. This move will help them secure their future and start competing for a playoff spot for the first time since 2008.

Sale did everything in his power to make the White Sox a contender, finishing in the top six of AL Cy Young Award voting in each of the last five seasons. He’s never had a chance to show off his stuff in October, but he will have an opportunity to change that with his new club.

It’s never easy to give up multiple top-level prospects, but it’s also rare when a true No. 1 starter who is under team control for more than two months becomes available. That made it easy for the Red Sox to make the call.

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John Farrell’s Contract Option Picked Up by Red Sox: Latest Details, Reaction

The Boston Red Sox won the American League East in 2016 under John Farrell, and the organization decided Monday to keep the manager around a bit longer. 

The Red Sox announced they exercised the club option on Farrell’s contract for the 2018 season.

Travis Lee of WMTW noted the Red Sox had already told Farrell he would return for the 2017 season. Monday’s news ensures the manager won’t have to worry about serving as a leader with lame-duck status as the team looks to win a second World Series title under his watch.

President of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said Monday at the winter meetings that Farrell’s “solid presence” and the fact the “players played hard for him” ultimately contributed to the decision, per Scott Lauber of ESPN.com.

The 2017 campaign will be Farrell’s fifth as manager of the Red Sox. The team is 339-309 under him in four years.

Things started as well as he could have possibly hoped with an American League East crown and World Series championship in 2013. However, there was a significant drop-off the following two seasons before a bounce-back effort in 2016:

Farrell also managed the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011 and 2012 and accumulated a 154-170 record before Boston hired its former pitching coach with one year remaining on his Toronto contract. The Red Sox sent infielder Mike Aviles to the Blue Jays as compensation (and received pitcher David Carpenter), per ESPN.com.

Boston was swept by the eventual American League champion Cleveland Indians in the divisional round of the 2016 playoffs, but Monday’s news means there will be continuity in the dugout for a club that has a number of young building blocks, including 24-year-old Mookie Betts, 26-year-old Jackie Bradley Jr. and 24-year-old Xander Bogaerts.

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Rick Porcello Is Worthy of Cy Young, but How Did Justin Verlander Lose?

Justin Verlander won the popular vote, which is worth about as much this week as it was last week.

There’s a system for these elections, and we all have to come together and accept Rick Porcello as our 2016 American League Cy Young winner. Hey, it’s not that bad.

Porcello had a Cy-worthy season, especially if you’re one of those who still believe a starting pitcher’s goal every time out is to try to win the game. Porcello had 22 of those much-derided but oh-so-valuable wins, and in his 20 starts from June 18 to the end of the season, his Boston Red Sox went 17-3.

If you’re looking for reasons the Red Sox won the AL East after two years finishing in last place, their ability to win nearly every game Porcello started for three-plus months figures prominently on the list.

And if you’re looking for reasons Porcello came out on top when the Cy Young Award was handed out Wednesday night, well, it’s hard not to look at the voting process. It’s hard to explain that while nearly half the voters put Verlander atop their ballot (14 of 30, as opposed to just eight for Porcello), most of the other half had him well down the list or out of the top five altogether.

If you’re going to take this year’s voting as a sign more voters believe in wins—Porcello and National League winner Max Scherzer led the two leagues in that much-maligned category—you have to acknowledge Porcello won mostly because a large majority of voters had him as their second choice.

Porcello won because he received 18 second-place votes, to only two for Verlander. With seven points for every first-place vote and four points for each second-place vote, Porcello had a commanding lead even before we get to the fact two writers both left Verlander off their five-pitcher ballot.

It’s a little curious the two who didn’t vote for Verlander (Fred Goodall of the Associated Press and Bill Chastain of MLB.com) both cover the Tampa Bay Rays, especially since in his only 2016 start against the Rays, Verlander allowed one earned run in seven innings. Maybe they were expecting a no-hitter, or maybe they were just impressed by Porcello going 5-0 in six starts against the Rays this year.

For the record, if Goodall and Chastain had put Verlander fourth or fifth, he still would have lost.

But hey, what’s a contested election without a bit of controversy in Florida?

And what’s a contested election in 2016 without celebrity involvement, with a little salty language mixed in? Kate Upton, Verlander’s fiancee, reacted to the vote with this tweet (Warning: NSFW language):

Verlander’s younger brother Ben, a minor league outfielder with the Detroit Tigers, tweeted the same chart Justin used before the results came out:

Justin himself is vacationing in Italy, which may be the reason he didn’t tweet a reaction himself. Besides that, he and Porcello were teammates for six seasons with the Tigers; don’t expect angry words between these two top candidates.

“Justin had a great year,” Porcello said on a conference call. “I learned a lot from him.”

They’re not alike as pitchers, with Verlander’s power showing in his big edge in strikeouts (254-189). Porcello relies more on his sinker and getting ground balls.

There are differences off the field, too, and not just because Verlander has become more of a celebrity himself. While Verlander can discuss his numbers and the relative merits of all the Cy Young candidates, Porcello said he barely thought about the award until the finalists were announced last week.

“I just figured whatever’s going to happen is going to happen,” Porcello said.

What happened was all those wins helped Porcello get a few first-place votes and a ton of second-place votes, and it ultimately helped him win an award Verlander took going away in 2011.

“I do believe there are a lot of things [about wins and losses] you can’t control, but I also believe there are a lot of things you can control,” Porcello said. “There’s a way to go out and pitch to win a game, and there’s a way to go out and pitch not to lose a game.”

He went on to talk about pitching aggressively, and how that can help a team play better defense and perhaps even get off the field and get back to scoring runs. Whether you agree with him or not, it’s clear Porcello (only 32 walks in 223 innings) pitched aggressively this season.

He pitched confidently, and he pitched like a winner. He pitched like a Cy Young winner, and regardless of whether you like the election process or agree with the result, he is a worthy winner.

As for anyone who wants to say Verlander was even more worthy, fine. But in this race, finishing second isn’t all that bad.


Danny Knobler covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report.

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MLB Megastar Mookie Betts Is Rare Master of All Trades

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.”

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).

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 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.

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.

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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