The 2015 season did not start out well for Mookie Betts. Yes, he had a fine Opening Day, where he hit a home run and helped the Red Sox win their first game of the season, and there were defensive plays and wizardry on the basepaths to point to, but the overall offensive picture just wasn't there over the first couple of weeks: Betts batted .191/.250/.362 over the first 11 games of the season.
A lot of that was likely just poor luck, though, as Betts was hitting the ball hard often, but right into the gloves of defenders everywhere. His batting average on balls in play in those first 11 contests was just .200, and while he struck out four times in one game against the Yankees, in the other 10 combined, he whiffed on just seven occasions. He was putting the ball in play constantly, and had nothing to show for it. While they were unwarranted concerns, some fans began to wonder if Betts was going to be just another over-hyped disappointment.
That attitude says a whole lot more about those fans than it does anything Betts was doing, of course. They were a little reluctant to love again after the modest debut of Xander Bogaerts and the struggles of Jackie Bradley Jr., but Betts was different. Bogaerts' first-ever struggles as a pro came in 2014 when he was made Boston's starting shortstop, and Bradley was never the kind of prospect that either Betts or Bogaerts was. Betts already had his significant moment of struggle that he bounced back from in his career: to start 2015, he was just a guy who had a little bit of bad luck for two weeks, and now that's over and he's the Mookie we all expected him to be.
Betts is now batting .248/.322/.442 on the season, good for a 111 OPS+. His BABIP still isn't all the way fixed, as it's just .252, but if anything, that's just encouraging for what's still to come. Mookie has managed to bat .280/.362/.488 in the 20 games since his initial slump, with three homers and 10 extra-base hits overall. He's struck out just eight times in his last 95 plate appearances, and has drawn more walks than whiffs in that stretch. He's now through 83 games total in the majors, in which he's batted a combined .274/.349/.443, good for a 122 OPS+ and between 3-4 wins above replacement. Yes, Mookie is on pace for a six-win or better "season" over his first 162 games, and he's doing it with games played in his age-21 and age-22 campaigns.
This doesn't mean Betts is guaranteed to put up six wins worth of play over those 162 games, or that he'll be that kind of player over the course of 2015's 162. There is plenty of reason to believe he will, though, given how well he has performed in his time in the majors, his sheer dominance of the high minors, and his shockingly quick acclimation to the outfield and center, a role and position he had never played at all until much of 2014 had passed him by -- remember that the man who can do this...
...was still a second baseman exclusively at this time last year.
The Red Sox also need Betts to be this good, to be as productive as he's been over his last 20 games. They are dealing with a first baseman, Mike Napoli, who can't seem to get things going at the plate. David Ortiz has been productive, but more in the "relative to other DHs" sense of that word than in his usual Big Papi way. Xander Bogaerts has been average offensively for a shortstop, the not-quite-ready rookie Blake Swihart is going to go through a whole lot of awkward, unproductive education at the plate while he fills in for Ryan Hanigan, and Shane Victorino has been playing the worst-case scenario game during the first month-plus of the season.
Some of those things will change -- Rusney Castillo might replace Victorino if he can't turn things around, Ortiz and Napoli starting to hit more wouldn't surprise anyone, and both Bogaerts and Swihart might see gains in their production with time. The Sox need a constant they can rely on in the lineup besides veterans Dustin Pedroia, Hanley Ramirez, and Pablo Sandoval, though, and Betts, the leadoff hitter who starts things off each game, is the perfect player for that role.
The hope was that the veterans would carry the kids while they got used to playing every day in the big leagues, unlike in 2014 when it was a reliance on big years from the youthful trio of Xander Bogaerts, Will Middlebrooks, and Jackie Bradley that helped ruin the Red Sox' chances early. While Sandoval, Pedroia, and Ramirez have done their part as veteran stalwarts, it's not enough with Ortiz and Napoli and Victorino now the ones who are struggling to keep the Red Sox relevant. Having Betts break through was always a hope for 2015, but now it's a necessity. And If he keeps it up, he might help buy the rest of the team the time it needs.