Heading into his first full major league season, there was still no consensus on what to expect from Mookie Betts. At that point, there were still those who doubted the #FeatsOfMookie, and given the Red Sox's general struggle to develop stars out of the farm system in prior years, the skepticism was somewhat justified. Betts was a top prospect whose meteoric rise did not allow for much of a sample size which, combined with his modest origins, lead some to speculate that his newfound reputation was the result of a couple fluky seasons, much of it against minor leaguers.
The season certainly didn't start off too hot for Betts. Beyond robbing Bryce Harper of a home run and stealing two bases in the same game, Betts looked lethargic at the plate, struggling to display the whiplike bat speed that many sung the praises of through his rookie performance in 2014. He hit just .246/.304/.389 in 50 games over the first two months of the season, a far cry from the .291/.368/.444 line he produced in his first 52 major league games.
Slowly, Betts began to turn things around, putting together a stat line and WAR total that, at least for Red Sox fans, made the 23-year-old infielder-turned-outfielder into a borderline All-Star candidate. As the Red Sox fell out of the American League playoff picture, Betts went the other way, heating up as the team's wild card chances looked slimmer and slimmer. While Betts looked overmatched at times, he soon became a consistent sparkplug for the Red Sox at the top of the lineup and in the field, dependably dynamic.
While the expectation for Betts in 2016 is for him to break out as one of the faces of the Red Sox (alongside Xander Bogaerts), the reality of the situation is that Betts has already been there, and done that. It might've come during that second half of the season when fewer eyes were on him, but he had his Matt Damon - Good Will Hunting moment. Case in point: after June 15th, Betts hit .322/.367/.541 with 12 home runs, 50 RBIs, 30 doubles, six triples and 11 stolen bases in 83 games. At over half a season, that's not a sample size to scoff at.
It's always fun to look at what hot stretches would translate to over the course of 162 games. Betts' numbers from June 15th on average out to 24 home runs, 98 RBIs, 59 doubles, 12 triples and 22 stolen bases. The question is: was that a hot streak, or simply...Betts? Often with age and major league experience in the major leagues comes greater consistency, something Betts struggled with early last season. Someone who can put up 90 percent of those numbers and provide defense at the level Betts brings to the outfield is (*turns around to check for Rays fans*) a borderline MVP candidate in the American League, and it's not all that unrealistic to imagine Betts managing to reproduce said numbers over the course of a full season.
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Betts placed 16th among all position players last year in rWAR with 6.0, falling in line with guys like Kris Bryant and Ian Kinsler, and ahead of established stars like Nolan Arenado, Miguel Cabrera and Jose Bautista. That number, of course, is dependent on some mercurial defensive statistics which can dramatically vary season to season and aren't exactly proven to be a perfectly accurate measurement of a player's defensive ability and worth.
With Betts likely moving to right field to start the season with Jackie Bradley manning center, there might be an adjustment period for him as he will again need to adjust to a new defensive home, the expansive right field of Fenway Park. Though, of course, given how quickly he made the switch from second to center, the switch to full-time right fielder should be a cakewalk in comparison.
Given Betts insane innate ability to make hard contact, something which Matt Collins covered in this space previously, his keen sense of the strike zone and otherworldly bat speed, it's hard to imagine Betts taking a step back barring injury or a spontaneous drop-off in one of those areas--the sort of thing which doesn't really happen to 23-year-old players with any regularity. It's hard to expect Betts to perform at the level he played post-All Star break over the course of an entire season, but even just 80 percent of that output over the course of a full season doesn't seem to be asking too much of the Nashville native.
Every once in a while, I'll daydream during class about what Mookie Betts could become and it's an incredibly fun thought exercise because there are seemingly no limits to what he could accomplish at the major league level. As an incredibly level-headed, immensely talented five-tooler, Betts really could emerge as one of the best players in baseball this season by putting together a second full season as remarkable as his last. And that's not exactly one of the more optimistic projection. He could just as easily improve!
While being asked about his bowling early during his time in the majors, Betts always lamented that he hadn't yet bowled a perfect game. This offseason, he's done it twice. Next up on his checklist seems to be MLB stardom. And many do expect that Betts could break out and establish himself as one of the top outfielders in the game in 2016, but the fun part is that we blinked at the end of 2015 and he made that jump. The hope is that he doesn't completely realize it, sees it as a goal unattained, and sets out to fix that. If there's still another level left in Mookie Betts, Red Sox fans would be overjoyed to see it.