Not to state the obvious, but Mookie Betts is pretty damn good at baseball. Monday night saw him reach 30 homers on the season, which is a feat that would be quite impressive even if he weren't 5'9", 23 years old, and playing in just his second full major league season with more than a month left in the year.
It's not surprising that, as the homers have piled up for the young Betts, Red Sox fans and the media alike have started to focus on the ol' long ball. But for all that Betts' power is what's turned so many eyes his way in 2016, the crazy reality is that it's almost extraneous. Betts is not a great power hitter, but a great baseball player who has proven capable of hitting for power with some of the best of them.
After all, it was just last year that Betts profiled more as a Dustin Pedroia type. And that alone was enough to get him a few down-ballot MVP votes despite playing on a hugely disappointing 2015 Red Sox team. Actually, full stop, we're talking about a 22-year-old (at the time) putting up numbers both on offense and defense in line with Dustin Pedroia's career averages and having that as the baseline. That's the starting point Mookie Betts had the opportunity to launch himself from in 2016.
So, given that he did launch himself rather than actually falling back to Earth some (which was certainly a possibility), it's unsurprising that Betts is putting up historic numbers for the Red Sox. Already in 2016, Betts has produced one of the 10 best seasons for a 25-and-under position player in a Red Sox uniform of all time (by rWAR). If things go reasonably well for the last month of the season, he will likely finish fifth or sixth on that list. The only players whose names will appear ahead of him, regardless of which of those spots he takes: Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, and Ted Williams.
But honestly, that's not giving Betts the full credit he deserves. In much the same way that Mookie Betts is not simply a great power hitter, he's also not simply a great young player. Eliminate that "25-and-under" stipulation and Betts has still moved into the top-30 as of last night. He's got a very real chance to move into the top-15 by the time all is said and done. That's one of the 15 best seasons of all time for a franchise that has existed for well over 100 years. The last time a player made it that high up the list was Wade Boggs in 1985. Thanks in large part to his questionable defense at shortstop, Nomar Garciaparra never even made it into the top-30 where Betts has already staked his claim.
The fact is, we're watching one of the best seasons of all-time from a Red Sox player. Given that said season comes after another top-100 campaign in his first full year and this early in his career, there's every reason to believe this is the beginning of something truly special rather than just a one-off. Obviously, starting work on a player's Hall of Fame plaque at Betts' age is ridiculous. But when a player could take a step back and find themselves in Dustin Pedroia territory, they're in rare territory indeed.
And this, for the thousandth time, is where it becomes necessary to point out that the Red Sox need to keep him. Players like Betts are just too rare a commodity to risk losing in free agency, and while the Sox do have plenty of time to get a deal done, the reality is that their best window is going to close in just one more year.
For a player as good as Mookie Betts, the real incentive to sign an extension before hitting free agency is to mitigate the risk that injury poses to his career. Even if Betts is flying higher now than he could hope to for the rest of his career (and obviously that's not necessarily the case), it's pretty improbable that he's going to drop off far enough that he wouldn't make quite a bit of money in free agency barring that aforementioned injury scenario. Betts might not end up being able to put "perrenial MVP candidate" on his resume, but that's balanced out nicely by the possibility that he can put "actual MVP winner" on there sometime before 2021.
Simply put, the leverage the Sox have right now is financial security. League minimum ain't bad, but it's not going to see Betts through the rest of his life. For a player like Mookie, though, even the first year of arbitration might very well do so. That first year will come in 2018, and once Betts has that first year of arbitration in the bank, with free agency one year closer, it becomes that much easier for Betts to wait and see, and that much easier to imagine him in another uniform.
That? That just can't happen. This is the greatest start (again, by rWAR) to a career this team has seen in 30 years. For a position player's first three years, it's top-15 in the history of Major League Baseball, with Betts likely to pass Charlie Keller, Frank Thomas, and Willie Mays before that period comes to an end with this season. There's an outside chance he passes Ralph Kiner too, leaving him as only the second member in the top-10 with fewer than 400 games played thanks to his half-season in 2014. The other is Mike Trout.
We've seen incredible things from Mookie Betts. More incredible than I think many of us fully realize. And if he follows the career paths of the players he measures up against in the first few years of his career, then there's still greater things to come. He's already helped the Red Sox win a lot more games than they would have without him. With so much time left in his career, if the Sox can keep him around, he'll help them win a whole lot more.