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August 23, 2010

Fantasy Beat

The Yunigma

by Craig Brown

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It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key.
 - Winston Churchill, 1939

Baseball is full of these riddles.  Can Jose Bautista continue to crush AL pitching?  Why can't Joe Mauer hit home runs at the Twins new ballpark?  What's up with Tim Lincecum? Now we examine the latest: How in the world is Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt hitting so well?

He is the Yunigma.

On Saturday, Betancourt crushed his third grand slam of 2010 and finished a double header split against the White Sox with six RBI. It was just another night in what has been a recent string of solid performances for Betancourt.  His current .254 TAv is on the rise and creeping closer and closer to the league average .255 TAv for all major league shortstops.  Since July 28 Betancourt is hitting .329/.346/.592 with six HR and 18 RBI.  During this stretch, he’s added 14 points to his batting average, 13 points to his OBP and a whopping 37 points to his slugging percentage, which has propelled Betancourt's overall line to .268/.288/.428.  Compare that to the average shortstop line of .263/.323/.373.  Ultimately, he's providing power at the expense of getting on base.  In fantasy, at an offensively-challenged position, that's not such a horrible thing.  His slugging percentage is the eighth best among all shortstops and is the second best (trailing only Alexi Ramirez at .442) in the American League.  He's fifth among shortstops in home runs and tied for third in RBI.  What gives?

As Churchill alluded to, there is a key to Betancourt's recent success.

Betancourt is a free swinger, but this year, he has really emphasizing the free.  Over his career, he will chase balls out of the strike zone roughly 30% of the time.  This season, he’s pushed that rate to over 40%, a staggering loss of discipline given he didn’t possess that much to start.  He’s not in Vladimir Guerrero territory (who is chasing over 46% of all pitches he sees outside the strike zone), but for someone with Betancourt’s skill-set, it’s not ideal that he potentially turns every plate appearance into a fishing expedition.  Because of his proclivity to swing at just about anything the pitcher offers, he’s capable of making miserable contact.  Want proof?  How about a career 16% infield fly ball rate?  Amazing.  Almost one-fifth of all of Betancourt’s fly balls don’t even clear the infield airspace.  His 18% IFFB rate led the majors last year.

To illustrate Betancourt’s lack of discipline, I chose to present his swing pitch types from the months of May and June.  From Texas Leaguers, it’s just a pair of random months but it resembles just about any other Betancourt stretch from any other point in his career.  Give him credit: He's consistent.

There are a ton of weaknesses there:  Sliders, low and away.  High heat.  And just about any pitch inside.  Some players have one or two pitches they can’t resist.  Betancourt has them all.

In a development as shocking and surprising as any I’ve witnessed this season, Betancourt has suddenly stopped chasing pitches out of the strike zone.  From Texas Leaguers, here are his swing pitch types covering his recent hot streak.  

Pretty incredible.  Betancourt still has his moments chasing that slider down and away and hasn’t exactly gone cold turkey on the fastball up and out of the zone, but this clearly represents an improvement.  His newfound lateral command of the strike zone is interesting… He’s no longer getting tied up on the inside pitch and the only pitches he reaches for are those pesky sliders.

You can’t argue with the results.  While it’s been a heck of a run, will it continue to translate to fantasy value? In other words, can we expect this new knowledge of the strike zone to stick?

Probably not, for a number of reasons. 

Overall, Betancourt doesn’t walk (he has a 2.7% walk rate this year, the lowest in the majors) to get on base enough to score many runs.  While his power numbers are impressive for a shortstop, he ranks 17th among regular shortstops in runs scored.  Even during this era of new found discipline he’s walked just twice in 79 plate appearances - and one of those was intentional.  The lack of walks during this stretch is the number one reason why he won’t continue to hit at his current levels.  Sooner or later, he will go a few games where the hits don’t fall and then he’ll go right back to expanding the strike zone to try to make something happen.  Old habits die hard.  Earlier this month, I looked at Adam Jones who also parlayed improved plate discipline into a power spike.  The difference between the two players is Jones has 1,300 fewer plate appearances (and is four years younger) than Betancourt and has shown the ability to improve upon his plate discipline in the past. 

Betancourt doesn’t drive the ball enough to hit for a high average.  He doesn’t steal bases, either.  The league average shortstop has nine steals this year - Betancourt has zero.  After nearly 2,900 major league plate appearances, he suddenly gained knowledge of the strike zone.  Just as suddenly (and not coincidentally) his power ignited.  Despite this newly discovered discipline, I’m not sold what we’re seeing now is nothing more than a good old-fashioned hot streak.  His spike in contact rate where he puts the ball in play is sudden and unsustainable, which means his value will plateau soon enough and will slowly return to what would be a “normal” level for Betancourt - he will probably be closer to his career .244 TAv at the end of the season than his current high water mark of a .254 TAv.  Still, in the weakest offensive position in baseball, you’ll grab any nugget you can find.  However, I wouldn’t depend on him in the long term.  If you add him today, you’ll be getting him at what is likely peak value. 

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

Related Content:  Yuniesky Betancourt

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