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April 19, 2013
The Startlingly Selective Yuniesky Betancourt
When the Phillies offered Yuniesky Betancourt an invitation to spring training, we wondered why a team would give even a non-guaranteed contract to a player whose career stats suggested he was without any upside. When Betancourt hit .446/.450/.625 in spring training and landed a major-league contract with Milwaukee, we wondered A) why teams allow themselves to be seduced by spring statistics and B) what it is about Betancourt that makes teams who’ve already seen him firsthand for full seasons decide to bring him back for more. When we last saw Betancourt in the big leagues, he was getting released by the Royals. It was fair to wonder why he’d be any better at age 31 than he was during his replacement-level prime.
Well, maybe now we know:
Hey, who’s to say whether a .271 on-base percentage is “good” or “bad,” right? It’s so limiting to put labels on things! Okay, so Roenicke was right to be diplomatic, but since I’m not Betancourt’s manager, I don’t have to hold back. Betancourt hit 13 home runs for the Brewers in 2011, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make up for the lowest walk rate in the major leagues. His .228 TAv was bad even by the standards of NL shortstops, who managed a collective .249 mark. If you believe the stats that say that his normally not-safe-for-work defense was closer to acceptable that season, it wasn’t one of his worst years overall, but it was one of his worst offensive seasons. And that’s saying something.
So it’s tempting to dismiss Roenick’s rave review as a motivation tactic or an overreaction to a small sample. But, well, there's this:
Granted, Betancourt had some 130-pitch stretches two years ago in which he swung, and chased, as infrequently as he has this season. But thus far—and I know that’s not very far—Betancourt has swung a lot less often than he did, on the whole, as a Brewer before, with all of the reduction in swing rate coming on pitches outside of the strike zone. In 2011, he chased pitches more often than all but two other full-time players, Vladimir Guerrero and Pablo Sandoval. Now, his chase rate isn’t that far above league average for non-pitchers (28.5 percent). Betancourt isn’t making that much more contact, but he’s making better contact, which stands to reason, since he’s swinging at more hittable pitches. How the heck did this happen?
Betancourt supplied an explanation:
This newfound discipline is by design, said Betancourt, who worked to curb his famously aggressive approach while playing winter ball in Mexico.
Betancourt hit .308/.354/.587 in 104 at-bats in the Mexican League over the winter, walking eight times. The story sounds good. There’s just one problem with it: it seems like this more selective approach started last season, before Betancourt went to Mexico. His swing and chase rates with the Royals in 2012 were right around where they are now. And admittedly, Betancourt’s 2012 season wasn’t exactly a smashing success. But I wonder whether Betancourt got a bad rap in his return to the Royals. He hit for a career-high ISO, and his BABIP was 50 points below his career rate, without any noticeable change in his batted-ball profile. Maybe he really was better last season, but we missed it because his hard-hit balls were placed poorly. (Betancourt batted .618 on line drives, compared to his .679 career rate).
Look, I know. We’re talking about 44 plate appearances this season, plus 228 in 2012, that say that Betancourt has discovered some semblance of plate discipline. We have over 3500 previous plate appearances that say that Betancourt is one of the least-selective batters in baseball. This might look silly by the end of the season. And even a Betancourt who walks once in a while is, at best, a passable player.
But a passable player is well worth a $900k commitment. And if Betancourt, at a fairly advanced age (by baseball standards), really did see the error of his ways and do something to correct his shortcomings—well, that’s more than most of us can say. For now, at least, he’s earned a little less snark.