Position Roundtables: Starting Shortstop

Dave · February 9, 2006 at 1:30 pm · Filed Under 2006 Position Roundtables, Mariners 

Starting Shortstop: Yuniesky Betancourt


I think there’s pretty much a group consensus that Yuniesky Betancourt is a terrific defensive shortstop, yes? The kid makes some remarkable plays and has every tool you could possibly want in the field.

However, Wilson Valdez can play a pretty good shortstop as well, and we tossed him aside after two months of out-making last year. We love his defense, but the bottom line in major league baseball is still “can you hit?” There’s a clear line for minimal accepted offensive performance, no matter how good your defense is, that a player has to clear. Wilson Valdez was below that line. We’re counting on Betancourt being above that line. But how far above? How good a hitter can he be?

For the optimistic, look no further than his top PECOTA comparison – Barry Larkin. I mean, that’s a dream scenario right there. Larkin was one of the best shortstops of his generation and should probably end up in the Hall of Fame. And, for the first 600 at-bats of his major league career, he didn’t hit a whole lot.

For the pessimistic, look no further than the rest of his PECOTA comparisons – Tim Foli, Orlando Cabrera, Bucky Dent, and Juan Uribe are the next four.

The difference between Larkin and the guys who never developed into hitters? He commanded the strike zone, even from a young age. He didn’t walk a ton, but he always had more walks than strikeouts, and he wasn’t making easy outs on pitches well out of the strike zone. Right now, Betancourt doesn’t have that kind of plate discipline. He’s a hack, a free swinger who would rather chase a pitch outside and foul it off than stand there with the bat on his shoulder. And that puts massive limits on how good of a hitter he can be.

Betancourt doesn’t have the strength or the swing to be a home run hitter. At most, he’ll whack 10 a year, and that’s probably too high a number. His game is going to be completely based on getting on base and running around them. He’s got great raw speed that can allow him to turn almost any ball in the gap into a triple. That’s valuable. But his speed doesn’t help him when he’s walking back to the dugout after chasing another pitch in the dirt.

It’s odd to say, because he’s only 24 years old, but without a pretty significant change in his approach at the plate, Betancourt’s fairly close to his offensive ceiling. With his current hitting style, he’s a .300/.330/.420 guy when he’s going well. Make no mistake, that makes him a valuable player when combined with his defense, but it’s a far cry from Barry Larkin.

There are guys who have had a similar skillset as young players and improved drastically as their careers have gone on. Omar Vizquel is the obvious example, since we still can’t get over the fact that the M’s traded him for Felix Fermin. But those guys are not the norm. If you look at Betancourt’s PECOTA projection, it essentially paints a picture of a guy who is already fairly close to his offensive ceiling. Guys with his skillset have a much lower career improvement arc than someone like Jose Lopez. Just because he’s young doesn’t mean he’s going to get significantly better.

Here’s hoping he takes the Barry Larkin career path. But I’m not going to hold my breath.


I’ll take the Bucky Dent career path if it means he hits a monumental game-winning homer to beat our arch-rivals in a one-game playoff.

Or, to use a bit of debate jargon that Derek will appreciate, how about a permutation? Betancourt can hit like Larkin and have postseason heroics, too.

In all seriousness, though, isn’t it a bit more slippery to quantify Betancourt’s performance than it would be to assess the record of a player whose formative years were spent in the American minor leagues, or even Japan? Because the bulk of his experience took place in Cuba, we just don’t have the type of extensive statistical record we’d like to project Betancourt’s future value with full confidence.

Small sample size is more of an issue for him, it seems to me. Particularly in the case of fielding numbers, it’s important to look at as much data as you can.

To tease this idea out a bit, consider Pokey Reese. Though his signing didn’t work out, we were all for it because of his spectacular defensive play — something scouts and advanced defensive metrics agreed upon. Dave has made the case repeatedly that Reese, when healthy, saves so many runs with his glove that teams can afford to carry his bat. Which is, to be charitable,

Betancourt turned 23 in January of 2005, then spent part of the ensuing season in the minors and part in the majors. Reese turned 24 in June of 1997, and split time between AAA Indianapolis and Cincinnati.

Reese, that year in the minors, registered a.326 OBP and a .431 SLG, awfully close to Betancourt’s .311/.424 line in San Antonio and Tacoma. In the majors, Betancourt (.296,.370) was much better in his 211 at-bats than Reese was (.284.287) in his 397.

We can be fairly certain Betancourt is going to swing a bigger stick than Pokey. This can be said even though the M’s shortstop has a paltry amount of plate appearances in the states. Simply put, we know Reese is a banjo hitter because he’s demonstrated that over several years.

In conjunction with that, though, Reese has also demonstrated his superlative fielding over that same period. Scouts and stats alike say that he’s been a special player, plus — and this is key — they’re able to quantify just how special. That’s a result of having a wealth of information at they’re disposal.

When you look at Betancourt, you see a fantastic defensive player. Scouts adore him, and that’s great information to have.

But is he the kind of over-the-top grounder vacuum that means he can hit like an arthritic Scrabble player and still net you tons of runs each year? Very possibly, and I would tend to say yes — but I can’t tell you that for certain, and I don’t know if anyone else can, either. While he’s valuable, the question of just how valuable he’s going to be applies whether he’s at the plate or turning the double play.

Of course, if he hits, the whole “he’s great, but how great is he?” question is moot. And regardless of the answer, we’ll take the Yuniesky we’ve got. He’s a solid addition even if he doesn’t turn into Barry Larkin.


It is worth noting that projections of Betancourt, like PECOTA, require data that isn’t there. Given that the system really only had two years
of data (some crazy 2003 stats and then this year) I’m not surprised. Cuban stats are suspect, and I’m not sure how much I would trust them if
they were available.

So I agree, this is a case where we should lean a lot more towards the scouting side. This time next year we’ll have a whole new season of
Betancourt stats we can use to start forming more solid opinions, but for now, I agree that to be successful (without becoming another hitter)
Betancourt needs to keep making good contact, and his speed will get him hits from singles and doubles from gap singles.

I look forward to seeing Betancourt play next year. Hit or no hit, he’s an interesting and exciting player to watch, and we’ve had so much
boredom and uselessness these last few years.


Betancourt’s skill set lines up perfectly with his numbers, though. I know its only one year of data, but he was the same player at all three levels, and the conclusion drawn from the numbers and from watching him play are basically the same;

Gap hitter, line drive swing, terrific speed, awful plate discipline, lacks upper body strength to drive the ball. Yes, we only have one year of data, but his skillset doesn’t contradict anything we saw last year. He’s simply not going to hit 30 home runs in a season. He doesn’t have that kind of frame or swing. He’s a slash-and-dash hitter who will rely on his wheels, not his swings, to get himself around the bases.

Player types develop differently. Betancourt’s pretty far developed for his skillset. There’s not a lot of additional growth that he can make without totally reinventing his offensive approach. I like YuBet, too-heck, I argued that I wouldn’t trade him straight up for Miguel Tejada-but I don’t think he’s going to get a lot better than he already is.


That’s absolutely true, and I wouldn’t argue that Betancourt’s stats don’t match his skills. What I’d say is that when we look at something like a list of comps pulled by PECOTA, those comps don’t have the same value as a player we’ve seen for the full set of years.

For instance, do players like Betancourt develop some power? As they age, generally players become more patient and less contact-y… if Betancourt can’t get a little better in pitch selection, will that be the crucial factor in determining whether he can hit or not, and if so, how often does it break one way or the other?

From what we know, it’s unlikely that he’ll develop a significantly batting eye. Whether that can be exploited by major league pitchers and render him entirelly impotent is the interesting question.

Does that make sense?


If Betancourt develops into anything even close to Larkin, we should all jump for joy, as Larkin is one of the better shortstops ever to play the game. In any event, I’m not all that optimistic.

As for your pessimistic comps, call me crazy, but I’d take Juan Uribe. Terrific defender and some pop in his bat… 16 homers last year and 23 the year before that. This isn’t Rey Ordonez or Pokey Reese we’re talking about here. Even Orlando Cabrera, while now vastly overpaid, had a nice peak (2001, 2003-04) for a shortstop. Toss in Betancourt’s glove and that’s a very good player. Of course, both players have shown more power than you suggest Betancourt ever will. In the end, I don’t see Larkin or Uribe as very good comps, though Cabrera (career high HR: 17) is probably the best of the bunch.

I’m surprised we don’t hear more Omar Vizquel comparisons… they’re about the same size, play good defense, and don’t hit a lick. Omar hit .220/.273/.261 (no, not a typo) as a rookie, showing even less power than Betancourt has, before finally developing into an acceptable hitter later in his career.


I think thats why we don’t hear the Omar comparison all that often. At the same age, Betancourt is significantly better. Omar could barely get the ball out of the infild. Betancourt has legit gap power. He can smoke a fastball into the alley. He just won’t get any real lift on it, and that should keep his HR total down.

My favorite comparisons are Cristian Guzman, Pokey Reese, and Cesar Izturis. That’s what I think Betancourt can be. A terrific glove who, in his prime, hits .300, gets a bunch of triples, steals bases, is one of the better shortstops in baseball.

But, yea, the odds of him becoming Larkin are very, very long.


30 Responses to “Position Roundtables: Starting Shortstop”

  1. JAS on February 9th, 2006 2:19 pm

    This is only my first reaction, and I’m not sure if stats back up this reflex opinion, but it seemed as if Yuni improved his approach at the plate as the season wore on, which bodes well for a higher ceiling projection.

  2. Mock on February 9th, 2006 2:31 pm

    Well, ya gotta think he won’t be any worse offensively than he was last year, and he does perhaps keep WFB out of the line up. So even if he doesn’t turn into the next Barry Larkin, at least he’s also not going to be the next Willie Bloomquist…and I’m perfectly happy settling for that.

  3. Paul on February 9th, 2006 3:13 pm

    I like having Betancourt in the lineup when I go to games for the same reason I liked going when Griffey, Cameron or Vizquel played, the possibility of seeing a jaw-dropping, I can’t believe what I just saw kind of play.

    Do you see much possibility of Betancourt eventually becoming good enough with the bat to lead off?

  4. Jerry on February 9th, 2006 3:18 pm

    I am not sure why you guys are so convinced that Betancourt won’t improve. I think that you are likely correct, but I don’t see it as a certainty.

    As a few of you noted, Betancourt’s future offensive performance is going to be very difficult to predict.

    Not only do you have the Cuba factor. It is really important to remember that Betancourt didn’t play baseball for nearly two years between his last season in Cuba and 2005. That is a lot of time off. Further, this time off came at age 21 and 22. That is a pretty important part of a young players development.

    When you consider this layoff, and the transition from Cuba to the US, Betancourt’s performance this year is pretty incredible. I don’t see any reason to assume that Betancourt has reached his ceiling in terms of plate discipline, power, or even defense. Most players improve a lot from age 24 to age 28. I don’t see any reason to believe that Betancourt will be an exception to this. He might be close to his ceiling. But he also might be just getting his timing back, starting to adjust to living in the US, and learning about other AL teams.

    I wouldn’t be so quick to write off any chance of upside here. Jeff is right. We really don’t have enough information to make a good projection.

  5. JAS on February 9th, 2006 3:21 pm

    Actually, if you look at the two months with statistically valid sample sizes (August & September 2005), you can see that Beta improved significantly. Although the sample sizes are not large enough for high confidence projections, they do indicate the capacity for Beta to improve, and improve drastically.

    Jul 15 0 1 1 .267 .313 .400 .713
    Aug 88 3 0 12 .227 .253 .318 .571
    Sep 101 7 1 8 .277 .327 .386 .713
    Oct 7 1 0 3 .286 .333 .714 1.048

  6. Dave on February 9th, 2006 3:29 pm

    Note that my “odds are he won’t improve” take isn’t based on statistical information. It’s scouting. His player types, speedy gap hitters, often reach their full potential younger than others. Massive power hitting first baseman do this too. It’s why I like Prince Fielder and Ryan Howard less than most people. They’re about as good as they’re going to get. There isn’t much projection left.

    Same with Yubet. Has nothing to do with a lack of data. I’m saying he probably won’t get much better because of his skillset.

  7. eponymous coward on February 9th, 2006 3:45 pm

    Go look at Cristian Guzman on baseball-reference of you want statistical backup of what Dave’s asserting (since that’s one of the guys he’s comparing to). Guzman’s best year so far? 2001…age 23.

    Orlando Cabrera (another comp) had a peak at 28, but if you look at his 3 year averages (year preceding and following 28), his SLG was around what it always was, and his OBP wasn’t anything stellar (though improved some).

    Frankly, there’s a lot worse things to have than a decent archetypical Latin SS (good defense, hits some line drives, steals some bases, didn’t walk off the island) who’s inexpensive- so I don’t see the need to project him into the Barry Larkin/Tony Fernandez range without some more evidence to back it up.

  8. Mr. Egaas on February 9th, 2006 4:49 pm

    One of the reasons to watch the M’s this year, offensively and defensively.

    I’m not too optimistic about it, but he’s got potential to be more than Morse, Valdez, Aurilia, or any of the other schmucks we’ve had at short before him.

  9. Mat on February 9th, 2006 5:26 pm

    I would say Guzman’s early peak had more to do with his injury than it had to do with his player type. His player type, I’m sure, had something to do with it, but he was never the same after injuring his legs. And post-injury, Guzman’s swing started to look comical, like he was really trying to hit the ball off the turf and make it bounce as high as possible. His approach had to be one of the worst approaches I’ve ever seen.

  10. JAS on February 9th, 2006 5:50 pm

    Dave, one of the skills you use to characterize Beta is his patience (or lack thereof) at the plate. I think the best indicator of his potential is the ability to adjust and mitigate a weakness such as flailing. That is a “learning” skill, rather than a demonstrated “baseball” skill, and he has definite learning potential.

  11. jtopps on February 9th, 2006 5:59 pm

    Dave- You mention speedy gap-hitting guys and massive power first basemen as guys who typically peak earlier. What’s the opposite of these guys or rather, what kind of guys typically have the greatest room for improvement?

  12. DMZ on February 9th, 2006 6:01 pm

    To be really generic, guys who have speed and power develop faster and age better than their peers.

  13. Dave on February 9th, 2006 6:05 pm

    Untapped power is the big one. Jose Lopez is the local example. Hit just 5 home runs in Tacoma last year, but 24 of his 58 hits were extra base knocks. There’s some extra juice in his bat to come. Right now, they’re long doubles. Give it a few years, they’ll go over the wall.

    Guys who have really high XBH/H ratios but low HR ratios are, as a group, generally good picks to breakout. I actually wrote a big article in the Hardball Times Annual about minor league breakout predictors. It’s worth picking up for the other articles, and you can consider my column just a bonus.

  14. Dave on February 9th, 2006 6:10 pm

    Dave, one of the skills you use to characterize Beta is his patience (or lack thereof) at the plate. I think the best indicator of his potential is the ability to adjust and mitigate a weakness such as flailing. That is a “learning” skill, rather than a demonstrated “baseball” skill, and he has definite learning potential.

    The list of guys who learned how to walk at the major league level is pretty short. I’m not saying Betancourt will never increase his walk rate. In fact, I’d say just the opposite; almost every player increases their walk rate as they age. But not by huge, drastic amounts. If he goes from walking once every 15 at-bats to once every 10, thats great, but the odds of him walking every 5 or 6 at bats are very, very long.

    And that’s fine. He doesn’t have to walk to be valuable. Like I said, I’ve argued that he’s a valuable player right now, and I wouldn’t swap him for Tejada straight up. But I think its important people realize that Betancourt’s pretty darn close to being as good as he’s going to be. Defense degrades over time, so he’s almost certainly as good with the glove as he’s ever going to be, and a huge majority of his value is tied to his work in the field.

  15. Adam on February 9th, 2006 6:50 pm

    As long as Betancourt is not another Ozzie Guillen I’m fine. And fortunatly it looks like he won’t be.

  16. Paul Covert on February 9th, 2006 8:18 pm

    Re. the Vizquel comparisons:

    Betancourt’s isolated power at the MLB level last year was .114. By contrast, Vizquel started out at less than half of that (.041 and .051 his first two years), and his best three-year isolated power ever was .115, at ages 35-37.

    On the other hand, Vizquel’s walk rate even in his first two years was .072 W/AB, jumping over .10 in his third year and with a three-year peak of .121 from ages 31-33. Betancourt was at .052 last year, so he’s got a ways to go to match Omar there.

    In batting average, Vizquel put out a steady improvement from .220 in his rookie year to a career year of .333 ten years later. That was his only .300 season, but he did have several other years over .280 (at ages 25, 29, 31, 32, 33, and 37), and he’s averaged .284 over the last ten years combined.

    So I don’t expect a Vizquel-like career path from YuBet, or indeed from any specific young player you can pick out; ten-year stretch of improvement, reaching the majors at 22 and peaking at 32, is unusual and can’t be counted on.

    However, a Vizquel-like peak offensive performance– .280/.350/.380 or so over a period of several years– certainly seems a realistic upside, although in Betancourt’s case it might take a shape more like .280/.330/.400. If he can do this, he won’t be a superstar, but he’ll certainly be a quality major-league starter, worth 1-2 wins a year above an average shortstop (3-4 wins above replacement).

  17. Paul Covert on February 9th, 2006 8:20 pm

    Further note: I should clarify that I was talking about “realistic upside,” not “most probable expectation.” There’s an awful lot of reason for doubt about how good he really is; I’m cautiously optimistic at the moment, but won’t be shocked if it all falls through.

  18. Matthew Carruth on February 9th, 2006 8:29 pm

    Could we see Yubet turn into more of the Ichiro model in terms of strike zone control though? I also doubt he’ll ever walk more than say 30-35 times in a season, but could he end up with a 1:1 SO:BB rate? And if he put up numbers like 26 BB, 34 SO next season, how/would that chance what you think about his potential career arc?

  19. BelaXadux on February 9th, 2006 8:36 pm

    I’m with you Dave that I see YB’s skill set as near to fully developed, and part of a group that reaches that definition young. He’s 24, too, even if most of that was out of the US; he won’t grow significantly more.

    On the other hand, he’s no banjo hitter. He has good bat speed, makes consistent contact in the strikezone, and drives his pitch well. As you say Dave, he doesn’t lift the pitch—but he shouldn’t since he doesn’t have the upper body strength to reach the seats consistently. He also didn’t appear to pull the pitch much, which at this point he shouldn’t either, just drive the ball gap to gap and fly. I see the Larkin comp as not out of line, and the O. Cabrera comp as quite good. With this approach and his speed, Betancourt will excell at triples, but seldom if ever reach 20 knocks. To me the key is: how many 2Bs? If YB refines his use of the strikezone to get better pitches, he could put up _handsome_ totals there with SLG numbers to match. If he continues to let the pitcher dictate what pitch he’ll swing at, his SLG will be disappointing frankly, probably .400 or below.

    . . . But the Foli comp is also quite good, a complete flailer who swung at anything he could reach. Yes, Yubet does that, or at least he did all last year at every level, even if the Ms have declared their intent to get him to change. Major league pitchers exploited him there, and will trowel him into a Foli-Dent like plot as a hitter if Yubi doesn’t shink his zone a bit and make them come in.

    What I found really impressive about Betancourt’s ’05 was how consistent he was even while advancing _very_ quickly. He took a ‘see the ball, hit the ball’ approach, appropriate after a year off and in an entirely new context as a player, moved right up the ladder, and didn’t find a level he couldn’t hold his own if one accepts that he showed improvement over his time at Safeco. That also supports Dave’s contention that he is, essentially, fully developed as a hitter, however.

    Last year’s numbers are too few for anything but dubious illustration, but still useful in that regard: 3 BB and 12 K in August, when he mostly made outs; 7 BB and 8 K in Sep. If Yubet will walk about as often as he strikes out, in my view he will reach his higher comparables; in not, not. We’ll know by June, and be sure by September, and I wouldn’t expect him to change much from that point. Orlando Cabrera with and All-World Glove: that’s what I’m hoping for, and I think he can do that, yes. MUCH, much better than Pokey Redux, and nothing like Little O, whom though I liked him as a person really _couldn’t_ get the ball out of the infield at a comparable age.

  20. JAS on February 9th, 2006 8:58 pm

    The whole idea that Yubet is nothing but a free swinger isn’t well-grounded in fact. I don’t expect him to walk a lot, but he quite possibly will walk as much as he strikes out, which means he puts the bat on strikes, as shown in his September stats.

    If he already is approaching his ceiling, then his ceiling is not a composite of 2004, but probably reflected more in his Sep/Oct numbers at the MLB level. If his reputation as a defensive whiz perpetuates, then a consistent .700+ OPS might make him an All-Star.

  21. Dave on February 9th, 2006 9:11 pm

    There’s absolutely no evidence that his September is any more a sign of his true talent level than his July or August. In fact, there’s been numerous studies done that essentially show that “monthly trends” are a giant myth born out of people reading far too much into tiny samples.

    Betancourt is a swing-at-everything hack. That’s not really disputable. Thankfully, the rest of his skills, primarily his defense, are good enough to more than compensate.

  22. msb on February 9th, 2006 9:35 pm

    and someone at FanFest did invoke Omar, but darned if I can remember who….

  23. Mat on February 9th, 2006 11:32 pm

    “Betancourt is a swing-at-everything hack. That’s not really disputable.”

    Sure, but there are degrees to everything, no? It looks to me like Betancourt could pretty reasonably put up a line of 2 walks per 5 K’s. 0.4 BB/K puts him at about 20th percentile in the league amongst qualified hitters last year. That’s pretty low, but it’s not like he’ll be a historically bad hacker. If things broke right for him, I could even see him posting a league-average 0.5 BB/K for a couple of seasons.

    And even at that, his strikeout rate is high, but it’s not *that* high. If you’re going to be a swinging at everything, it’s a nice feature if you can make contact fairly often and you’re speedy. So, he’s a hacker, but he’s not going to put anything up like Alfonso Soriano’s 125 K/33 BB line last year. (And hopefully that means he’ll do better than Soriano’s .224/.265/.374 line away from Arlington last year.)

    It did make me laugh when I saw his -31.5 VORP for 2003 on his PECOTA card. That probably has, oh, about nothing to do with how well he’ll do this year.

  24. Evan on February 9th, 2006 11:35 pm

    I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Betancourt play a full season and hit zero homeruns.

    But he might manage 21 triples or something crazy like that.

  25. toonprivate on February 10th, 2006 8:31 am

    Advanced training — weights, plyometrics, nutrition, etc. — might change YuBet’s potential outcomes considerably. I’m assuming that he hasn’t done concentrated work on his body… and if that’s true, then he has a LOT of room for improvement.

  26. msb on February 10th, 2006 11:28 am


  27. Jon on February 10th, 2006 12:16 pm

    All I know is he seemed to have a live bat and he hit the ball very hard in the gaps fairly regularly for extra base hits. I’m not going to look at his stats, because I don’t the facts to get in the way of my recollection.

  28. chrisisasavage on February 10th, 2006 3:16 pm

    IIRC, Yubet hit 27% of his MLB hits for XBH. I can look when I get home, but I believe that’s correct. I dont think that’s too high, but until I can pull up Lahmans database and get the AL average, not sure. I think Lopez hit something like 45%. That’s some power by any stretch. We’ll see how they do from here on out.

  29. doorbot on February 11th, 2006 6:45 pm

    Gotta say the first thing I noticed about the Pecota comps Dave listed was the ring they all share 🙂 Now if Yu-bet can “progress” like that with them…

  30. vj on February 15th, 2006 1:16 am

    (I hope someone still reads this since the post isn’t new…)
    A question on the defensive infield lineup: Since the Ms will have two good to great defenders (Beltre, Betancourt) and two mediocre to bad ones (Lopez – or god-forbid Bloomquist -, Sexson), would it be a good idea to switch Lopez and Betancourt so that each of the weaker defenders has one of the better ones next to him? Or are there so many more balls hit to short that this trumps any advantage of better spreading the defensive range? And could this be an issue influenced by the batters’ and pitchers’ handedness?

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