Position Roundtables: Starting Shortstop
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.
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.