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Christian Bethancourt Suffers from Goldilocks Syndrome

Posted By Mark Smith On February 11, 2013 @ 3:30 pm In Braves,Minor Leagues | 16 Comments

Bill Baer coined the term “Goldilocks Syndrome” to describe when we, as fans, get discouraged with a player or prospect because he isn’t perfect or what we hoped he would be, and Christian Bethancourt isn’t “just right”. Signed out of Panama in 2008, Bethancourt had elite potential behind the plate with good athleticism and an incredibly strong arm. The concern, however, was whether or not he could hit enough to even get the stellar defense to the majors, and four years after his signing, there are still serious concerns about Bethancourt’s bat, especially after hitting .243/.275/.291 in AA Mississippi. Bethancourt’s stock has predictably, and deservedly, fallen from the top prospect ranks, but while he’s no longer a “top prospect”, what can we still expect from him?

The chances of Bethancourt becoming a star have, indeed, fallen. One of Bethancourt’s most common comparisons is Yadier Molina because of their strong arms and inability to hit early in their careers, and the hope was (and still is to some degree) that Bethancourt can make the offensive improvements that Molina has.

Here are Yadier’s career in the minors.

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G PA BA OBP SLG OPS ISO BB% K%
2001 18 Johnson City APPY Rk 44 175 .259 .320 .405 .725 .146 7% 13%
2002 19 Peoria MIDW A 112 430 .280 .331 .384 .715 .104 5% 8%
2003 20 Tennessee SOUL AA 104 397 .275 .327 .332 .660 .057 6% 11%
2004 21 Memphis PCL AAA 37 150 .302 .387 .372 .759 .070 11% 9%

As you can see, Molina moved quickly through the minors. While Yadier was not exactly an offensive force, he wasn’t useless, and his walk rate kept increasing while his strikeout rate generally decreased. Minor-league stats are wrought with danger, but the main points are that he kept moving up and at least held his own, even at a very young age. What about other star catchers? Joe Mauer spent essentially two full seasons in the minors and was in the majors by the age of 21. Brian McCann spent two-ish seasons in the minors and made his debut by 21. Buster Posey and Matt Wieters spent one-ish  seasons in the minors and were up by 23, though they were both drafted out of college. Carlos Santana spent four seasons in the minors and was up at 24, but while he struggled mightily as a 21-year old in  Low-A, he still had a 40/45 BB/K ratio, an ISO over .150, and was very good in his other stops. Miguel Montero spent five seasons in the minors, but he hit the entire way to the Majors at age 22. The general trend seems to be that star catchers (and players in general) don’t spend much time in the minors, and in order for that to happen, they don’t hit too many serious speed bumps.

Bethancourt, however, is no longer on that track.

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G PA BA OBP SLG OPS ISO BB% K%
2008 16 Braves DOSL FRk 34 131 .267 .328 .371 .699 .104 8% 19%
2009 17 2 Teams 2 Lgs Rk 46 187 .277 .342 .446 .788 .169 9% 20%
2009 17 Braves GULF Rk 32 131 .284 .344 .431 .775 .147 8% 17%
2009 17 Danville APPY Rk 14 56 .260 .339 .480 .819 .220 11% 29%
2010 18 Rome SALL A 108 420 .251 .276 .331 .607 .080 3% 15%
2011 19 2 Teams 2 Lgs A-A+ 99 410 .289 .304 .385 .689 .096 3% 15%
2011 19 Rome SALL A 54 235 .303 .323 .430 .753 .127 3% 11%
2011 19 Lynchburg CARL A+ 45 175 .271 .277 .325 .603 .054 2% 20%
2012 20 Mississippi SOUL AA 71 288 .243 .275 .291 .566 .048 4% 16%

The young Panamanian will enter his fifth season in the minors in 2013 and hasn’t hit nearly as well as any of the guys above. Again, the chances of becoming a star (4+ win player) diminish the longer you spend in the minors and the more obstacles you run into, but it’s not entirely impossible that Bethancourt can run into a few All-Star Games. But what we should really ask is if he can still become a starting catcher.

To answer that, we need to understand what a starting catcher (2+ win) is.

Name Team G PA BB% K% ISO AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ Fld WAR
Brian McCann Braves 121 487 9% 16% .169 .230 .300 .399 .300 86 2.5 2.0
Russell Martin Yankees 133 485 11% 20% .192 .211 .311 .403 .316 95 -2.1 2.2
Jarrod Saltalamacchia Red Sox 121 448 9% 31% .232 .222 .288 .454 .319 95 -0.3 2.0
Wilin Rosario Rockies 117 426 6% 23% .260 .270 .312 .530 .356 111 -11.1 1.8
John Buck Marlins 106 398 12% 26% .155 .192 .297 .347 .284 75 1.8 1.2
J.P. Arencibia Blue Jays 102 372 5% 29% .202 .233 .275 .435 .304 89 -1.1 1.3
Jose Molina Rays 102 274 7% 22% .131 .223 .286 .355 .284 81 -0.2 0.9
Martin Maldonado Brewers 78 256 7% 22% .142 .266 .321 .408 .320 99 3.1 1.6

These eight players were worth around 2 wins (or could have been with more playing time) in 2012. Wilin Rosario is the only above-average hitter on the list, and he was atrocious on defense – something Bethancourt is not. Most of the offensive production for the others is well below-average, and two of the catchers with positive defensive value had wOBA of .300 (McCann) and .284 (Buck). The point here is, of course, to show you just how low the bar is to be a decent starter behind the plate in the MLB.

It is fair, however, to ask if Bethancourt can even reach those levels. Bethancourt, after all, just hit worse than all those players, and he was in AA. One thing Bethancourt has going for him is the excellent defense. I’ve seen him a few times behind the plate, and while the receiving still needs some work, the arm is a true weapon. When he was in Lexington playing as a member of Rome, I saw him throw out Delino DeShields, Jr. after the latter got a good jump. Playing catcher helps his value, but being able to do it well lowers the offensive bar he needs to reach. Being elite on one side of the ball has its advantages.

His offense isn’t good, however. Bethancourt is exceedingly aggressive at the plate (4% is his highest walk rate in full season ball), and the aggressiveness hurts his hit and power production. In the games I’ve seen him (both in person and on video), he’s never crushed a ball for me to see his power potential, but I have seen him adjust to hit off-speed pitches and make solid contact. The swing isn’t bad, but the approach is. Bethancourt still has age on his side, though. He’ll play next season at 21, and the average age of the Southern League in 2012 was 24.6, making Bethancourt one of the youngest players in the league. More PA and, hopefully, the failure of 2012 will demonstrate to Bethancourt that he needs to be more selective at the plate. He’s had trouble adjusting to new levels in the past, and the Braves are surely hoping he’ll make a similar adjustment to AA as he did to Low-A in his repeat trip. Bethancourt was overmatched, but that doesn’t mean he didn’t learn anything.

While Bethancourt’s chances of being the star we once hoped have fallen, he can still be a valuable player. If he plays all season in AA and next season in AAA, he will still arrive in the MLB at the age of 23. Although he’s been around for a long time (in respect to prospects), Bethancourt is still ahead of the development curve. Before I go, I failed to mention two of the starters earlier – Martin Maldonado and Jose Molina. Given enough PA, each could have accumulated (statistically) 2+ wins. Here are their minor-league careers:

Martin Maldonado

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G PA BA OBP SLG OPS ISO BB% K%
2004 17 Angels ARIZ Rk 25 65 .217 .277 .233 .510 .016 5% 20%
2005 18 2 Teams 2 Lgs Rk 36 125 .254 .282 .297 .579 .043 3% 12%
2005 18 Angels ARIZ Rk 27 91 .256 .278 .279 .557 .023 2% 10%
2005 18 Orem PION Rk 9 34 .250 .294 .344 .638 .094 6% 18%
2006 19 Angels ARIZ Rk 21 76 .222 .329 .270 .599 .048 9% 16%
2007 20 West Virginia SALL A 66 242 .221 .309 .288 .598 .067 6% 15%
2008 21 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-A+ 65 216 .229 .290 .313 .603 .084 6% 19%
2008 21 Brevard County FLOR A+ 34 110 .266 .352 .351 .703 .085 7% 15%
2008 21 Huntsville SOUL AA 31 106 .194 .225 .276 .501 .082 4% 23%
2009 22 3 Teams 3 Lgs A+-A-AAA 95 341 .201 .295 .257 .552 .056 10% 18%
2009 22 Wisconsin MIDW A 7 22 .105 .182 .105 .287 .000 9% 32%
2009 22 Brevard County FLOR A+ 81 299 .199 .300 .259 .559 .060 10% 17%
2009 22 Nashville PCL AAA 7 20 .333 .350 .389 .739 .056 5% 10%
2010 23 3 Teams 3 Lgs AAA-AA-A+ 96 361 .239 .310 .374 .684 .135 7% 21%
2010 23 Brevard County FLOR A+ 10 37 .121 .189 .121 .310 .000 3% 22%
2010 23 Huntsville SOUL AA 34 123 .252 .347 .369 .716 .117 7% 20%
2010 23 Nashville PCL AAA 52 201 .253 .309 .425 .735 .172 7% 22%
2011 24 2 Teams 2 Lgs AA-AAA 103 401 .287 .373 .436 .809 .149 9% 19%
2011 24 Huntsville SOUL AA 64 241 .264 .349 .370 .719 .106 8% 23%
2011 24 Nashville PCL AAA 39 160 .321 .410 .537 .948 .216 10% 13%
2012 25 Nashville PCL AAA 35 138 .198 .270 .347 .617 .149 7% 27%

Jose Molina

Year Age Tm Lg Lev G PA BA OBP SLG OPS ISO BB% K%
1993 18 2 Teams 2 Lgs Rk-A+ 36 103 .212 .323 .235 .559 .023 14% 12%
1993 18 Cubs GULF Rk 33 94 .218 .322 .244 .566 .026 13% 13%
1993 18 Daytona FLOR A+ 3 9 .143 .333 .143 .476 .000 22% 0%
1994 19 Peoria MIDW A 78 290 .229 .302 .300 .602 .071 8% 21%
1995 20 Daytona FLOR A+ 82 273 .236 .336 .296 .632 .060 11% 19%
1996 21 Rockford MIDW A 96 355 .226 .310 .285 .596 .059 10% 20%
1997 22 3 Teams 3 Lgs A+-AAA 93 322 .224 .294 .285 .579 .061 8% 17%
1997 22 Daytona FLOR A+ 55 201 .251 .306 .313 .619 .062 7% 12%
1997 22 Orlando SOUL AA 37 117 .172 .267 .232 .500 .060 10% 24%
1997 22 Iowa AA AAA 1 4 .333 .500 .333 .833 .000 25% 25%
1998 23 West Tenn SOUL AA 109 368 .222 .296 .278 .574 .056 9% 20%
1999 24 2 Teams 2 Lgs AAA-AA 88 307 .251 .313 .353 .665 .102 7% 22%
1999 24 West Tenn SOUL AA 14 39 .171 .211 .257 .468 .086 5% 36%
1999 24 Iowa PCL AAA 74 268 .263 .327 .367 .694 .104 7% 20%
2000 25 Iowa PCL AAA 76 275 .234 .296 .282 .578 .048 8% 22%
2001 26 Salt Lake PCL AAA 61 235 .300 .349 .432 .781 .132 6% 21%
2002 27 Salt Lake PCL AAA 79 315 .307 .341 .410 .751 .103 4% 19%

Neither was terribly good offensively, and neither made to the majors quickly. They’ve made major-league careers because they were strong defenders who weren’t completely abysmal at the plate. That’s not good enough for Goldilocks, but it’s good enough to be a very valuable player under team control.


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