I know it’s not like me to use such a provocative, declarative headline. Truth be told, I’d be more comfortable with “Yuniesky Betancourt Hasn’t Changed a Bit, Probably”, just so I can cover all my bases. But here we are, and I think it needs to be said, on the heels of Betancourt slamming his eighth dinger of the still very young regular season. This is a time for sanity, in the midst of something very much insane.
The Blue Jays are 13-21, and John Buck has ten home runs. The Dodgers are 13-19, and Dexter Fowler has eight home runs. The Angels are 11-21, and Yuniesky Betancourt also has eight home runs. When something early in the season takes you by complete surprise, it’s worth re-evaluating your expectations, rather than sticking to your guns. But just because you re-evaluate doesn’t mean you have to change your position, and if Betancourt’s changed at 31 years old, it’s showing up in only one place.
The first dinger came on April 16. The most recent came Tuesday, off Justin Grimm. Because the Internet gives Betancourt an awful lot of crap, I feel obligated to note that the pitch he hit out was a pretty good pitch, a low changeup on the edge of the zone in a 2-and-1 count. Betancourt doesn’t swing at everything for no reason. He’s over-aggressive because he trusts himself to do damage. Sometimes damage is done:
Incidentally, that led to one of my new favorite screenshots, featuring the Rangers’ pitching coach:
Betancourt, now, has a comparable isolated slugging percentage to those belonging to Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Mark Trumbo. This isn’t some twisted, cherry-picked fun fact, like how Chone Figgins out-homered Albert Pujols last April. Braun, Fielder, and Trumbo have all been terrific this year. Betancourt’s been right there with them, at least power-wise. That’s remarkable company, and that’s why people are wondering what Betancourt is up to. The idea was that the Brewers made a mistake by becoming the second team to acquire Betancourt on purpose twice. The Royals would regret it, but the Brewers have in part been carried by a supposed replacement-level infielder.
To be fair, Betancourt isn’t entirely unchanged, as he’s made strides in speaking English. But it’s hard to imagine how that would correlate to on-field results, and Ron Roenicke thinks Betancourt is just a different guy. Those aren’t my words.
“I like what he’s doing, obviously,” manager Ron Roenicke said. “I don’t know if the pitches per at-bat show that, but he’s different. He’s taking pitches – especially the first pitch.”
“Yuni, to keep driving the ball like he’s doing, it’s impressive. But he’s squaring up a lot of baseballs. [Rangers third baseman Adrian] Beltre made a nice play on him down the line that we could have got another run on. But [Betancourt], he’s different. He’s seeing the ball different. I know he’s still not walking.”
Roenicke believes there’s a changed approach behind the changed results. It’s not impossible, but beyond the home runs, there’s hardly any evidence. Let’s compare Betancourt now to Betancourt the first time Roenicke managed him, with the Brewers in 2011 when everyone wanted him gone:
Betancourt has swung at a slightly lower rate of first pitches. But it’s still above average, and relative to 2011, Betancourt’s gotten ahead 1-and-0 less often, by just a little. As for the rest of that table, it might as well have one data row instead of two. Betancourt hasn’t been taking more pitches. He hasn’t been working longer plate appearances, and he hasn’t been laying off more balls. Betancourt’s swung and made contact, and this year he’s made better contact than he did a few years ago. This year, he’s made better contact than he has in any professional season.
And his track record is too long to believe that it’s real. Betancourt’s always had some power, and he’s always had an ability to make the ball carry longer than it seems like it should based on the swing, but Betancourt’s never been a slugger, and of his eight 2013 home runs, not one has traveled 400 feet. His average is 388 feet — seven feet below the league mark. If Betancourt were stronger, we’d expect to see that reflected in the distance data. If Betancourt were more disciplined, we’d expect to see that reflected in the plate-discipline data. Instead, what we have is a guy who’s hit an unusual number of home runs, with nothing else to back it up.
And it has to be noted that Betancourt’s done this very thing before. In 2010, Betancourt was a Royal, and he went to bed the night of August 3 with a .665 OPS. He homered on August 4, he homered on September 1, and he homered six other times in between. Over 86 plate appearances, Betancourt slugged eight dingers, and this year he’s at eight over his last 79. The rest of the way in 2010, Betancourt hit one home run and posted a .572 OPS, and then in 2011 he became a Brewer that everyone hated. Betancourt’s homer surge isn’t unprecedented, even for Betancourt. The last time, it wasn’t a sign he was any better. The last time, it was just a flash of his ultimate offensive ceiling, or if you prefer, the top of Betancourt’s positive offensive error bar.
This is a demonstration of what Betancourt’s capable of, because after all, he was the one hitting the baseballs. But this isn’t a demonstration of what Betancourt can do consistently, any more than the Marlins demonstrated anything when they put 14 runs up on the Phillies without Giancarlo Stanton or Logan Morrison. Pretty much every player in baseball is capable of hitting a home run. Which means pretty much every player in baseball is capable of a home-run surge. That’s within the range of probability, but players can and do perform at extremes without anything being different. We’re the ones who’re programmed to assume there are differences. Roenicke claimed that Betancourt is different, but then, what was he supposed to say, when pressed? Betancourt has looked different, but odds are he is not actually different.
Because I don’t feel right just being critical of Betancourt during a stretch like this, no matter what happens from this point forward he’s already come up big when the Brewers needed him to, playing at points without the injured Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez. When they’re both in the lineup, Betancourt should return to the bench, where he won’t much matter. It’s been a well-timed hot streak, and again, Betancourt has hit all the home runs. Those can’t be taken away. But it’ll be a test of the Brewers to see how much they trust Betancourt in the future. The rest of the season, Betancourt is projected to be about replacement-level, meaning that’s how he should be evaluated. There’s something to be said for letting a guy end his own hot streak, but there’s also something to be said for not playing the wrong player just because he’s put up short-term good numbers.
The good news is that what’s done is done. The good news is that Brewers fans like Betancourt now, because the key to winning fans over is being good instead of bad. Betancourt has been good when the Brewers really needed there to be some good players. But Betancourt’s done this in the past, not long before Brewers fans came to hate him. There’s little meaningful evidence that he’s made better his approach. At one time, I would’ve believed in a Yuniesky Betancourt breakout. That was more than two stints with both the Royals and the Brewers ago.
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