Yuniesky Betancourt Hasn’t Changed a Bit

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:

betancourthr_location

Incidentally, that led to one of my new favorite screenshots, featuring the Rangers’ pitching coach:

betancourthr_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.”

And from Tuesday:

“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:

Year uBB% K% Pit/PA GB% O-Swing% Swing% Contact%
2011 2% 11% 3.2 42% 38% 56% 86%
2013 2% 12% 3.2 42% 38% 56% 86%

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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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


24 Responses to “Yuniesky Betancourt Hasn’t Changed a Bit”

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  1. Dayton Moore says:

    I wonder if Milwaukee would take Hosmer off our hands. I really don’t want to miss Yuni’s breakout season now that it’s finally here.

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  2. Fatbot says:

    Nice read, thanks! Batted ball data is interesting. Amazing how the swing at everything’s worked for the mental hot mess that is Hamilton and the fat sex offender (alleged) Panda, but not poor Yuni. Maybe Yuni needs more bathroom hookups to succeed at it.

    Hope your next article looks at the anti-Yuni, Lucas Duda, who apparently now wouldn’t swing at a ball even if it was placed on a tee.

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    • joser says:

      It hasn’t worked consistently for Hamilton. Just when it does work for a while, it gets noticed.

      As for the rest of your comment, surely there’s a tabloid comments section that will welcome you.

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  3. ecocd says:

    Yuni had a similar stretch of productivity in 2011 when Rickie Weeks went down with an injury and he was a key part of the Brewers crazy winning streak that July/August. One could easily argue the Brewers wouldn’t have been in a place where they needed his extreme production in July/August if they had someone competent in place for the duration of the year. As it happened, however, Yuni was a key component to the offense when they needed someone to step up.

    Lo and behold, 2 years later, he’s a key component to the offense when they needed someone to step up. If the Brewers really do sit him when/if Hart gets healthy, then against all odds, he’ll have been a good addition to the club.

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  4. attgig says:

    I have John Buck, Dexter Fowler, and Yuniesky Betancourt all on my fantasy team…

    I should get some sort of award or something….

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  5. Razor says:

    Looks to me like the only thing really different out of his career averages so far has been his IFFB%. Any reason why that could be a more permanant change, or all just attributed to a SSS?

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  6. jwise224 says:

    This makes me really wonder the value of acquiring and holding onto players that have these occasional breakouts. I mean, there’s got to be a reason that teams continue to hold onto guys like Betancourt in the first place aside from no plate discipline and poor defense. Are teams purposely making cheap deals for players like Yuni (mostly-bust-but-occasional-boom) hoping that they can capitalize on a potential hot streak?

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    • Robby says:

      ” Are teams purposely making cheap deals for players like Yuni (mostly-bust-but-occasional-boom) hoping that they can capitalize on a potential hot streak?”

      All you have to do is take a look at the veteran guys that sign minor league or veteran minimum deals during the offseason, whether he be coming off a bad season or an injury. I can think of a number of these deals that have paid off, at least for the Brewers, in the last few years.

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  7. We’re all going to miss Yuniesky Betancourt when he’s gone.

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  8. Steve says:

    This just further illustrates that all of these guys, even the crappy ones, are just really really good at baseball. Although, the following line made Ben Revere sad. “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.”

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  9. BalkingHeads says:

    “of his eight 2013 home runs, not one has traveled 400 feet.” That seems so improbable. Maybe you can do a follow up of something like the weakest home run prowess? I’m not sure how to phrase it well, but I hope you get it. Good stuff as always, Jeff.

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    • joser says:

      HitTrackerOnline categorizes HRs into three buckets based on how many parks they would’ve flown out of: “No Doubt”, “Just Enough” and “Lucky.” Who’s at the top of the Just Enough leaderboard? Yuniesky Betancourt, with 5 (tied with Coco Crisp and J. Upton); he also has one “Lucky” HR (as does Crisp).

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  10. Yuniesky Betancourt says:

    False. This season, I’m out-WARing Albert Pujols, Josh Hamilton, and Mike Trout…combined.

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  11. Clark Westerfield says:

    Yuniesky Betancourt HAS changed: That statue no longer plays SS.

    Brewers fans get to watch Genie Boy Segura instead.

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  12. NY Expat says:

    Interestingly, Betancourt *was* more selective earlier this year, and all last year:

    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=20296

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