This is an article I was sort of hoping I wouldn’t have to write, and I’m still not sure needs to be written now.
But in light of Yuniesky Betancourt’s recent hot streak, which coincides with the birth of his first child*, I think the time is right.
*: It seems like half the players on the club have had children this season. And it seems like they’ve all played exceedingly well afterwards**.
**: Maybe Manny Ramirez was on to something when he was caught using fertility drugs as a performance enhancer.
Over an 11-game stretch from August 3rd to 18th, Betancourt was 16-for-38 (.421) with five homers. Even after an 0-for-4 performance on Thursday, as I write this he’s hitting .267/.287/.422 for the season. His .422 slugging average would be a career best, and his 12 homers are already a career high. His OPS+ of 91 is a hair’s breadth behind his career-best of 93, set in 2007, when he hit .289/.308/.418 for the Mariners.
There’s no denying that Yuni is having a better season that most people, yours truly included, expected. But I will say that the recent fawning over him is a bit much.
Nothing grates me more than the line, which I’ve seen repeated in a bunch of different media outlets, that Betancourt is leading the Royals in home runs. I hate to be a stick in the mud, people, but HE’S NOT LEADING THE TEAM IN HOME RUNS. Jose Guillen is. Just because Guillen was designated for assignment doesn’t mean his homers don’t count. (And the fact that Guillen was DFA’ed, despite leading the team in homers, should tell you not to put too much stock in that accomplishment.)
Still, if you want to give credit to Betancourt for ranking second on the team in homers, as a shortstop, go right ahead. Just don’t forget to point out that along with his 12 homers, he also has exactly 12 walks. He might lead all current Royals in homers, but he also ranks dead last on the Royals in walks (among player with more than 150 PA). Betancourt has drawn a walk in just 2.8% of his plate appearances; the only Royals with a lower walk rate are either 1) pitchers or 2) Jai Miller, who has batted once.
So please, people, keep things in perspective. Betancourt has shown some pop, yes. That doesn’t make up for the fact that of the 145 players who have batted 400 or more times this year, he ranks dead last in walks drawn. Every other player has walked at least 18 times.
Never forget: power is nice, but OBP is life. Betancourt’s .287 OBP ranks third from the bottom among those same 145 players. That’s not an inconvenience, or a blemish on an otherwise sterling stat line. That is the single most important offensive statistic in the game, and Betancourt’s performance in that category is beyond awful.
So if we can agree that Betancourt, while a surprisingly good hitter this season, is nowhere near the best hitter on the ballclub, I’ll agree that he’s been a much better player than I expected him to be.
No analysis of Betancourt is complete without an evaluation, or perhaps a humiliation, of his defense. His glovework, or lack thereof, was the single biggest reason analysts like me panned the trade for him. His defense also represents a flashpoint in the minor skirmish that still takes place at times between statheads and scouts. (Or at least Royals scouts.) At the time the trade was made, the Royals were comfortable saying that Betancourt was at least an average defensive shortstop. Meanwhile, every 21st-century defensive stat evaluated Betancourt’s defense as among the worst, if not the worst, of any everyday shortstop in the majors.
Specifically, the defensive metric of choice at Fangraphs (Ultimate Zone Rating, or UZR), which graded Betancourt’s defense as exactly average in 2005 and 2006, ranked him 4 runs below average in 2007, 11 runs below average in 2008, and an amazing 17 runs below average in 2009. The defensive metric favored by Baseball Info Solutions gave him similar scores: dead average in 2005 and 2006, then -7, -13, and -19 over the next three years.
There’s been a lot of talk this season that Betancourt’s defense looks better, at least to the naked eye. I would share in that assessment; at least 2 or 3 times this year I’ve seen him make plays on balls headed up the middle that he wouldn’t have reached last year. Of course, in each case they were grounders that a good defensive shortstop would have gobbled up like candycorn before throwing onto first for a routine play, but in Betancourt’s case, he was only able to reach them by lunging for them, snaring them into his glove in a full dive, then getting to his feet before nipping the runner at first.
In other words, he’s looked better. He hasn’t looked good. And the numbers back that up. UZR ranks Betancourt’s defense as 7 runs below average so far; BIS is even less charitable, ranking his defense 14 runs below average already. A third defensive metric, Total Zone, ranks Betancourt’s defense as dead average this year after being 12 runs below average last year.
Defensive metrics are imperfect, and so it is best to take a look at multiple different measures to get the most accurate picture. Averaging these three different metrics together, and we can estimate that Betancourt was 16 runs below average last year, and 7 runs below average so far this year. Again: he’s better. He’s still not good.
Nonetheless, he can make a pretty play in the hole, as he did in the ninth inning to preserve victories on back-to-back nights earlier this week. His supporters will point to plays like those as proof that the numbers can’t be right. To which I say: we’ve been down this road before.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before…a shortstop with a solid defensive reputation, but brutal defensive numbers…a shortstop who makes the highlight reels with dazzling plays in the hole but who is an absolute sieve on balls hit to his left. Sound familiar? It should, since I just described Derek Jeter.
I think the battle over Betancourt’s defense is the war over Jeter’s defense writ small. Betancourt moves well to his right, has a strong arm, and can make the flashy play from the hole. But he simply has no range to his left. He’s a little more mobile this year, but it’s still a problem, and there’s no reason to expect it to get better.
Admitting you have a problem is Step One, and it would be nice if the Royals acknowledge that Betancourt has an issue. Prior to the 2009 season, the Yankees and Derek Jeter publicly acknowledged that his Gold Glove reputation aside, he could stand to work on his lateral movement, and he focused his off-season exercises with that specific flaw in mind. As a result, Jeter – at the age of 35 – had arguably the best defensive numbers of his career.
That’s a textbook case of a team using statistics as a tool – not as the end-all and be-all, but as a tool – to make their team better. I don’t expect the Royals to acknowledge that Betancourt’s defense is still subpar. But it’s not too much to ask that they acknowledge that his defense could be improved. He’s clearly made some strides this year, but he just as clearly has a ways to go.
Alright, enough dancing around the main point of this article. I’m not prepared to concede that we were wrong about Betancourt. He’s put up some nice power numbers, but we’re still talking about a bad defensive shortstop with a .287 OBP. The Royals are on the hook for $3 million of his $4 million salary next year, plus a $2 million buyout of his 2012 option. That is to say, the Royals will pay him $5 million in 2011. As well as he’s played this year, if Betancourt was put on the trade market after the season, does anyone really think there would be any interest in him? Unless the Royals kicked in some money, I’d say no. Which is to say that even now, even with the Mariners paying some of his salary, Betancourt’s contract has no value.
And I still won’t concede that we were wrong about Betancourt, because everything I know about the situation at the time was that the Royals didn’t have to pay the price that they did. The Mariners were desperate to get rid of him. The Royals could have had the Mariners pick up more money, or do the deal without including Dan Cortes. (Cortes, by the way, was finally moved to the bullpen by Seattle a few weeks ago – a move that was long predicted – and has been dominant in that role: in 13 innings out of the bullpen in Double-A, he allowed just one run and struck out 20, and since being promoted to Triple-A he’s allowed one run in four innings.)
But if I’m not prepared to concede that we were wrong, I am prepared to concede that Dayton Moore was right. Moore was frank about the reason he made the trade at the time: that he didn’t see Betancourt as an All-Star player, but that he was better than anything the Royals had on hand, and the money the Royals would have to pay him was perfectly reasonable for an everyday player.
I hated the trade as much for what Betancourt represented – a giant middle finger to those of who believe that statistics matter – as who he was. But if you take the personal feelings out of the equation, the fact is that Moore was, generally speaking, right. Betancourt has been unquestionably better than the alternatives the Royals had on hand. This is an indictment of Moore’s work, that three years after he was hired the Royals were still forced into hoping that Tony Pena Jr. would hit, or that no one would notice that they were actually starting Willie Bloomquist at shortstop on a regular basis.
If the Royals had not traded for Betancourt, they would once again be petitioning the federal government to declare the area between second and third base a disaster zone. Jeff Bianchi, the one prospect in the system who might have been big-league ready, tore his elbow in spring training. Mike Aviles came back faster than expected from Tommy John surgery of his own, but he hasn’t shown nearly the fielding chops he did as a rookie. The Royals likely would have gone out of the system to find a stopgap anyway, and they would have been hard-pressed to find a player that would have matched Betancourt’s 1.3 Wins Above Replacement this season.
(Quick aside: how much of the credit we’re giving Betancourt should be reflected onto Kevin Seitzer? When you consider the talent the Royals had in the lineup at the beginning of the season, it’s a miracle that the team has even hit as well as it has. Jose Guillen, given up for dead, had an above average OPS+ before he was let go. Scott Podsednik, who had hit .270 just once in the last four years, hit .310 before he was traded. David DeJesus had the best numbers of his career before he got hurt. Wilson Betemit is having one of the great half-seasons in Royals history. And Betancourt has been more than tolerable at the plate. If only he can get Kila to hit…)
I don’t think the Betancourt trade is going to go down in the books as a win for the Royals in a strict accounting sense. The Royals gave up a potential quality reliever for the right to slightly overpay a below-average shortstop. But in a strategic sense, the trade is looking more and more like a small victory. In 2010, at least, Betancourt has done everything the Royals expected him to do. Good for him, and good for them.
As you know, I’ve taken a much softer stance towards Moore this year, for a variety of reasons, primarily the farm system, but also out of recognition that almost every GM makes dumb decisions occasionally, and that it’s not fair to judge Moore in a vacuum. On that note, as hard as it is for me to believe that he’s won this round, as a Royals fan I’m happy that what looked like Moore’s signature move of incompetence instead has me looking like the fool. I’m happy to play the fool this time around, if it means having a GM who might not be the fool I thought he was.
Then again, I was right about Mike Jacobs. And Kyle Farnsworth. And overworking Gil Meche. And Jose Guillen. And Horacio Ramirez. And Jason Kendall. And…
Addendum: As I put this post to bed, the Royals have just completed an epic double-header with the White Sox, a double-header which didn’t start until 6:10 PM, featured a pair of extra-inning games, and was briefly delayed due to a power failure. And it was one of the best days of Yuniesky Betancourt’s career. In the opener, he cost the Royals early with a defensive misplay, but made up for it and then some in the 7th inning, hitting a game-tying, two-out grand slam. It was his third grand slam of the season, which not only tied for the major-league lead but also tied the all-time Royals’ single season record held by Danny Tartabull. He came up again with the game still tied in the ninth, with two out and nobody on, and doubled. He did not score then, but in the 11th, he batted again with two outs, this time with the winning run on third, and delivered the walk-off single.
And then, in the nightcap, he batted in the ninth with the Royals down a run, and Mitch Maier on third base – and once again lined a single up the middle to tie the game. The Royals gave up the go-ahead run in the tenth, and lost because they couldn’t find a way to get Yuni to the plate one more time.
The most surprising thing about his performance, though, was this: in the second game, at nearly 1 in the morning, with Betancourt representing the Royals’ final hope in the ninth – I was able to root for him unabashedly, with no mixed feelings at all. I’ve put my reservations behind me, and learned to embrace Yuni, warts and all. He’s not my kind of player. But he’s still my player. And he’s a better player than I ever thought he’d be.