Yuniesky Betancourt revisited

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A hot streak leads to a reassessment of a journeyman player who has been thrust into an unlikely starting role -- and is living up to the burden.

Seven days ago, I wrote a column looking at the Brewers' then-ongoing nine-game winning streak. I argued that the Brewers had a strong chance of making a run at the NL Central title, but they needed to act now because the Reds and the Cardinals are likely to overcome their current inconsistency in the long run. My main suggestion was to try alternatives to Yuniesky Betancourt and Alex Gonzalez at the corners rather than waiting for Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez to return from injury. At that moment, Brewers first basemen were hitting .212/.274/.379, and their third basemen were hitting .212/.250/.364. I haven't checked, but I feel confident in asserting that not too many teams have reached the postseason while receiving so little production from both infield corners.

Shortly after the column went up, I heard from a couple of readers suggesting that I was wrong about Betancourt, that he really hadn't been that bad. At that time, Betancourt was hitting .245/.276/.472, and I still think my diagnosis as of that moment was the correct one -- but things have changed.

Betancourt's slugging percentage as of the morning of April 23 was the result of three doubles and three home runs in 53 at-bats. That wasn't totally surprising given both the small sample and Betancourt's strengths -- his career slugging percentage is only .395, but he's always had decent pop for a shortstop, as you can see by looking at his isolated power(extra bases per at-bat) from 2005-2012 (3000 plate appearance minimum):

RK

Player

ISO

PA

1

Troy Tulowitzki

.212

3177

2

Hanley Ramirez

.199

4029

3

Jimmy Rollins

.173

5342

4

Jhonny Peralta

.170

3916

5

Stephen Drew

.168

3417

5

J.J. Hardy

.168

3953

7

Miguel Tejada

.159

3573

8

Jose Reyes

.151

5035

8

Alex Gonzalez

.151

3088

10

Rafael Furcal

.123

4239

10

Yuniesky Betancourt

.123

3641

12

Derek Jeter

.119

5651

13

Marco Scutaro

.117

3637

14

Edgar Renteria

.114

3565

15

Yunel Escobar

.108

3311


Of course, Escobar isn't being asked to play shortstop right now. He's started all of his games at first or third base. Last year, the average major-league first baseman had an ISO of .180, while the average third baseman's was .161. This year, the two positions' ISO are .167 and .145, respectively. As such, we wouldn't normally think of Betancourt as having the kind of power that would sustain those two positions.

More importantly, we wouldn't expect him to have the kind of on-base percentage that would be acceptable from one of the primary offensive positions. That Betancourt's production seemed acceptable anyway was, I suspect, an artifact of our habit of using OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) as a shorthand for offensive quality. If you looked at Betancourt only from that perspective, you would have seen an OPS of 750 and might have concluded, "Well, the average first baseman is only around 760, so maybe Betancourt isn't setting the world on fire, but he's not so far off the pace that the Brewers need to make a change."

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Insofar as OPS goes, one would have been right. The problem is that OPS is a junk stat. It combines two unlike things and treats them as if they have equal value. Players have two functions at bat: getting on base and moving runners around the bases. The former is more important than the latter; hitting a single or drawing a walk may do less than a double or a home run to provoke scoring, but it's far superior to making an out -- you only get 27 of those a day, and every one a player uses up on offense brings the game that much closer to extinction.

At that moment, Betancourt was succeeding at one of his two tasks, but failing at the other, more important one. Given his career record, it seemed likely -- it still seems likely -- that at some point he would fail to do even that. And here we get into tricky territory. Sure, players sometimes have years that are totally out of character, but they don't happen all that often and you can't know if that's what you're seeing until it's over. Until then, a team is just trying to ride a hot streak until it's over -- but how do you know when it's over? After one 0-for? Three? What if the player mixes a 2-for-4 in with a series of bad days? Does that reset your thinking? You're counting on the manager to have a feel for the player's possibilities that is wholly based on intuition rather than any observable facts. It was for these reasons that I suggested the Brewers audition a young player with at least some upside rather than stick with Betancourt and Gonzalez, who had demonstrated over their careers that they really couldn't hit the way the Brewers need them to.

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Since then, Betancourt has complicated the situation in a good way by getting hot. In six games since I wrote my column, he's gone 9-for-24 (.375) with a double and two home runs. He's driven in eight runs and scored three. You can't really argue with .375/.375/.667 no matter who the player is or how he goes about putting it together, nor with Betancourt's overall .286/.305/.532 line. Maybe the OBP still isn't what you'd want from a first baseman (the effects of which are suggested by his scoring only one run when not driving himself in), but we're talking about what is basically 31 percent for Betancourt versus 34 percent for the average first baseman and 32 percent for the average third baseman. It's good enough. That assessment is borne out by looking at an overall offensive stat like wOBA, which shows Betancourt ranking 12th among both major-league first basemen and third basemen. It's not star-level production, but it will do until the starters come back.

The Brewers' best-case scenario has Corey Hart returning to play first base when he is eligible on May 30, while Ramirez may be back as soon as this week. Between Ramirez's accelerated timetable and Betancourt's accelerated production, any sense of urgency the Brewers might have had about making a change should be gone -- certainly the urgency I felt on their behalf is. Ramirez can take his rightful place at third and they can string along with Betancourt at first until Hart returns. Subpar replacements like Martin Maldonado and Alex Gonzalez can take a well-deserved place on the bench for now, and when Hart returns Betancourt can take their place at the head of the line for the next opening. Then the Brewers get to hope that his production is "real" all over again.

In surviving the injuries they had this spring, as well as painfully slow starts by Rickie Weeks and Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers have received some wonderful performances from unexpected sources like Carlos Gomez (.349/.393/.602) and Jean Segura (.364/.398/.534). You can add Betancourt to the list. He's been harshly derided in the past, and was released twice between August and March, and that makes the surprise that much sweeter. I'm glad to have been wrong about Betancourt, and I hope he keeps on proving me wrong -- but I'm also glad that the Brewers won't have to depend on his doing so for much longer.

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