I am a great defender of Christian Bethancourt's potential to have real value in the MLB. I'm talking Yadier Molina type value. I don't think that's definitely what will happen, but he has that potential.
People continue to be frustrated by him, though, because he has been in the minors for a really long time, and he never has pulled his hitting all together. Despite an okayish year last year, Jason Parks at Baseball Prospectus had this to say, "Defensive profile is very exciting, but the bat has been a disappointment. I'm not optimistic."
On the flip side, after a short period of hitting okayishly in AAA, a groundswell of popular, lay, bandwagon opinion is yelling through the internets, "Bring Bethancourt up to provide positive offensive value because he doesn't completely suck this year like that loser BJ!" This thought was spurred on by a Braves beat writer who claimed the popular, lay, bandwagon opinion is more or less the Front Office's opinion (scary thought in itself).
People are all over the place on Bethancourt, but most (or more accurately, the loudest), are on the extremes wanting him either traded before he is completely sunk cost (due to bat and being blocked by Gattis), or they want him behind the plate in Atlanta right now, moving Gattis to "play" left field and BJ's horrible, no good, very bad [Insert category here: popular options include bat, glove, attitude] to [Insert place here: popular options include the bench, the minors, and Hell].
I think both opinions on this matter are flawed. As I said in the opening paragraph, I think very highly of Bethancourt's potential and his likelihood to reach it. Here is why.
A Look Back in Time:
Lo these seven years ago, in the year of our Lord Two Thousand Ought Eight (or those using alternate time recording methods, MMVIII) the Atlantian Braves signed a wee young lad of but 16 years to become the defender of the plate. After many a year of training, the young boy hath growneth upeth into an older boy who isith now on the cuspeth of leading a force of gallant hurlers of the ball to victory complete....
The point is, Bethancourt has been around awhile, but he is only 22. So he's been in the minors a long time because he signed so young, not because he isn't very good. Also, because he signed so young and he has advanced defensive skills, he has been pushed up the ladder quickly for reasons other than his bat.
If you look at his age compared to the league average age, even the second time through a level he is at a minimum more than two years younger than the average age. He is currently the 11th youngest player in AAA International League. Last year he was the 6th youngest player in AA and 3.2 years younger than the average league age, AND HE WAS REPEATING THE LEVEL. First time through he was 2nd youngest and 4.3 years younger than the average age. He has played against older, more mature, more developed competition for seven straight years.
The Big Picture Ain't So Pretty:
Still, at some point in those seven years, you would expect he would click and take off, instead of showing flashes and then going back to poor offensive performances. His overall line in the minors is strong support for a weak bat. After all, he has seven years of data (2037 plate appearance) to prove he can't hit:
- Overall MiLB: .268/.299/.372. 4% BB; 16% K.
- Non-Expert Conclusion: Them ain't good MiLB numbers!
Baby Breakdown; Go Ahead and Give It To Me:
However, in the minor leagues, all is not equal. It is not similar to MLB in that the people in the league change, but the talent level is pretty stable over time. The minors is a series of steps, and each step brings an increase in quality of competition, especially (in my opinion) going from Rookie to Low A and then from High A to AA. These seem to be points where people who can't hack it get weeded out. And what luck! These happen to be the times Bethancourt has repeated a level!
Looking at his numbers first time and second time through a league gives you an idea of how he is advancing:
- 2010 Low A Rome: .251/.276/.331
- 2011 Low A Rome: .303/.323/.430 (Half Season)
- 2012 AA Miss: .243/.275/.291
- 2013 AA Miss: .276/.305/.435
To me, the jump from AA to AAA is not as big a talent gap as the two above, but it is very good to see him already producing better than he normally does first time through a level. However, he really struggled his first month and he doesn't have a large sample of strong numbers that tell me he's got this hittin' thing down pat.
- 2014 AAA: .269/.296/.363 (through June 16)
- 2014 April: .203/.250/.250
The jump from AAA to MLB is a big jump in talent level as well. I mean, it's THE Show. You have to take off your "prospect" life jacket, and jump into the deep end of the pool. No more floaties!
So What's the Point Ramblin' Man?
1. Bethancourt has a chance to be a productive MLB hitter to go along with great defense behind the plate (I here will acknowledge that I am aware he still needs some polishing on defense, but my focus is on the bat). His track record shows he is learning and adjusting to the advanced talent levels that are usually a little ahead of him, and there is no reason he can't do the same after a year (or two) in the Majors, after a year (or two) in AAA to finish refining his game.
2. There is every indication in the data that he will struggle mightily on offense when he gets to the Real Man Braves, and likely for a frustratingly long time. Patience, young grasshopper. His historical data shows a really weak bat that turns into a mediocre bat with a chance to repeat a level, and there are flashes of a guy who can hit for average, get on base at a reasonable clip, and even provide a touch of power (and maybe hidden in there is a some patience, but it's hidden real good). It might take a couple of seasons for him to make the jump from a below average bat that is playable because of his defense to a bat that is productive on its own merit. But that potential has not disappeared.
Keep in mind that if it takes Bethancourt three more years to realize his full potential, he will only be a 25-year-old on the front end of multiple All-Star seasons that he will be showcasing in a brand new stadium. That is his ceiling, for sure, but it is still attainable.
The long and short of it: there is a reasonable chance that Bethancourt could be a premiere defender at a premiere defensive position who also is a productive offensive player, but it will be a few years before the Braves (or another team) will reap the full reward of the excruciatingly long-term investment in him.
Enough of the Yadi Already:
But since I am using Yadier Molina as a ceiling comparison, it will note that it took Molina about 1,000 MLB PAs before he finally seemed to figure it out offensively, but he was so good defensively he still provided value. In the minors, Molina had a little better command of the strike zone than Bethancourt, but his overall line in the minors isn't that different: .278/.335/.368. About a 6.5% BB and 11% K.
What's This Mean for the Future?
Projecting forward with an eye on the impact of Bethancourt to the Braves current roster, there is a clear impasse at catcher that in essence is a cage match between a hulking white bear and some little punk kid who can't hit much. No one in their right mind would put money on the punk kid.
But I'm a fan of the Biblical account of David and Goliath. I see more long-term potential in the scruffy kid with a good arm than the hulking beast with a big stick. Don't get me wrong, I don't think Gattis has the same attitude issues as Goliath. Quite the opposite, he's as lovable as a teddy bear. I also think highly of his offense and think his defense is adequate. I love him in a Braves uniform right now, and even through next season. But I am not sure he is the long-term answer. I think the big guy might be a big star, but one that fades more quickly due to his size at a demanding physical position. The Braves are already treating him cautiously because of some past knee issues that resurfaced in the offseason.
Bethancourt still has some work to do to reach his potential, and he might have to deal with injuries, there is just no way of telling for sure, but in my opinion he seems the better long-term option behind the plate.
Deal or No Deal?
I reserve the right to disagree with myself based on specifics of any deal, but I would hate to see Bethancourt traded. He could be that good, and the Braves really don't have anyone else within three years of being ready. Plus, I'm ready for Laird and Doumit to move on, not to become our starting catcher if something happens to Gattis.
At a minimum, I hope the Braves let this play out a little longer on its own. Gattis is the man this year; Bethancourt needs a full season in AAA with a September call up. There is no reason to rush a call up or a trade. The Braves have been all in on Bethancourt for going on 8 years; they can give it at least one more to see if it will pay out in Atlanta without really hurting his trade value if he can even show some continued progress with the bat in AAA.