Pictured: the subject likely committing an error. - Harry How
The story of a bad shortstop, set to "Pancho and Lefty."
2012 Totals: 57 games, .228/.256/.400, 7 HR, 36 RBI, 0 SB, -0.8 fWAR
2013 Bill James projections: 113 games, .59/.287/.396, 9 HR, 46 RBI, 2 SB
2013 ZIPS projections: 114 games, .258/.286/.414, 12 HR, 62 RBI, 2 SB, 0
So, full disclosure: when I was brainstorming my player preview for Yuniesky Betancourt, I totally thought about making it conceptual because, "lol Yuniesky Betancourt." It was going to be a television script for a mock-sitcom called "Yuni!" where, knowing that his manager would be furious over his player's Fangraphs Report Card, Yuni concocted some scheme to hide the report but failed because of bad plate discipline or an error or something. And then the manager would sit him down and have an important talk about honesty and taking a pitch every so often, and Yuni would learn a valuable lesson. The beauty of this setup is that, as in sitcom reality, Yuni never really seems to learn any lasting lessons about good baseball, so it could've been a weekly thing. Gold! I also thought about copying FuquaManuel's legendary preview on Michael Martinez, but I couldn't draw that particular mustache on that particular Mona Lisa.
But the reason I thought about doing all of this was that Yuniesky Betancourt is not an interesting baseball player. I mean, he's interesting-bad in a lot of ways, and this is why he's become something of a punchline in sabermetric circles. But even his awfulness isn't terribly interesting: it isn't as if we could have a disagreement about it with a caller on WIP; it isn't as if Betancourt is Michael Young, who is at least controversial in his talent.
Yes, Betancourt has a .260 career batting average, and someone somewhere will tell you that that's pretty good for a shortstop. But unless they're just rabidly, frothingly against any version of being on base, the career .290 OBP will shut them up right quick. You may have also heard that Betancourt brings power to the shortstop position, as well, and this seems somewhat true, as he hit 16 home runs in 2010 and 13 in 2011, his last two years as a full time starter. And yet, his slugging percentage is a pedestrian 392. To put that in perspective, here are some of the vaunted power threats who clocked in at around Yuni's career SLG last year: Ichiro Suzuki (390), Alcides Escobar (390), and Michael Bourn (391). Juggernauts, all!
But it should be said that the three guys above did all have at least 2 fWAR last year, compared to Yuni's -0.8, so what was different? Well, they all got on base at a better clip, but we've already docked Betancourt for that, so let's not beat a dead horse. They also all were fairly solid on the basepaths, but as I'm not especially familiar with Fangraphs' "BsR" stat, I'll abstain from commenting in too much depth on that; suffice it to say that Betancourt has a career 30 stolen bases, and a career 30 caught stealings, and that should properly convey the existential dread of Yuni's baserunning. But the stat that interested me the most (Escobar, for whatever reason, excluded) was the defensive metric, and, like many other baseball related tidbits, I became interested in it by trolling around Fangraphs looking at past articles. Yuni's defense, while abysmal, was also what made me change my mind and write a straight, as opposed to deeply sarcastic and mean account of the man's ability as a player.
Jeff Sullivan penned an article back in January, covering the Phillies' continued efforts to play to type/emulate the World Champion San Francisco Giants in signing low-walk, veteran presence guys wherever they could be found. Sullivan had two correct takeaways: one, Betancourt was signed on a minor-league deal, so it's unfair to excoriate the Phillies for taking a low-risk flier on a guy; but two, there was very little left to hope for vis-a-vis that flier, particularly as concerned Yuni's defense. Because what I did not know, and what you may not know, is that Yuniesky Betancourt was once considered a promising prospect, but not for his bat -- for his (now famously terrible) glove. He was a mostly-glove shortstop who, if he didn't quite have a promising bat, could provide decent value through his glove.And then...it disappeared. For no apparent reason, Betancourt stopped being a wizard on the field and started being a butcher. It would be as if all the hew and cry on WIP about Chase Utley's defense suddenly came true; it would be as if Freddy Galvis suddenly lost the one very valuable skill that he has. And watching the gifs that Sullivan posted, it was, most of all, kind of sad.
Now, understand, I have my criticisms of Fangraphs, some of which I have/hope to soon publish here. I think they can understate the sticky fact that all of these players are actual people, for one thing, sublimating them into a instrumentalized kind of calculus. I don't think this is intentional, nor do I think it's something that is systemic to sabermetric analysis, but I think it becomes pretty easy to hate a guy like Betancourt for just being not that good at baseball. A sliding scale of how much one should hate a person is kind of a rough thing, and Sullivan gets beyond that quite well -- no invective about Betancourt as a person, more a simple claim that he's just not very good at baseball. But to my mind, through discretion, he misses the more interesting take on Yuni: that he used to be valuable. He was never that valuable -- his best mark was 1.7 fWAR in 2006 -- but if the Fan Scouting Reports are to be believed (and are they significantly worse or less reliable than UZR or TotalZone or Range Factor?), most of this value came from being able to properly field a baseball. And now, among all his other warts, that's the worst skill he has as a baseball player.
That's hard for me to imagine, even to analogize: to have your greatest talent become your worst. I don't even know what that would look like for my life, let alone in general. But as the Phillies likely will never give Betancourt much of a role in 2013, this untranslatable, somber thought seems to me the only thing I can take away thus far from his strange and (hopefully) brief appearance on the team. Betancourt -- like the Dayton Moores and Ruben Amaros who continue to sign him -- is a punchline in baseball circles, and far be it for me to kill that joke. But it's also surprising to find out that Betancourt is kind of a tragic figure, as much as one can have a tragedy on the field. Like Steve Blass, Steve Sax, or Rick Ankiel, there's something deeply sad -- though far less dramatic -- in Betancourt's inexplicable deterioration.
He was good at a critical part of playing baseball, and then he wasn't. Probably if he plays at all in 2013, he won't be good at that part of baseball once again. That's the joke.