Recently, I argued that the Braves made a mistake by not trading the expiring contract of a productive A.J. Pierzynski. You can read the article here in which I discussed in detail why trading him was the right choice, but it centered around two reasons:
- To gain a prospect that might have future value
- To clear a spot for Christian Bethancourt to start the rest of the season
The article garnered a good bit of discussion (which I expected) and several have made good points I hadn’t considered (which I also expected). Maybe the return offered to the Braves didn’t outweigh his value as a mentor to the pitchers. Maybe Pierzynski could return to the backup role in order to promote Christian Bethancourt, allowing him to serve as a mentor to the pitchers as well as the young catcher. These suggestions – and others – have merit. Thanks.
However, I would say more than half the comments I read had nothing to do with Pierzynski’s value and everything to do with Bethancourt’s value, or perceived lack thereof. Many dismissed my second reason to trade Pierzynski simply because they have completely given up on Bethancourt as a prospect.
I emphatically disagree with anyone who claims Bethancourt is done as a prospect.
I disagree enough that I need to follow my last article with a brief (for me) article focused on why we can reasonably hope Bethancourt blossoms into the next full-time catcher of the Atlanta Braves.
Before getting to my list, I want to make one quick clarification. Many misunderstand my bullish optimism in Bethancourt as certainty that he will be a great catcher. That is NOT what I am saying. He could fall on his face and never even make it as a backup. What I AM saying is that it is still much too early to say for certain he will never make it. My point is that there is still a reasonable chance for him to grow into a productive MLB catcher by 2017. My main desire is for the Braves to give him regular MLB playing time – and I mean at least a solid half season of starting – before prematurely cutting ties with him and moving on.
Five Reasons to Hope in Christian Bethancourt:
Reason 1: Age
Christian Bethancourt was signed by the Braves in 2008 and is in his eighth year in the Braves minor league system. We have heard about this guy for a while, and it’s likely led to a bit of prospect fatigue. It also has led some to think he should be a finished product by now. But remember, he was signed as an International Free Agent at the age of 16, and spent the first couple years in rookie leagues at an age when most players are still in high school. He has not lingered at a level, but was pushed fairly aggressively. It wasn’t until AA that he really had the chance to repeat a level (2012 and 2013). By the time he reached AAA in 2014, he was just 22, the 7th youngest player in the International League.
Bethancourt's Age Ranking On Opening Day
He is still on the younger end of the average age most catchers make their debut in the league. Using Baseball-Reference Player Index data, I looked at the age of all non-pitchers debuting between 2010 and 2015. The average age for non-pitchers to play their first game is 24.3 years old. For catchers specifically, it is 24.7 years old.
Bethancourt debuted a few weeks after his 22nd birthday in 2013 (with one plate appearance), had a 117 plate appearances in the second half of last season, and 104 plate appearance this year. He does not turn 24 until September 2. Players such as Josh Donaldson (who came up as a catcher), Travis d’Arnaud, Carlos Santana, and Andrew Susac had never appeared in a major league game at the age Bethancourt is right now. If nothing else, Bethancourt is way too young to give up on.
Reason 2: Offensive Surge
Too many take a look at his overall minor league numbers and exclaim, “He can’t hit at all!” Well, that’s not exactly true. As I mention above, the minor league is composed of a series of tiers, with each tier more advanced than the last. Remember he was very young at each level, and was constantly pushed up. In this environment, a dip and surge is a positive sign as it shows a player can adjust to a more advanced league after initial struggles. This is especially true in the jump from the short season, talent smorgasbord of the rookie leagues to full season A ball, and in the jump from High A to AA, where the talent level really increases.
Bethancourt's Minor League Stats
Looking at the table above (Bold indicates second time at level), Bethancourt struggled in that first major jump to A ball, but improved significantly his second time through. He struggled again with a quick secession of jumps to high A mid-2011 and AA to open 2012, but again improved significantly when able to repeat AA in 2013. He was an above league average hitter after he had time to adjust to a level. That is important.
Now look at 2014. He was able to adjust to AAA more quickly after a slow start. I was very happy to see he was about a league average hitter his first run through at a young age.
Those 2014 numbers pale in comparison to 2015. He is no longer a kid trying to catch up to players more physically advanced than him, and now he is tearing apart AAA. Hopefully, the demotion also had something to do with it, and his offensive surge is a sign he is mentally maturing as well. (I know from personal experience that mental maturity can occur at 23 or later.)
The one issue is a relatively high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP; .366 in 2015 compared to .311 overall in the minors), which can indicate luck or a change in approach, or more likely some combination of both. But even if it is all luck, and his BABIP falls all the way to last year’s .318, and his numbers tumble down with it, that AAA line in 2013 is still more than most expected from him.
I have said in the past that his offensive production the second time through AA seems like a reasonable expectation: a little power, a decent average, and a lower on base percentage because he doesn’t walk much.
However he turns out, the bottom line is that a person can’t look at his improvements when repeating a level, or his current AAA production, and say, “He can’t hit at all.”
It’s a relatively small sample size, but just for fun look at his last 15 games (through August 13):
- 67 plate appearances
- .431 batting average
- .478 on base percentage
- .672 slugging (.241 ISO)
- 7 BB, 9 Ks
- 12 extra base hits (11 doubles, 1 home run)
- 10 multi-hit games
- 229 wRC+
- .480 BABIP
Now maybe you are relying on his Major League numbers to determine he can’t hit, but remember that is a really small sample size, too. You can’t look at the numbers above and say, “Yeah, he’s just on a hot streak and not really that good,” then turn around and say, “Well, look at how awful he was in the majors this year. He won’t ever hit.” He has 222 total major league plate appearances, and only 104 to start off the 2015 season in which he had a .232 BABIP, which is as low as .480 is high. Also, despite his really poor major league production overall, he was showing improvement in his month-to-month splits (which I detailed in my initial article linked at the top).
The key for me is his steady improvement from level to level. He is slow to adjust, but does adjust with time. That is the main reason I am bullish on his offense, and why I emphasize that he needs time at the Major League level to struggle. I see no reason why he can’t repeat the pattern in the majors if given a real chance. As scouts have said, his approach needed more work than the hitting mechanics. I’m looking at that career high 5.5% walk rate in AAA this year, along with the rest of his strong numbers, as potentially positive indicators of an improving approach.
Reason 3: Defense
His defense is perhaps where he gets the most grief because of the hype that came with it. I am with you on this one. There was chatter when he reached the higher levels of the minors that his legendary defensive skills needed some “polish,” but that well undersold the issues. He has an arm of gold and an athletic frame, so you think, “Dude is a great defensive catcher!” Then you see his footwork and glovework and think, “How can this guy fail so bad at being a catcher?!”
It reminds me of one of my favorite compilations on YouTube, “Dogs who fail at being dogs.” I’m sharing it as a humor-filled breather in an article that once again is going longer than expected:
In much the same way, Bethancourt is a catcher who fails at being a catcher.
All that said, the frame and athleticism are there, and arms like his don’t grow on trees. And his awfulness is being oversold as much as his greatness was overhyped before he first came up. Most importantly, the things he doesn’t do well – like footwork, game-calling, and pitch framing – can be learned, if he’s willing.
As bad as his offense was the first few weeks, it was expected; the defensive issues got him sent back to AAA in June. Little has been said specifically about his defense since he went down two months ago. All I know is that he only has one passed ball in AAA, and that really doesn’t address the entirety of the difficult job of catching. But the key takeaway is that the skills that can’t be taught are there, and he apparently is making an effort to improve the learnable skills. It is time for him to come back up and have a chance to show he has learned how to use his skills to be an effective MLB catcher.
Reason 4: Makeup
This “intangible” element is perhaps the most central issue for Bethancourt. It is hard to see direct evidence of a guy’s makeup in the data or in the carefully crafted media message, but there are grumblings of an “attitude.” That might have lead his demotion to AAA as much as his defensive issues. In the AJC article linked in the paragraph above, note that it was not just defense that Braves Manager Fredi Gonzalez listed as the reason for the demotion:
“Asked what Bethancourt needed to work on, Gonzalez said: ‘I think he just needs to work on catching. But it’s hard to work those things out here at the big league level and try to produce. We feel like he’s a guy who’s going to help us win in the future and going down there is going to be OK. It’s going to be good for him, as long as he has his head right and wants to do it. I think he’ll come back sooner than later.’”
From the outside, it’s hard to know whether or not the demotion helped Bethancourt get “his head right,” but I will again refer to the comments from Minor League Catching Instructor Joe Breeden that I referenced in my last article. If you haven’t already, click the link you just passed, because the article is very encouraging. It’s at least indirect evidence that Bethancourt is willing to work to improve in an area he apparently hadn’t deemed worthy of much effort before (reading between the lines a bit).
In my opinion, if he’s matured in the “makeup” area, then there’s no stopping him. He will convert his talent into major league production on both sides of the ball.
Reason 5: Best Option
This reason has less to do with Bethancourt’s skills and more to do with what is best for the Atlanta Braves. I ask those of you who are done with Bethancourt and ready to get rid of him, what are the other options? After considering them, I hope you will decide to root for Bethancourt like his teammates did after he hit his first career homer, a game-winner against the Pirates on June 6th:
Options for catching going into 2017:
- The Braves trade prospects in order to acquire a starting catcher. Most likely the new catcher will have fewer control years or cost more than Bethancourt, since they will need a “sure thing” if they go this route. Also, it is likely Bethancourt will be traded to another team, a team that will enjoy the fruit of a lot of Braves labor if he produces.
- The Braves sign a Free Agent catcher. No prospects are lost, but free agents are older and more expensive. As a mid-market team, the Braves can’t afford to plug a lot of holes with free agents. Plugging the catching hole will take money away from another potential area of need. Plus, the free agent markets in 2015-16 and 2016-17 feature Slim Pickins at catcher.
- The Braves are patient with Bethancourt, and it pays off. He develops into a league average catcher, which is good. The Braves have control over him for four more years without costing prospects or additional dollars.
Unless I missed something, Christian Bethancourt becoming a solid backstop is the best option for the Braves future. And I am not missing internal options since I can’t think of any that might be ready by 2017. Chris O’Dowd has come up in discussions, and I wish him the best, but I’m less optimistic about a guy who is a full year older (24) and a full level lower (AA) than Bethancourt. He also started three of his last seven games in right field just before being suspended 80 games for violation of the performance enhancing drug policy. All I’m going to say about that is missing those games will further delay his progress. No other internal options are close enough or performing well enough (but feel free to let me know if I’m missing something).
Another plus to immediately pursuing Option 3 is it leaves time to pursue Options 1 and 2 if Bethancourt does fail. But again, my point is that it is too early to assume he will fail, and it really doesn’t make sense to hope the Braves get rid of him without giving him a real chance. My hope is everyone reading this who wants to get rid of Bethancourt will mentally reorder the options above in order to make Christian Bethancourt Option 1.
I am rooting for Bethancourt to continue to progress because that is best for the future of the Braves, and it is reasonable based on the progress he has already made at his age.
I am rooting for Bethancourt to be called up to the major league level to start immediately since that is where he needs to be playing in order to continue to progress.
I am rooting for Bethancourt even if he struggles at the major league level because I know he needs time to adjust based on his historical patterns.
I am optimistic that with a little patience and a lot of work, Bethancourt can break out in time to be value added for Atlanta’s 2017 playoff run in the new SunTrust Park. I am not guaranteeing it, but I think there is a reasonable chance it could happen, and you should, too.