In Defense of Christian Bethancourt: The Once and Future Prospect

Christian Bethancourt Atlanta Braves
Things might be looking up for Christian Bethancourt. (Curtis Compton/AJC)

 

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:

  1. To gain a prospect that might have future value
  2. 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

YearAge RankAge LeagueLevel
20102nd
18SallyA
201112th19SallyA
20122nd20SouthernAA
20136th21SouthernAA
20147th22InternationalAAA
Source: Baseball America

 

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.

Jonathan Lucroy
Many in Braves nation want Jonathan Lucroy, who was close to Bethancourt’s current age when he debuted (Charles LeClaire/USA Today).

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

SeasonTeamGPABB%K%AVGOBPSLGwRC+
2009Braves (R)145610.7%28.6%.260.339.480144
2009Braves (R)321318.4%16.8%.284.344.431130
2010Braves (A)1084203.3%14.8%.251.276.331 70
2011Saguaros (R)19742.7%23.0%.306.324.556105
2011Braves (A)542353.4%11.5%.303.323.430103
2011Braves (A+)451751.7%20.0%.271.277.325 67
2012Braves (AA)712883.8%15.6%.243.275.291 56
2013Braves (AA)903884.1%14.7%.277.305.436112
2014Braves (AAA)913653.6%16.7%.283.308.408 94
2015Braves (AAA)441825.5%4.3%.327.359.476139
Table Source: Baseball-Reference

 

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.

Christian Bethancourt Atlanta Braves
Hopefully Bethancourt’s improving his approach in AAA. Hopefully. (Brett Davis/USA Today

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

About Micah Smith 15 Articles
LIttle known fact: during the infamous Outfield Fly ruling, I was doubled over on the floor thinking I was headed to the hospital because I took a bite of a ghost pepper and it was burning a hole through my guts. It was an all around bad day. Moral of the story: Trust people when they say ghost peppers are too hot for you to eat! And record the game in case of emergency. I also have a great family, good job in university research, and love the Braves.

14 Comments

    • I am with you on the “goofy hot hand theories” being less than ideal. I was with you on Bethancourt starting all year and having a chance to work it out (or not) this season, giving the Braves a better idea of what they needed to do behind the plate going forward.

      However, I have been swayed to see the merit in sending Bethancourt down, especially in light of the “attitude” issues. (And if Fredi isn’t going to start him, he’s better served getting regular playing time in AAA anyway.) If those work ethic, prima donna rumors were true, then sending him down makes more sense, but ONLY if they call him back up and give him a legitimate shot, and that needs to happen soon.

  1. The biggest point you are leaving out (GREAT article by the way) is his service time. Going into the year he had .072 days of service time. He is about 10-12 days away from not reaching the .172 days. I don’t think the Braves were going to leave him down as long as they did but AJ got hot and CB wasn’t really needed. NOW it is too close to bringing him up when they can delay his clock by a ye
    ar.

    • That is a great point and an oversight on my part. I made the assumption that he was already had enough service time that it didn’t matter.

      Based on your numbers, we are really talking a matter of days before he won’t reach that 172 since September won’t count against it. I still want him brought up and starting September at least. I’m starting to see the pressure on the other side of having catcher figured out by 2017

      • I totally agree with you on every point that you have made. IF there were multiple options out there for the Braves to fill the catcher position then it might be different…just looked in through every organization and there are just not many “upgrades”. I hope they see where he is after the AAA season ends!!!

    • Haha. I’m glad someone else was as enamored with the “fail” videos as I was. It was perhaps the most insightful part of my article.

  2. 1) Fredi was sweating his job for next year with the new regime until the mid-season extension; 2) Somehow AJ didn’t manage to piss everyone off or embrass himself yet (with age wisdom, NOT); and 3) Bethancourt is project of the previous administration therefore won’t be appreciated nor the “answer.”. I fully expect to be shipped out this winter and replaced with their own ” model.”

    • 1) I’m not sure what this has to do with Bethancourt?
      2) I appreciate AJs contributions to the current team, but don’t see how he impacts the discussion of who will catch in the future.
      3) I think too much is made of players being signed under a different regime. Some might not have been the player Hart et al would have signed, but it is still in the best interest of the team to develop them into MLB talent. You have to consider that quite a few scouts who were around in 2008 (shortly after team president Schuerholtz moved out as GM), are in the organization today. This has nothing to do with Wren and everything to do with whether or not Bethancourt can mature into the player his tools say he can be.

      • I think the bigger issue with Christian Bethancourt has less to do with who scouted him and more to do with how he was developed previously. Under Frank Wren’s leadership, it is well known that the front office had an effect on player development. Kurt Kemp, the Braves former Farm Director, left the organization largely due to Frank Wren, Jeff Wren, and Bruce Manno meddling in player development. Do you remember how the Wren’s decided to have Julio Teheran change his mechanics and what that lead to? Teheran had two bad years at AAA after that.

        Another thing that needs to be taken into account is that the Braves are developing a very young pitching staff right now. No one on the starting staff is over the age of 24 right now. They have a guy in Mike Foltynewicz who has an electric arm that needs a strong catcher to help him corral his stuff. How do you balance the need to develop a pitching staff with going through the growing pains of developing a young catcher? It seems like whenever we have gone with a young catcher in the past, we have had a veteran staff on the mound. When Javy Lopez first came up, Glavine/Smoltz/Avery/Maddux were young but established. When Brian McCann came up, he caught the older version of the Glavine/Maddux/Smoltz staff initially.

Leave a Reply

[sc name="HeaderGoogleAnlytics"]