Friday, February 10, 2006

The Betancourt Dichotomy

No, it's not a forgotten Ludlum thriller.
Yesterday, it was USSM's position roundtable on the M's exciting SS prospect. Today, Dr. Detecto counters with a characteristic barrage of optimism. The discussion on both blogs, as these things are wont to do, tends to side with the authors and, if anything, push what are reasonable predictions towards the extreme.
To sum up the two camps in an almost cartoonish bout of reductionism, one has Yuniesky developing into a light hitting defensive wizard - someone who's quite close to his offensive peak right now, and not someone who's really going to develop more power or a great deal of patience as time goes on. The other side sees him as on the tip of greatness - that, for all intents and purposes, we're talking about a truly great, hidden, offensive prospect. So: Cristian Guzman or Miguel Tejada?
Obviously, there's a pretty large middle ground there, and we here at MM/FGS are perfectly happy occupy it.
The idea that Detectovision is keying on is Betancourt's historical uniqueness - that his PECOTA comps are all wrong because they're not looking at his swing and its power potential, and they can't account for his layoff and rapid rise through the M's system. This is countered by Dave Cameron's insistence that we've seen the like of Betancourt before, and there's a pattern in similar players' development.
Doing a bit of digging today, I've got to say that I'm shocked at how many players that have a lot of superficial similarity to Betancourt there are. It's actually not all that rare for someone to break into the big leagues as a slick-fielding SS at or before age 23 and do a bit of damage with the stick. Garry Templeton, Alan Trammell, Tony Fernandez, Dave Concepcion - and, more recently, Royce Clayton, Guzman and Jimmy Rollins all came up and had pretty darn good offensive years at or before age 23. Basically, it's not immediately clear how unique Betancourt can really be. Worse, a lot of these guys (Templeton, Guzman, Fernandez) started declining as early as age 25. Forget slow or no growth, Templeton was worse at 26-27 than he was in his first ML trial, as a 20 year old. That's where USSM is coming from.
There are mitigating circumstances here, of course. Betancourt had basically a two year layoff, and he's had extremely few professional at-bats in his career. But it's not as if he never played baseball before 2003 - he was in the Cuban leagues for a while, and we tend to discount that as we don't know what to do with Cuban stats, were we able to get our hands on them. It's not exactly double A ball down there, I'm guessing, but it's probably at least Rookie ball, and that's important.
I think Templeton and Rollins may be his best comps. Look at the way Templeton flew threw the minors, jumping from AA straight to the majors and staying there for 15 years. Look at the season this guy had at age 21!!! We always tend to think of him as the loser traded for Ozzie Smith in a historically lopsided deal, and that's unfair: this was an all-star and someone who looked like a surefire hall of famer.
The point is, it would appear there ARE a lot of comps for Betancourt - guys who had better years at 23 than Betancourt will have next year (come on, make me eat my words, JuBet!). But there's a flip-side here. Those who forecast an empty average at best, beware: this type of player seems to break out with some regularity. Templeton never really showed a lot of power potential before busting out over 60 XBHs at age 23. Guzman had mid 400s SLG potential, and many say it's only injuries that have kept him from returning to that plateau. Trammell was, in the 1980s, an absolutely terrifying hitter to face - and he hit 3 HRs in a season and a half of minor league ball. Jimmy Rollins (my pick, based on nothing more than a hunch, of Betancourt's 'best' comp) has 15HR power, generated from a Woody-Allen sized body. It's kind of tough to say that Betancourt won't grow into a surprising SLG percentage. I'm not betting against it.
I guess I don't see uniqueness that DOV sees, but I think the USSM crowd may be discounting some of Betancourt's potential a bit too much. I would absolutely love 5-6 seasons like Guzman's 2001. It's the sort of thing that's well within reach; I'm not saying YuBet is going to challenge Bonds HR record here. And it would also utterly transform the M's line-up - remove slick fielding liabilities like we had with David Bell and Omar Vizquel and plug in a .300 hitting, .440 slg, gold-glover in at SS? Get some improvement from Beltre, Lopez and Reed, and you've got a core line-up that can challenge anyone.


At 2/11/2006 11:18 AM, Blogger PositivePaul said...

Obviously, there's a pretty large middle ground there, and we here at MM/FGS are perfectly happy occupy it.


It's really interesting to try and forecast YuBet as a hitter. Predictions are really all over the board. I agree with Rollins, and I've also seriously considered Trammell. Trammell has to be one of the most underrated all-around shortstops in modern baseball. To me, he's a HOF'er.

I'm excited to keep an eye on him -- he does make great contact with pitching, which really makes you wonder if he DID miss a year or so of baseball.

There's really no argument, though, over his defense. It's good. Darn good!

At 2/13/2006 12:33 AM, Blogger Deanna said...

Hey, I'm as big a fan of J-Roll From The Bay as anyone, but it took him a while before he learned to stop swinging at crap pitches. (He still did it this year enough to the point where we were all wondering why Charlie kept him up there at leadoff... and then he had that huge hit streak, which was, indeed, pretty badass.) If Betancourt becomes Jimmy Rollins in 3-4 years, that's not a bad thing to aim for, provided he doesn't lose the defense skill and start writing really bad rap songs with Casio toy keyboard noises in the background.

Anyway, I just can't see a point in trying to predict someone like him. The only thing I'd want to bet on is how many more triples he's going to hit than Ichiro this year.

At 2/13/2006 11:55 AM, Blogger marc w. said...

I don't know how long it took him to stop swinging at bad pitches, or if he's still doing it. What I DO know is that he put up a 740+ OPS with 14HRs as a 22 year old! I'd take that from Betancourt next year, and for many years after that.
It's a really weird phenomenon that these slick-fielding shortstop guys often have great success early on and then either flame out or kind of plateau. To Rollins' credit, he worked through the lean years (ages 23-24) and has emerged a better, more complete hitter. I'd love to see that in YuBet.
But for every Rollins, there's a Mike Caruso, who hit .306 as a rookie starting shortstop for the White Sox at age 21 (!!!), and was, for all intents and purposes, done at age 22. Or a Garry Templeton who put up a few monster years in his early 20s and spent the next decade trying to recapture that success. Just check out Jose Reyes first cup of coffee versus his next two full years for an even more recent example.
Personally, I think YuBet will follow the Rollins track, which means we may have to put up with a few bumps on the road to long hitting streaks and good averages. I think that because I think Betancourt has had a few more disadvantages than others, and frankly because I WANT to.

At 2/14/2006 5:06 PM, Blogger PositivePaul said...

And leave it to Jeff to join us in the M's blog-o-sphere as the balanced of the bunch.

It's truly going to be interesting to see how he pans out as a hitter.


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