Few players inspire such a visceral reaction amongst the baseball community like Yuniesky Betancourt. He’s become the punchline for countless jokes and even caused our own Jaymes Langrehr to contemplate jumping out of a window upon hearing of his signing earlier this spring. After all, he’s barely been above replacement level throughout his entire career, as he only owns a career +1.7 WAR over nine big-league seasons.
Thus, when the Brewers lost Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez to injury and he was forced into an everyday role, many Brewers’ fans feared for the worst. And understandably so.
Something intriguing has happened, though. Yuniesky Betancourt has been one of the more productive hitters in the Brewers’ lineup, and he’s significantly softened the blow of losing Hart and Ramirez. The 31-year-old infielder is currently hitting .286/.305/.532 with five home runs and a 121 wRC+, meaning he’s been 21 percent better than league average at the plate.
His strong April has convinced many that he’s fundamentally changed as a hitter. It’s even gotten to the point that some are advocating playing him at second base after Hart and Ramirez return from injury — something that would’ve frankly been inconceivable only a month ago.
So what changed? How has Yuniesky Betancourt suddenly become an above-average hitter after (literally) eight-consecutive seasons of below-average production?
Perhaps the most common explanation cited for Betancourt’s impressive performance this month is improved patience. This can mean multiple things: (1) he’s seeing more pitches per plate appearance, (2) he’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, or (3) he’s swinging at fewer pitches overall. Significant changes in any of those three categories would indicate improved patience.
Unfortunately, Betancourt has shown absolutely zero improvement in any of those three categories. In fact, he’s gotten worse across the board.
Betancourt has traditionally been very poor at working deep into counts. He has a career 3.23 P/PA, meaning he sees just over three pitches per plate appearance. One would expect that number to increase if he’s exhibiting improved patience, but that number has decreased to 3.20 P/PA thus far this season. To be fair, that’s not dramatically different than his career numbers. The problem, though, is that he hasn’t been good throughout his career, so posting numbers close to his career-average indicates no change from the past poor performance.
When looking at his swinging tendencies, the picture gets even worse. His 45.7% O-Swing% and 59.2% Swing% are both career highs.
These numbers illustrate that he’s swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone than ever before and simply swinging more in general. That’s again not indicative of improved patience or even a change in approach at the plate.
And if he’s not exhibiting a change in approach at the plate — or if he’s even showing a less-desirable approach in some cases — it does seem that his overall production will eventually mirror his career numbers, which are much lower than what he’s currently compiling. It seems improbable that he can sustain dramatically improved performance without improving his process.
Capitalizing On Mistakes
The above analysis seems lacking in some respects, though, doesn’t it? We cannot just write off his 121 wRC+ and .346 wOBA this month as a mirage or as luck. Something is clearly happening that’s allowed him to hit for so much power.
Quite simply, it seems Yuniesky Betancourt is capitalizing on almost every single mistake he’s seeing at the plate. If a pitcher hangs a breaking ball or a changeup up in the zone, he’s driving it for extra bases or over the fence. Here is a heat map that depicts where he’s taking advantage of pitchers and hitting for power:
This heat map is startlingly clear. Anything up in the zone, Betancourt is mashing. The blue circle with the number one indicates where Jonathan Sanchez missed with a splitter on Monday evening, and Betancourt launched it for his fifth home run of the season. Just another example of Betancourt capitalizing on pitcher’s mistakes.
The interesting part of the above graphic is that it hints at something else important. Betancourt isn’t becoming a better hitter, per se. He’s not driving good pitches, like we see Braun do on a regular basis or even like Carlos Gomez did on Monday when he lined a good fastball down in the zone for a home run. He’s simply feasting on poor pitches and largely struggling against anything else.
Food for thought: Yuniesky Betancourt has only a .188 batting average against fastballs this season, while he’s hitting over .300 against changeups, curveballs and sliders. He’s demolishing offspeed pitches left up in the strike zone — again, as illustrated above. He is quite literally 0-for-24 on fastballs put in play belt-high or lower.
To me, this once again doesn’t indicate that anything has changed with Yuniesky Betancourt as a professional baseball player. He is just taking advantage of seemingly every bad pitch he sees at the plate — which is certainly valuable for the Brewers, especially while they’re trying to patch together an infield with Hart and Ramirez on the disabled list. It just doesn’t speak well for future expected performance.
Yuniesky Betancourt has been one of the most intriguing storylines this month. Everyone’s been waiting for him to crash back to Earth, but he just continues to hit for power and produce for the Brewers. It’s been a tremendous boost to the team’s offensive output. That’s undeniable.
So when analyzing Betancourt’s performance and picking on his lack of plate discipline, it’s not to diminish his performance this past month. No one can take that away from him. It happened, and explaining it away as “luck” seems inadequate. He’s taken advantage of mistakes by opposing pitchers, and there’s something to be said for that.
But, at the same time, I’ve seen nothing that indicates anything has truly changed at the plate for Yuniesky Betancourt. His approach is exactly the same — if not worse. He’s still swinging early and often, even at poor pitches out of the strike zone. And while he is capitalizing on mistakes, it’s important to ask two different questions: (1) is he going to continue seeing that many mistakes, and (2) is he going to continue to have the same level of success against those mistakes?
That’s not something on which I’m willing to place a long-term bet. The Brewers should absolutely ride the hot hand and reap the benefits, but when Aramis Ramirez and Corey Hart come back from the disabled list, it wouldn’t be prudent to force the issue and make room for Betancourt in the everyday lineup. He’s rather valuable as a bench infielder — a guy with defensive versatility with occasional pop. Unless something fundamentally changes in his approach, though, he’s nothing more than that.