July 10, 2012 at 9:06 am by Ethan Purser under Atlanta Braves, Prospects
The past two Futures Games have featured several of the Braves’ top pitching prospects, including Julio Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Mike Minor. The Braves’ 2012 representative, Christian Bethancourt, gave the team its first position-player prospect in the Futures Game since 2009, when Jason Heyward and current Mexican League juggernaut Barbaro Canizares took part in the exhibition.
Bethancourt has had a very strange year statistically in Double-A Mississippi, hitting .254/.278/.280 with 4 extra-base hits (3 doubles, 1 triple), 35 strikeouts, and 7 walks in 201 plate appearances. He is currently sporting a 50 wRC+ and a paltry .079 secondary average.
You are now excused for a moment in order to vomit copiously into your container of choice.
You back? Okay, continuing…
Without context, these numbers look pretty dreadful. He’s not hitting for power and he’s not getting on base in a consistent manner, two outcomes from which position players draw a large portion of their overall value. One could argue that Bethancourt has not lived up to expectations since joining the full-season ranks, having never posted an OPS above .689 in any single season. With this information as the fuel, many Braves fans and prospect prognosticators have soured on Bethancourt and have thrown him into the seemingly endless conflagration of toolsy prospects of whom much is expected, but little is received in terms of statistical achievements.
However, there is still hope for Christian, and this hope is based on two distinct factors. The first factor in Christian’s favor is his tools profile. Many fans have voiced their opinions and are sick of hearing about his present defensive prowess and potential offensive tools without seeing the actualization thereof by way of gaudy–or even passable–statistics. The tools remain potent, however, as does the hope of him realizing these tools. Bethancourt’s 6’2”, 220-pound frame oozes athleticism and leaves plenty of room for further physical development without hindering his status as a defensive stalwart behind the dish. His aforementioned defensive aptitude is highlighted by an outrageously strong throwing arm, which is accented by a lightning-quick transfer and release. Strong forearms and wrists allow him to frame pitches with ease, keeping the movement to a minimum once the ball is caught. Bethancourt’s targets are not always the lowest and he often relies on his superb hand-eye coordination a bit too much, as he sometimes picks at balls in the dirt rather than shifting his feet to block them. Due to his athleticism and already-present skills behind the plate, one may easily project him to be a plus to plus-plus all-around defender behind the dish, a rare breed even at the major league level.
The bat, on the other hand, requires a bit of extra envisaging. During batting practice displays, Bethancourt exhibits crazy bat speed and raw power. He achieves this power by horizontally extending his lead arm, resulting in a bit of length on the backside of his swing, and by powerfully rotating his hips ahead of his hands, which is in theory the correct sequence. Bethancourt, however, rotates his hips a fraction of a second too early, causing his body to “bail out” as the barrel enters the hitting zone (he is not quite on Gerardo Parra’s level, but it is still there). The batting practice displays make it easy for one to put high grades on his raw power, but this power has yet to manifest itself during in-game situations. In terms of actual hitting ability, Bethancourt has shown good hand-eye coordination and has been able to put the bat on the baseball in a fairly consistent manner, striking out in only 16.5% of his plate appearances during his minor league career. Herein lies a bit of the problem; Christian likes to swing the bat early in the count, usually resulting in weak contact. To his credit, Bethancourt has occasionally shown the willingness to widen his base and shorten both his swing and stride in pitcher-friendly counts. Christian has some serious issues to work on at the plate, including pitch recognition and plate discipline, but all of the raw physical tools are present in order for him to make the necessary adjustments. There is no evidence to suggest he will ever rack up massive walk totals–he likely never will–but further exposure against advanced pitching sequences should improve his pitch recognition and thereby his plate discipline, assuming he is willing to learn and make the needed alterations.
The second factor in Bethancourt’s favor is a simple fact: he is the youngest position player in the Southern League (minimum of 86 at-bats). The Braves have aggressively pushed Christian and have enlisted him in a situation in which most 20-year-olds are not placed. The Double-A level is riddled with major-league caliber pitching, and while he has not responded with resounding success, he has not completely flopped in terms of the primary skills necessary to succeed at the major league level. A .254 average paired with a 17.4 K%/3.5 BB% isn’t exactly sexy, but it is at least some evidence that he is putting the bat on the ball. A .558 OPS is putrid, but the individual factors within OPS represent secondary skills, which usually manifest later in a prospect’s developmental path.
This brings us to Sunday’s Futures Game. Bethancourt’s performance was, in a nutshell, a microcosm of his prospect profile. In three plate appearances, he saw a total of eight pitches, resulting in a three-pitch strikeout, a one-pitch fly out, and a four-pitch (!) pop-up. Bethancourt showed little willingness to adjust during and between at-bats, all the while lacking an apparent plan at the plate. Granted, he faced three of the top pitching prospects in baseball in Gerrit Cole, Dylan Bundy, and Jameson Taillon, a dizzying threesome of awesomeness™ to whom many hitters have fallen victim. Defensively, Bethancourt wowed spectators by registering a pop time of 1.78 seconds on an attempted steal by Jonathan Singleton. He flashed impressive lateral movement behind the dish, but still showed a propensity to pick at pitches in the dirt rather than shifting his feet to block them. If you’ve never been blessed with the opportunity to watch Christian play baseball, I fully recommend viewing this game in order to comprehend, at the most basic level, why he receives such high volumes of praise and criticism.
So what is the takeaway here? I am in no way making the case that Christian has been “good” in 2012. Rather, I am trying to provide a bit of context upon which one can frame Christian’s season. The raw tools on both sides of the ball are still there – they haven’t magically disappeared. He is getting his feet wet against much older competition. He is certainly not thriving, but there is some reason to be optimistic, as a defensively advanced catcher making consistent contact against older competition at this stage in his development deserves at least a bit of recognition. Fans sometimes view a prospect’s statistics through major-league-tinted goggles; low accumulations in certain areas automatically doom certain players and cause some fans to discard them as over-hyped prospects. To do so in Christian’s case would be foolish, as he is nowhere near his peak on the developmental arc and has a long way to go before his raw tools fully permeate his everyday game, and that is perfectly okay. Christian has every opportunity to improve the holes within his game in order to set him up as a viable option at the major league level in 2-3 years. “Viable” is used very loosely in this context, as my money is on Bethancourt becoming a solid backup/second-division catcher who provides exceptional defense, below-average batting average/on-base percentage, and 10-12 home runs annually. He will more than likely provide a team with exceptional value during his cost-controlled years and be able to help out various major league benches thereafter. In a world where Nick Hundley has received a majority of his team’s plate appearances at the catching position, Christian Bethancourt might just make it after all. *
*Hundley is just an example. No need to get worked up.
Ethan Purser has been a baseball fan his entire life, taking a particular interest in the Atlanta Braves at a young age due to the geographical proximity. Inspired by Jason Parks, Kiley McDaniel, and Kevin Goldstein, Ethan began writing about prospects and scouting in 2012 and plans to keep fans informed on Braves prospects by way of scouting reports and general rambling. You can follow him on Twitter @EthanPurser.