On opening day of the 2010 season, I was convinced that Yuniesky Betancourt was a bad shortstop. I’d heard some advanced defensive metric had rated him the worst shortstop since the Bronze Age and, without giving it much thought, I accepted that conclusion.
Nothing will change your mind about a ballplayer like watching him play 151 games. Here’s what I learned that summer:
Betancourt was far from the worst shortstop in baseball and, around the stadium, that rating was seen as an indictment of defensive metrics, not Yuniesky Betancourt. Everyone has to decide for themselves what they trust and who they listen to, but some of those same metrics now say first baseman Eric Hosmer is a poor defender.
At times, Betancourt played brilliantly, although he could certainly be inconsistent. Yuni went back and to his right very well and made some spectacular plays when going that direction. He also charged the ball well and had a very quick and accurate release while throwing on the run. But Betancourt did not go to his left well, allowing what looked like routine grounders into center field. The problem was his left foot.
Infielders shuffle forward a couple steps as a pitch is delivered. This brings weight onto the balls of their feet and leaves them in good fielding position. Apparently, when Yuni finished his shuffle steps, his left foot would be too far forward. Then, when a ball was hit to his left, he would start with a crossover step with his right foot, essentially running around his own left hip.
Try it yourself: keep your feet even and drop step (the left foot goes back) to your left. Now put your left foot forward and crossover step to your left with your right foot. What you’re going to discover is the crossover technique leaves you about two steps behind the drop-step technique.
That’s why Yuniesky was late on balls to his left. The Royals were still trying to break him of this habit at the end of 2010, and I’ve got no idea if it got fixed in Milwaukee. You might think a problem going to his left would be a drawback at third base; the whole field is to his left. Fortunately, the corners require a shallower range of motion. Third basemen only have time for a step and a dive.
I’ve got no clue how Betancourt will handle second base. Moving around the infield is harder than people think. Shortstop Mike Aviles struggled with the double play when asked to play second, and second baseman Chris Getz was still trying to make adjustments in his footwork and arm angle when he was asked to play short. Everybody thought both guys had the physical talent to change positions, but as Chris told me, it takes time to develop the correct split-second reaction at each spot.
As for offense: That summer I saw Yuni have a remarkable at-bat. Betancourt swung at a breaking pitch so far outside he lost his balance and fell across the plate. The pitcher, knowing a good thing when he saw it, decided to go up and in to back Yuni off the plate. This would allow the pitcher to go low and away again on the next pitch. The pitcher put a heater under Betancourt’s chin. Good strategy, except Yuni somehow hit that pitch up around his neck for a home run.
Other than the fact that neither pitch was close to being a strike, the two pitches couldn’t have been more different: off-speed low and away, fastball up and in. Betancourt hacked at both and smoked the fastball. It occurred to me that I’d probably just seen a great athlete with no game plan. During the 2010 season there were times when Betancourt’s concentration seemed questionable. (On the other hand, you could say the same thing about mine.)
Over the last two seasons, Yuni has hit 29 home runs, slugged .405 and .381 and driven in 146 runs. In that same time period, he’s only laid down four sacrifice bunts and stolen six bases. He hasn’t shown tremendous offensive versatility.
It would seem his success as a utility player will depend on what the Royals want out of him. Ned Yost has said he’s going to do more pinch hitting and pinch running in 2012. Last season was about developing young players, so Ned let them take their hacks. The bench players mainly stayed on the bench. If this season is about winning, Ned may be more aggressive about using those players to bring home a W late in a game.
At this point, Betancourt does not seem like a versatile utility player: a guy you can ask to lay down a bunt, conduct a hit and run or steal a base. But if what the Royals want is a utility player to fill in when someone’s hurt or needs a rest, he seems like a good fit.
And, finally, when you look at these moves, remember: It’s not Yuniesky Betancourt vs. perfection. It’s Yuniesky Betancourt vs. the realistic alternatives. All players have flaws, and so does Yuniesky Betancourt.
But being the worst shortstop in baseball isn’t one of them.
Second base So if Betancourt’s the utility man, who’s playing second? Right now, the choices are Chris Getz or Johnny Giavotella. Johnny has shown power (.376 slugging %) that Chris doesn’t have (.287 slugging %). Although Getz is the steadier defender (986 fielding % to Giavotella’s .972) and has the versatility I just talked about.
Chris got 14 sac bunts down, Johnny none (although Ned might not want to take the bat out of Johnny’s hands at this point). Getz stole 21 bases in 118 games to Gio’s five in 46. Getz walks more and has a higher percentage of quality plate appearances (.394 to .329). He also strikes out less and at this point is a better situational hitter (.767 to .688).
Anyone who’s followed this site knows I like Chris Getz’s game because he gives a manager offensive options. Getzie can get a bunt down, conduct a hit and run or go out and steal a base. And doesn’t the ability to steal 21 of them last season make up for some of that lack of power? Unless it involves driving in a runner, if Getz can turn a walk into a double, who cares how he got to second?
On the other hand, nobody, including me, thinks Giavotella has shown everything he’s capable of at the major league level. I have no special insight into what the Royals will eventually decide, but the choice seems to be Getz’s versatility and consistency vs. Giavotella’s projected offensive abilities.
The curse of the chicken dinner Did the Boston Red Sox’s off-field activities knock them out of the 2011 playoffs? Well, the Oakland A’s won championships while having fistfights, Doc Ellis threw a no-hitter on LSD and Tiger Woods seemed to be a better golfer when he was committing adultery. I’d guess you could say I don’t see a clear, direct line connecting what happens off the field and results on the field. There are just too many stories of players having great games while suffering a hangover.
In fact, when I read about what was happening in the Red Sox clubhouse last season, I thought, “I could take the things I’ve seen, add a negative spin and paint a picture of a team in disarray … but it would be an inaccurate picture.” The Royals had a good clubhouse, but a clubhouse like all clubhouses: Filled with players trying to get through a long season.
The 2011 Royals played pranks, had arguments and goofed around at times, just like every team I’ve ever heard of. Boston catcher Jason Varitek said the things that were being blamed for the Red Sox losing had gone on every year, but now people needed a scapegoat. Starting pitchers having chicken dinners in the clubhouse on days they weren’t pitching gave people the scapegoat they were looking for.
If the Red Sox had won, those kinds of activities would be “colorful.” In Charlie Rosen’s book, “Bullpen Diaries,” he tells the story of Whitey Ford sitting at a table covered with a red-checkered tablecloth, eating pizza and drinking red wine in a tunnel under Yankee Stadium after winning a game the previous day. But Whitey and the Yankees were winners, so his in-game meal was OK. Or, as Clint Hurdle once said of the New York Mets’ hefty pitcher, “Sid Fernandez is only fat when he loses.”
So is there any legitimate criticism that can be leveled at the Red Sox?
Absolutely. In one of the playoff pregame shows, Cal Ripken showed a play from a Red Sox game in which a ball was hit to right with a runner on second. Pitcher Tim Wakefield never moved to back up home plate or third, and first baseman Adrian Gonzalez never moved to act as the cutoff man in the middle of the infield. It was a demonstration of a team going through the motions…and it was also legitimate, fair criticism.
Every player I’ve talked with draws the same line: what happens on the field is fair game, chicken dinners in the clubhouse aren’t. If the team is not doing its job on the field, the players and coaches deserve to be criticized. But the kind of detailed, baseball-oriented criticism that Ripken presented is much more difficult than blaming a chicken dinner.
To truly understand why a team is succeeding or failing, you have to watch every pitch and know what you’re looking for. Taking your eyes off the ball and realizing that the cutoff man is out of position is not easy (and something I fail to do far too often). Focusing on each and every pitch requires a level of concentration that members of the press don’t always demonstrate, myself included.
Every reporter covering a team has to make a decision: where is the line between fair game and off-limits? My line runs from home plate to the foul poles. What happens on the field is fair game. I can like Jeff Francoeur (and I do), but if he misses the cutoff man, I need to say so (I’ve done that, also).
But as long as Frenchy gives a good effort, plays the game hard and in the right way, I don’t care what he eats in the clubhouse…and I’d probably ask him to save me a drumstick.