The second in an alphabetical and irregularly updated series of seasons-in-review for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the right-hand sidebar, below the LL Exclusives.)
LL Community: .267/.307/.392 (n=23)
Bill James Handbook: .273/.309/.397
(Marcel is tangotiger's extraordinarily basic forecasting system, which you can find here. I didn't include it in the Beltre post, but it pegged him at .280/.332/.480.)
Once again, a pretty good projection by the community, although it missed on two things:
(1) Batting average (only one person guessed that he'd hit above .282)
(2) Patience (Betancourt nearly cut his walk rate in half, which only a few people saw coming)
In situations like these, it's important to remember that other forecasting systems had very little information to go on; they had his age and one full year of professional baseball, but that's it, unless you include his time in Cuba, which is virtually irrelevant. Marcel and the BJH were pretty close, but PECOTA and ZiPS were way the hell off, which suggests to me that the computers were relying on guesswork more than anything else. It's not their fault - Betancourt just hadn't built himself a track record yet - but it's the sort of thing that would make me inclined to trust the fans who'd seen him in person over a computer that had very little historical data at its disposal. As a general rule of thumb, the smaller the sample size, the more important the subjective opinions of onlookers. That's where the LL community came in, and it did a fine job, all things considered.
The spike in batting average was a pleasant surprise - Betancourt was hitting .300 as late as September 9th - but the drop in walk rate wasn't, as his final BB/PA% ranked second-lowest in the Majors, just 0.1% ahead of Angel Berroa (incidentally, between Betancourt, Lopez, and Johjima, the Mariners had three of the nine least frequent walkers in baseball). He cemented himself as easily one of the most aggressive hitters in the league, putting the ball in play early and often, which worked when he was going well and caused torment and anguish among the fan base when he wasn't. Batting average is a volatile statistic when all you ever do is hit singles, and Betancourt had months where he hit anywhere from .243 to .374. In short, while his skillset was reliable, his results weren't, as is the case for pretty much anyone with his offensive profile.
So where do we go from here? Betancourt doesn't turn 25 until next January, and he's already shown the ability to hit for a high average in the Majors despite extremely limited knowledge of the pitchers he's facing (one wonders if, by swinging so early in the count, Betancourt eliminates much of the difference between individual hurlers by not letting them get to their bread-and-butter pitches). It seems like he's all set to ride a pretty awesome development curve. However, I'm not sold on that point. I know Dave Cameron is fond of saying that Betancourt's just about maxed out his skillset, and I'm inclined to agree. I don't know that he can really take his numbers too much higher than he already has.
Here's the thing about Betancourt: he isn't very strong. Sometimes he's able to get around on a fastball and yank it down the left field line (all eight of his homers were pretty much identical to one another), but even when he does that, the ball doesn't travel real far. It's no coincidence that he had the shortest average home run length on the team, or that he didn't hit a ball 400 feet all season long. Pulled home runs should go the farthest of any ball you hit, and Betancourt topped out at 392 (standardized distance). He's not the kind of guy that makes a pitcher think "I really can't make a mistake in this at bat," because the worst he'll do is hit a looper into the gap.
So, yeah, I don't think we're going to see him reach double-digit home run totals very often, not in this ballpark. He might hit 10, or 12, or even 15 if he swings himself out of his cleats, but the longball power is just about as good as it'll ever be.
With that in mind, then, there are three ways for Betancourt to improve his productivity: (1) become more selective, (2) hit more singles, and (3) bounce more off the wall. #1 is probably out of the question; he actually became considerably more aggressive his second year in Seattle, and hit a successful .290, which isn't likely to make him want to change his approach. Plate discipline also isn't something you generally see develop with age until a player reaches his mid-30's and has his bat slow down. Betancourt'll almost certainly draw more than 17 walks next year, but not by much, as he should once again find himself near the bottom in BB/PA%.
I'm skeptical of #2 as well, although it has a much better chance of happening than #1. The problem isn't so much with Betancourt as it is with opposing defenses, because hitters only have so much control over how many singles they hit. Betancourt became more of a groundball hitter this year, and if he keeps going in that direction then he could push himself over .300, but it's difficult to rely on something that's so dependent on things that're out of the batter's hands. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if Betancourt has a peak season where he hits .320-.330, but a lot of that's just going to be due to the natural fluctuation of the statistic. His "true" BA is probably going to remain somewhere around .290-.300.
So we're left with #3 - hitting more balls off the wall. This might actually be the most promising of ways in which Betancourt can improve on his numbers. It's a known fact around the league that Yuniesky isn't a strong hitter, and that a lot of his production stems from his singles rate, so opposing managers are probably going to do what they can to try and cut down on his base hits by playing the outfield shallower than usual. However, while this would succeed in robbing him of a Texas leaguer every now and then, it'd also increase his extra-base hit rate, as outfielders are forced to take worse angles on line drives he hits into the gaps. Some would-be singles turn into outs, but others turn into doubles, while a few would-be doubles turn into triples. It's not a matter of Betancourt getting stronger so much as it is opposing defenses hurting themselves by attempting to limit his perceived lone ability.
If it helps at all, think about it like this: it's been hypothesized that opposing infields have played Ichiro shallower since his rookie year in an effort to cut down on his infield singles. While they've succeeded in doing that, though, they've also opened up more holes for his grounders to sneak through to the outfield, thereby actually making him better than you'd expect given his balls in play. Managers see a shallow shortstop turn a weak roller into an out and think their tactic is great, making it a kind of self-sustaining strategy. After all, a grounder that gets through "probably would've gotten through anyway," so there's no reason to change what you think is working.
Since I don't hold weekly chats with other American League managers, I can't guarantee you that this is what's going to happen, but it seems entirely possible. If it does, then we'll see Betancourt's isolated power jump up to .130-.140 or so, making him look like a stronger hitter even when he isn't. And if it doesn't happen, then he'll consistently put up numbers that look a lot like this year's, allowing for some fluctuation due to the nature of his attack. And that's perfectly fine by me. I was okay with Betancourt being an empty .270 hitter who plays spectacular defense, so I'm positively thrilled that he's become an empty .290 hitter who plays spectacular defense. In Safeco, this is a .713 OPS worth building around.
Just never let him try to steal.