The fourth in a non-alphabetical and irregularly updated series of review pieces for each of the players we predicted last winter. (All entries are linked in the left-hand sidebar, below the Rotoworld stuff and the interviews.)
LL/USSM Community: 565 AB's, .287/.319/.407 (n=145)
Actual Line: 536 AB's, .289/.308/.418
Closest Projection: peterp, .293/.316/.418
Pretty much right on, which would be more impressive were there an actual element of mystery to Betancourt's offense. As it is, he pulled a Kenji and basically had the exact same year in 2007 as he did in 2006. Such consistency makes it easy to imagine where the 2008 community projection will end up.
I wish I could come up with an interesting way to describe Yuni's season at the plate, but I can't. Outside of a few well-timed knocks that made him the ninth-clutchest hitter in baseball, his campaign was entirely nondescript; there were periods where he looked average, periods where he looked unstoppable, and periods where he looked like the worst, most pop-up-friendly hitter alive. Altogether, they made him what he is - an average, low-ceiling offensive shortstop whose value is supposed to come from his superior defense.
Perhaps it's that defense, more than anything else, that was the real story of Betancourt's season. Expected to be an asset in the middle who came to the aid of a groundballing pitching staff, Yuni instead embarked on an awful start to the year in the field, committing six errors in his first 14 games and taking 18 into the All Star Break. It got to the point at which Mariner fans were openly nervous whenever any ball was hit to short, something I don't think anyone could've predicted in March. It wasn't so much the glove as it was the arm - Betancourt's footwork was all messed up, and the result was that his throws were sailing.
The thing about errors, though, is that they can be correctable. This is one of the reasons why fielding percentage is of little use. You can fix mistakes. Sure enough, the effort put forth by Betancourt and the Mariner coaching staff to turn around this downswing paid off, as Yuniesky committed just five errors the rest of the way. Over time, memories of his errant throws began to fade, and fans once again came to trust their shortstop almost as much as they trusted their third baseman.
Yet, one has to wonder just how good Betancourt's defense really is, because as flashy and agile as he looks, his reputation hasn't been backed up by the advanced metrics. THT's zone rating doesn't view him favorably, and UZR pegs him as a total -11 runs since his debut in 2005 (-2 in 2005, -6 in 2006, and -3 in 2007). A single-season fluke is one thing, but at this point Betancourt's spent 362 Major League games at shortstop, and the numbers are still calling us liars. Granted, were it not for the string of throwing errors he would've wound up slightly positive this year, but still, if this were any other player on any other team, I'd be calling his defense overrated without thinking twice. We have to consider the possibility that Yuni may not be as big of an asset in the field as we thought he'd be.
If his defense really is in the -5 < x < +5 range, rather than the +10 < x < +20 range, then he doesn't stand to be much better than an average shortstop going forward, because Betancourt's just about reached his offensive potential. He did increase his extra-base hit rate from 26% to 32%, but I think a lot of that was Yuni turning on the jets on singles in the gap and getting to second, not an indication that he gained a substantial amount of strength, or that he became a more selective and effective hitter. As an aggressive hacker who's never going to hit 20 home runs, Yuni's offense is driven by contact and singles, and unless you're Ichiro, that can only get you so far. Outside of a peak season or two around .300/.320/.440, I expect Betancourt to make a career out of seasons like last year.
Nevertheless, despite the numbers, I'll say this for Yuni - as much as I think he may be an overrated young player, he's a hell of a lot of fun to watch, and he's really easy to like. He does everything at full speed, he goes about his business with childlike enthusiasm, and he makes the flashy defensive plays that tend to stick in peoples' minds for a long time. On top of that, he's a constant threat to hit a single. His ability to smack a base hit on even the weirdest of pitches makes him a strangely comfortable guy to have at the plate in a big situation. For as long as he sticks around, I imagine Yuni's going to have one of the highest fan-support-to-productivity ratios on the team. Being a baseball fan isn't all about rooting for the best players. Sometimes it's about rooting for the guy who runs out to second because he thinks the player who just hit a walk-off home run just hit a walk-off double.
I'm glad Yuniesky Betancourt is a Mariner. Not because he's the best player at his position, or because he'll drive in the most runs, but because he's like an excitable little kid, and on a team that doesn't look like an imminent threat to win 95 games or contend for the Series, I need players who're fun to watch to get me through nine innings every day. Do I wish he were better? Of course I do. But since there aren't any replacements hanging around, and since he's not even close to being the biggest problem on the team, I'm not going to complain about the better half of the pop-up twins. Here's to another year of timely singles, defensive theatrics, and embarrassing attempts to steal second base. I, for one, can't wait.