Before the season began, I heard news of the Royals signing an overrated shortstop with no on-base skills, sub-par defense, and just enough pop to make people interested. He was meant to be the utility infielder, and apparently an incredible one because they paid him $2 million. Here was his career slash line roughly: 269/.293/.392.
Of course, that guy was and, perhaps unfortunately, still is Yuniesky Betancourt. I cringed when I saw those numbers. I cringed when I thought back to his time as the Royals every day shortstop when he played defense within an invisible barrier the dimensions of a porta-John. It was bad; there was nothing good about it, and anyone who believes otherwise knows nothing about anything.
That said, Yuni is on fire right now, and I can’t help but appreciate his performance, acknowledge it for what it almost certainly is (a hot streak), and wonder why it’s happening.
First off, those of us who rightly criticized the signing of Yuni should, at the very least, tip our caps to his play so far. He’s been much, much better than I thought he would be and one of the few bright spots in an otherwise disappointing early season. That doesn’t make his signing good. I’m still 90% sure this signing will prove pretty ridiculous at $2 million, but for now, he’s playing well—except for the baserunning error that may have cost them a game, BAD YUNI! I know the sample size is small, and I’m not claiming that this is the signal of a resurgence. I’m just applauding a man for a good month of baseball.
And please don’t call it a fluke. I hate that word. We can’t say that when a player plays poorly it’s his fault, and then when he plays well it’s a “fluke.” It’s not a fluke. If we’re going to believe players have control over the game in certain times, we should probably assume they do all the time—for the basis of analysis anyway. It’s not a fluke; it’s a hot streak. There’s a very important difference. Yuni is producing because he’s actually playing well, something even he can muster from time to time. To call it a fluke is to imply it’s out of his hands. It isn’t. He is the one hitting the ball well, and he’s the one playing good defense. That may very well change soon, but when it does it will be his fault, just like when he’s playing well it is he who deserves the credit.
But why is he playing well? I really didn’t expect it. I was angry when the Royals sent Johnny Giavotella to AAA and very confident that second base would be a circus act until he was recalled. It’s been anything but, and Yuni’s been the biggest part of that. Right now he’s hitting .324/.375/.459. His walk rate is more than double what it was last season. It’s not great at 7.5 percent, but it’s still much better than usual. His line drive rate is 26.5 percent, a career high so far. He’s also swinging at fewer pitches than in the last two years (49 percent down from 57.4 percent last season).
We saw how bad Yuni was as a shortstop defensively, but for once, the company line about his ability at second base doesn’t appear to be complete B.S. He does look much better at second than at short. He looks more natural—played there a lot in Cuba, I know. Playing second seems to disguise his lack of range, and he looks very comfortable around the bag. Yuni was a below average shortstop, but just from the eye test, it looks like he might be a slightly above average second baseman.
He can probably even keep the strong defensive play going. That said, I do not believe we’re seeing the breakout of Yuniesky Betancourt at the plate. He still swings at too many bad pitches, and at this point is fortunate to be connecting with them—connecting with 89 percent of pitches outside the zone. Ultimately, he is what he is at the plate—a free-swinging, low batting average, slight pop, low on-base guy. That probably won’t change. But for now, I can appreciate the hot streak and hope that it continues. This is baseball. Players have had streaks that lasted as long as a season. Maybe Yuni can keep the approach at the plate he has now, keep the defense tight, and help this team win games for the $2 million they gave him when no one else would. I won’t count on Yuni playing this well, but I’ll sure as hell enjoy it.