March 11, 2012; Phoenix, AZ, USA; Kansas City Royals shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt (11) singles during the first inning against the Oakland Athletics at Phoenix Municipal Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-US PRESSWIRE

The Curious Case of Yuniesky Betancourt

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.

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  • jim fetterolf

    GMDM has a history of gambling on desperate players, including Bruce Chen and the Worst Outfield Ever, the idea being that there is a chance that a player with some talent and drive and at the end of his career rope is more willing to accept coaching and fix problems than he may have been earlier in his career. In Yuni’s case, his range comes from his fielding stance with his left-foot forward and that is fixable, as are the flaws in hitting. Word I get is that Doug Sisson and Kevin Seitzer thought they could fix Yuni.
    Johnny Giavotella is hitting .262 in Omaha, but is bringing that up. Rey Navarro is hitting .250 in Springdale. I think we should be grateful for Yuni (.310/.356/.452) and Getzie (.333/.351/.472) until Tony Abreu learns 2B:) Surprisingly, 2B isn’t the team’s problem, that would be the latest incarnation of the Worst Outfield Ever. Should we fire GMDM for extending Frenchy and Gordon?

  • mmeade17

     @jim fetterolf Well, we (you and I) don’t have that type of power, though as a power hungary person by nature, I wish I did. I don’t think firing GMDM is the answer. I like the Gordon extension and don’t see his poor start as a reason to panic. He’s had a few multi-hit games this season, since his slump and is pulling himself out of the hole. He was an amazing catch away from a 3-4 day yesterday. I didn’t like the Frenchy deal when it happened, but I’m not as down on him as some. The thing about Frenchy that bothers me is that everyone outside of the Royals front office seems to know what Frenchy is (good defender, undisciplined hitter, good clubhouse guy). Anyone who looks at Frenchy’s career can clearly see that he’s probably not what he was in 2011. That’s fine; I still like him for what he is. But giving him two years was a bad move. Now, all they can do is sit back and hope he produces like he did in 2011, which he still might, but the general thinking is he’ll regress. Even if he does produce like 2011, it won’t necessarily justify that signing. They have good outfield prospects ready to be more consistent producers than Frenchy (Wil Myers). 
    Frenchy’s a tough case. I like him as a guy. I like him a little as a player (for what he is). But I don’t want to see him in the Royals outfield much longer because that means that something has gone wrong.

  • jim fetterolf

     @mmeade17 Frenchy’s an interesting case, as was Melky and the almost-bust Alex, and Frenchy may well regress, or he may surpass. My sources tell me that what he worked on this winter was the same idea of what Seitzer taught Alex this past off-season and Escobar and Hosmer last year, taking the outside pitch to the opposite field. A change like that takes some practice in game situations, as we see with Alex so far.
    My point in general was that Dayton Moore is quite willing to gamble on a 28 year old on the brink of the end of his career and he has had some success with that, Yuni being the latest roll of the dice, along with Sanchez, Broxton, and Mijares, although those three were damaged goods. That’s something a small market GM has to do, dig through the bargain bin.

  • mmeade17

     @jim fetterolf Oh I agree completely. Dayton Moore has to try to find the guys other teams have given up on and make them into serviceable-good MLB talent. I do wish that bargain had been for less than $2 million though. But right now, he’s earning it. Hopefully, he keeps earning it.

  • jim fetterolf

     @mmeade17 I did some calculating awhile back and based on the idea that a team of replacement level players will win 43 games and the Royals need to win around 93 to contend with a $75 million payroll, the cost per WAR for the Royals needs to average $1.5 million per WAR. To break even, Yuni needs to post 1.33 WAR this year for $2 million. Baseball Reference has him at about -1 dWAR projected over the year, so he will need to hit to justify the salary. As Yuni seems to be starting to slump, we may see more of Getzie. I’m wondering if they have Tony Abreu taking some 2B reps at Omaha. He kind of intrigues me so far and Chris Getz does have options left, Getz down to play SS and enhance UIF value, Abreu up for a shot at 2nd, then, if Yuni’s stick slips more he gets DFA’ed and Getz comes up as UIF.

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