Deep Dive: The Former Top Prospect Mashing the Ball Nine Years Later

Deep Dive: The Former Top Prospect Mashing the Ball Nine Years Later

by June 17, 2022 0 comments

When Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, and Sean Manaea were traded, we figured that the Oakland A’s would be pretty bad, even though they always manage to outperform expectations. Thus far, it looks like we were right. The A’s are sitting at a 22-43 record, which is the worst in all of baseball. They might have three productive starters at the top of their rotation, but a terrible bullpen and lackluster offense have made them fall in the standings. Only two of their hitters have an OPS+ over 100. One is Ramon Laureano, who has a .684 OPS. The other? Christian Bethancourt.

Big Rise, Big Fall

Bethancourt’s name might sound familiar to you if you’ve been watching baseball for a long time. He debuted as a 21-year-old back in 2013 with the Atlanta Braves. That debut was something to watch, as MLB Pipeline ranked Bethancourt as Atlanta’s 2nd best prospect. The next year, he cracked the top-100 prospect list and was the sixth-best catching prospect. Topping the list was the current Braves catcher, Travis d’Arnaud.

Sadly, Bethancourt never panned out in Atlanta. From 2013 to 2015, he hit two home runs with a .245 OBP and a .527 OPS in 80 games. He was then traded to San Diego for two players who combined for ten games played as a Brave. The 2016 season was Bethancourt’s biggest MLB sample size, as he appeared in 73 games. His OPS+ did rise, but only to a mere 70.

Here’s where the story gets weird. In 2017, Bethancourt tried to add pitching to his list of talents, before Shohei Ohtani made it cool. He was sent down to AAA El Paso as a relief pitcher. Then he became the best reliever in El Paso history… What’s that? He was awful? Bethancourt pitched in 41.2 innings, allowing 50 hits and 33 walks to just 23 strikeouts with an ERA that was lucky to be 8.64. He received some major league time but allowed nine runs, six of them earned, in 3.2 innings.

Island Hopping

Bethancourt’s Padres tenure ended after that failed experiment. He went back to hitting, and spent the 2018-2021 seasons with the Brewers, Phillies, and Pirates, with a stint in Korea in between. 2018 and 2021 were his two full AAA seasons, and his offense was not bad. He hit 20 home runs with an OPS of .834 in 2018 and hit 14 homers with a .807 OPS last season. That got him to Oakland on a minor league deal signed last November.

Bethancourt made his return to the majors on April 15th in a loss to Toronto. Since then, he has doubled as a first baseman and the backup catcher to Sean Murphy. Now 43 games into his season, Bethancourt’s numbers are solid. He has hit four home runs while stealing four bases, with a .260 average and a .732 OPS. Thanks to the decline in offense around the league and the few perks of hitting in Oakland, Bethancourt’s OPS+ is a very solid 114. Also, if you were wondering about that speed, Bethancourt’s stolen bases this year are already more than the three he had in his 161 MLB games before joining the A’s.

Trout, Bethancourt, Yordan

Bethancourt’s power numbers and on-base are still not good. He has walked just six times this year, going against the classic A’s philosophy of Moneyball, and towards the current philosophy of tanking. But when he puts the ball in play, special things are happening. Bethancourt has a Barrel/PA percentage of 11.9 percent, which is fifth in all of baseball. Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton are the top two, followed by Joc Pederson and Mike Trout, then Bethancourt. He ranks just ahead of Yordan Alvarez, and close to Bryce Harper and Byron Buxton.

If he is hitting so many barrels, then how does Bethancourt only have four home runs? Is the ball that dead? How bad is RingCentral Coliseum? The first thing to look at here is Bethancourt’s lower average launch angle. At 8.3 degrees, he is the only player under 10 in the top 25 of Barrel/PA percentage. Oddly enough, the next highest player with that low of an average launch angle is Vladimir Guerrero Jr. at only 4.5. Bethancourt is also in the top ten percent in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate.

Bad Luck

Expected stats show that Bethancourt should be talked about a lot more. His .407 xwOBA is 16th in baseball (minimum 100 Plate Appearances. Sadly, his actual wOBA is .319, which is 144th in baseball. Only 11 hitters have a better wOBA than .407. If he performed to his expected numbers, Bethancourt would have a .977 OPS. His xSLG of .631 is sixth in baseball, behind just Judge, Alvarez, Harper, Trout, and Pederson. His .309 xBA is 22nd in baseball, ahead of Freddie Freeman, Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, and Kyle Tucker.

If this is the best part of Bethancourt’s season, then most fans will completely forget about or never hear about his good start, as his bad luck has made his overall numbers look good, but not great. No matter what, Bethancourt’s incredible batted ball stats need to be recognized more. If his luck comes around, then expect to see his name pop up a lot more. We are a third into the 2022 season. Sample sizes are not minuscule anymore.

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