The Braves called up top catching prospect Christian Bethancourt last Saturday and have given him regular playing time since, with Evan Gattis on the DL. Bethancourt is known for a great arm, solid defensive tools, good raw power and good bat-to-ball skills. But in the minors his stats, in terms of passed balls and errors, don’t seem to match his defensive reputation.
In 57 Triple-A games this season, he allowed 9 passed balls and committed 7 errors. In 2013, in 85 Double-A games, he allowed 13 passed balls and committed 12 errors. What gives? How can a catcher with the tools to be an excellent defensive catcher in the majors, according to many reports, rack up so many errors and passed balls?
I think this is an example of why we have to take minor league stats, especially defensive stats for catchers, with a grain of salt. Not that they aren’t useful. But we need to take in all the information, the reports and the stats, and understand what is behind the data.
Bethancourt is a young player and is probably raw defensively. So the passed balls and errors are probably an indication that right now he’s not as good as his defensive upside and possibly his reputation in some circles. But at the same time minor league pitchers certainly don’t have the command and control of major leaguers, and this will certainly affect a catcher’s passed ball totals.
Also, minor league infielders are certainly sloppier than their major league counterparts. If Bethancourt makes a throw off the mark on a stolen base attempt, a minor league infielder is less likely to save him from an error than a major league infielder.
Ivan Rodriguez allowed 34 passed balls in A-ball in 1989. Granted he was 17-years-old and playing his first season in pro ball. But two years later, in 1991–after allowing 13 passed balls and committing 14 errors in 1990–he was in the majors. The Rangers thought highly enough of him to call him up in June of 1991, at age 19.
In 2003, in his third season of pro ball, Yadier Molina allowed 11 passed balls and committed 8 errors in Double-A. A year later, he was in the majors. Two years later, at 22, he was the Cardinals’ regular catcher for a team that won 100 games.
Again, minor league stats, and major league stats for that matter, are useful and should not be discarded. But they are one piece of information. They measure events on the field but they do not tell the whole story about what happened during each event. Remember minor league play is sloppier than major league play, so defensive stats especially need to be taken with a grain of salt. Teammates are less likely to help each other out in terms of preventing errors. We need to pay a lot of attention to scouting-type sources when it comes to a minor leaguer, to get an idea of a player’s underlying skills and what is actually going on beneath the surface of what has been measured with certain statistics.
Also, there’s the obvious fact that if a team thinks a player is good enough for a call-up and regular playing time at the big league level, their evaluators think he’s good enough to be a major leaguer. I’m not saying evaluators working for teams can never get fooled by a player, but they are in the positions they are in for a reason. They are outstanding evaluators. We should probably take their assessments of players as key pieces of information and give them the benefit of the doubt. If Bethancourt was called up to catch regularly, we should take that as a sign that he’s indeed ready to catch regularly.