June 15, 2015

Bethancourt’s Passed Balls Not Indicative of His Future Defensive Value

Joe Simpson was at it again Sunday.  After Christian Bethancourt allowed a run to score on a passed ball, his fifth of the season in 29 games, Simpson wondered if Bethancourt bought into the hype of himself, thought he was entitled to the Braves’ starting catcher’s job, and that he didn’t and is not working as hard as he should be.

First of all, it’s flawed logic to necessarily equate failure to do something with laziness.  Ironically, it’s lazy on Joe Simpson’s part to assume that because Bethancourt allows a lot of passed balls that he is lazy.  Joe Simpson hit .242/.289/.317 with a 67 OPS+ in 607 major league games.  Was he a poor major league hitter simply because he didn’t want to work at it?  Was he lazy?  Did he feel entitled to his job in the majors?  I wonder what Simpson would say if someone threw around such accusations about him.

But let’s move on from Joe Simpson, since his assessments of players doesn’t really matter in the grand scheme of things.  It’s a shame that some people will listen to him and think that he knows what he’s talking about, but what the front office thinks and the facts are what actually matter.

There is no doubt Bethancourt has had a problem with passed balls.  He has 11 so far in 58 major league games.  He needs to get better.  It’s fine to be critical of his propensity to give up passed balls (though it’s lazy analysis to say that he gives up passed balls because he doesn’t work hard enough).  There’s no doubt Bethancourt needs to improve as a receiver and also as a hitter (he had a 49 career OPS+ coming into Sunday’s games).

As far as whether Bethancourt’s current passed ball issues will keep him from becoming the Braves’ catcher of the future, or at least a quality defensive catcher, it’s still too early to tell.  People are right to point out that Bethancourt’s passed balls cost the Braves but in regards to what it tells us about his future, it’s easy to make too much of his passed ball issues.

Catching major league pitching, like hitting major league pitching, is a challenge.  Some catchers who became some of the greatest defensive catchers of the last 40 years had passed ball problems early in their careers.  Let’s look at a few.

Benito Santiago, like Bethancourt, was hyped for having a strong throwing arm, even before he reached the big leagues.  In 1987, Santiago’s first full season in the majors, he led the National League in passed balls.  He led the league again in 1989 and again in 1993.  He allowed 9 passed balls in 1988, 6 in 1990, and 8 in 1991.  Oddly enough he didn’t allow any in 1992 but his total jumped to a league-leading 23 in 1993 (though he was with the Marlins and had to catch knuckleballer Charlie Hough in that season).  But even if we don’t count 1993, Santiago had 48 in his first 426 games.

Johnny Bench led the league in 1968, his first full season in the majors.  In 1969 he gave up 14 and in 1970 he gave up 9.

Ivan Rodriguez came to the majors in 1991 and played in 88 games.  He allowed 8 passed balls.  In 1992 he allowed 10.  In 1993 he allowed 14.  He allowed 8 or more passed balls in 7 seasons over the course of his career.

Yadier Molina led the league with 8 passed balls his first full season in 2005.  He had 7 in 2006 and 7 in 2007.  In 2010 he also had 7 and finished 3rd in the league.

These catchers are all similar to Bethancourt in that they are known for their arms.  All these catchers eventually earned reputations as good if not great defensive catchers.  They also all became good-to-great hitters.  The fact that these catcher became among the greatest to have ever played doesn’t mean Bethancourt will.  That’s not my argument.  Bethancourt may continue to have issued with passed balls and he may never hit well in the majors.  Nor is my argument that Bethancourt’s passed balls are harmless.  Of course any error that allows a runner or runners to advance is a problem. But we should proceed with caution in assuming that because Bethancourt allows a lot of passed balls now, he is destined to be a poor defensive catcher.  What he needs is reps and to continue working, something he’s likely doing, in spite of what Joe Simpson tells us.



4 Responses to “Bethancourt’s Passed Balls Not Indicative of His Future Defensive Value”

  1. 1
    Marty Says:

    Shaun, I didn’t hear Joe’s comments regarding CB but it seems consistent with other criticisms I have heard of the player over he past few years. I’ve never known Joe to be a player hater, usually just the opposite. I think that catching is such a demanding position, involving a lot of technique, much of which must be learned by repetition, as you indicated. It seems to me he is just a young talented guy who hasn’t put it all together yet, and his improvement will probably be the result of a lot of hard work and playing experience.

  2. 2
    Shaun Says:

    The criticism of Bethancourt should be that he’s not hitting and not receiving, nothing more, nothing less. I think it’s weak of Joe Simpson to criticize his work ethic, unless he knows for sure what Bethancourt is and isn’t doing, and it didn’t sound like Simpson knew for sure. I feel like the burden of proof should be on the media member that calls a guy lazy and entitled, not the player to prove that he’s not lazy and doesn’t feel entitled. If Simpson has information that indicates Bethancourt is lazy, he should be at least somewhat specific about it, instead of criticizing him on air based on assumptions. But we shouldn’t expect anything more from Mr. Simpson.

  3. 3
    Brendt Says:

    I’m sorry about your loss of your puppy. Perhaps justice will be done and Joe Simpson will be punished for running over it.

  4. 4
    George Says:

    It’s obvious to me that Braves front office has developed a distaste for Bethancourt. But since he has begun to mash at Gwinnett, it would be foolhardy to let him go without proper compensation. I think he should be kept. Also, selling Teheran low would be a mistake given his contract.

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