This is a post with two potential introductions. We will deploy both of them. First, let’s rewind to December 24, and MLB Trade Rumors. We have agent Alex Esteban, of Miami Sports Management. We find him speaking of client Yuniesky Betancourt, who was a free agent at the time.
“I can assure you that Yuni will be signing a Major League contract. Currently, there are four teams we are in conversations with and we expect to be finalizing a deal shortly after the holidays,” Esteban said.
Yuni was so popular last year that the Royals designated him for assignment on August 5, and then they released him on August 14, having failed to find a trade partner. Yuni went the remainder of the season entirely unsigned. “A Major League contract,” you might have remarked to yourself. “Who on earth would give Yuniesky Betancourt a guaranteed Major League contract?”
The answer, it turns out, is no one. Sometimes agents lie, and their lies sound more desperate as they get more desperate. It’s possible that Esteban wasn’t lying or exaggerating or being hyperbolic. He might have genuinely thought he’d be able to get a big-league deal for his client. But that would indicate an incomplete and inadequate understanding of his client’s ability.
The second potential introduction. By our numbers, a year ago, Michael Young was worth -1.4 WAR. He’s going to be a starter for the Phillies. A year ago, Ryan Howard was worth -1.0 WAR. He’s going to be a starter for the Phillies. A year ago, Delmon Young was worth -0.7 WAR. He’s supposedly going to be a starter for the Phillies. A year ago, Chone Figgins was worth -1.0 WAR. By reports, the Phillies are the last team to have expressed some interest. A year ago, Joe Mather was worth -1.5 WAR. He’ll be in Phillies camp on a minor-league deal. A year ago, Yuniesky Betancourt was worth -0.8 WAR. He’ll be in Phillies camp on a minor-league deal.
It’s misleading to present the numbers like that, but it’s also powerful. The Phillies are going to have a lot of talent on their roster, but they could also have a lot of players coming off really bad seasons. For now, it doesn’t mean much that Mather and Betancourt will be in camp, because they’re on minor-league contracts, and minor-league contracts are effectively harmless. But the risk is that a bad player on a minor-league contract can end up on the major-league roster, and as you’ve figured out, I’m using this as the latest opportunity to write about Yuniesky Betancourt, the extraordinary underachiever.
I write not to bash the Phillies, because as far as Betancourt is concerned, they haven’t yet done anything horribly wrong. Maybe they need a full-year infielder at triple-A. This is about the player, and not the team. The player with a lifetime .290 on-base percentage. The player with one of the very lowest walk rates in baseball. The player with 30 career steals and 30 career caught-steals. Betancourt is 30, now, and he’s days away from turning 31. He’s not a player on the verge of putting everything together. He’s a player for whom too much has gone wrong.
That’s evident from his lifetime 2.5 WAR, over more than a thousand games. He had a 4.1 career WAR through 2008. Switch to Baseball-Reference and you find a -2.6 career WAR. You all understand Yuniesky Betancourt, because he’s a popular subject on websites like this one. You all understand that he didn’t become what he was supposed to become. You all know him to be a pile-of-crap defender. But there’s a trend in the numbers, a trend that hasn’t gotten a lot of direct attention. It’s a trend that I think captures the essence of the whole Yuniesky Betancourt experience, a trend that says everything that needs to be said.
You’re familiar with the Fan Scouting Report, yes? This project. It’s a project by which baseball fans evaluate baseball defenders, and it’s a whole Wisdom-Of-Crowds sort of thing. Defenders are rated by those fans on the Internet who watch the defenders the most. You get it. Some of the results are made available here at FanGraphs. Older results can be found through that link above. The Fan Scouting Report results in an overall rating for each player, and it just so happens we have results covering the entire career, to date, of one Yuniesky Betancourt.
The numbers are unbelievable. The numbers, I felt, were sufficiently unbelievable to warrant a post.
Betancourt was considered a magician when he first came up. The results put him second on the 2005 Mariners, behind only Ichiro, and Yuni drew comparisons to Mark Kotsay, Torii Hunter, and Cesar Izturis. In 2006, Yuni was rated as baseball’s third-best shortstop, behind Adam Everett and Omar Vizquel. Then began the slide. In 2007, Yuni was rated as baseball’s 11th-best shortstop. In 2008, he was among the worst, near Jhonny Peralta and Brendan Harris. The slide continued. Last year, there were 414 players who fielded for at least 250 innings, and who received enough Fan Scouting Report ratings. Yuni got an average overall rating of 18. This was the worst rating in baseball, out of everybody. Worse than Raul Ibanez, worse than Rod Barajas, worse than Ty Wigginton. Worse than everybody. 18. The very worst.
I’m not going to lie to you and say the Fan Scouting Report results are infallible, without imperfection. They select for people who know who tangotiger is, basically, and to a degree they’re also going to be vulnerable to groupthink. Evaluations will often be entered by people who already have a familiarity with advanced defensive metrics and various defensive reputations, and evaluations might also be prone to exaggeration in either direction. There are issues, and we haven’t even touched on the limited sample sizes and the questionable evaluation skills of the audience.
But Yuni came up as an 86. He’s slid to an 18, according to these numbers. You might think of Betancourt’s defense as Delmon Young’s offense: Yuni was a top defensive prospect, but in reality, as a major leaguer, he’s been quite bad. That might understate things.
Here are a couple .gifs I made years ago. We see Yuni making a play for the Mariners in 2005, and we see Yuni failing to make a similar play for the Mariners in 2008. The situations and balls in play aren’t identical, but the point gets across.
Yuni was a wizard, to the eye. He didn’t just regress to the mean over time — he regressed so far beyond the mean that you might expect reverse regression to the mean. We don’t need to re-summarize everything that’s gone wrong with Betancourt and his skillset. I just felt like the table above was worth sharing, because, yeah. That’s Yuni’s career in a nutshell.
To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what the upside is with signing Yuni to even a minor-league contract. He can’t field, he can’t walk, he can’t hit for good power, and he’s never demonstrated anything in the way of solid leadership skills. He’s older now than he’s ever been, much like you and me. Because it’s a minor-league contract, though, I can’t be critical of the Phillies, yet. I can be thankful, because the Phillies caused me to look up Betancourt’s player page, which caused me to notice the Fan Scouting Report results. Those are bad results. Bad results, for a pretty bad baseball player.