Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Does Yuniesky Betancourt Possess the X-Gene?

While writing the postmortem for the Milwaukee Brewers, I noticed that they were employing Yuniesky Betancourt. Yuni is one of the worst players in baseball and has been since 2008. He can't hit at all and, lately, plays terrible defense. Despite being a shortstop for the vast majority of his career, the Brewers actually had him playing predominantly first base. He was a .240 OBP first baseman, a fact that is so sad, I can't even begin to process it. However, that's not the point of this article, at least not directly. When I clicked on Yuni's Fangraphs player page, wanting to review his career, I noticed he had played for the Brewers before. Not only that, but somehow he had been employed by the Royals on two separate occasions as well. Betancourt was horrible in each of those stints, yet both teams elected to give him another shot, despite knowing more than most how awful he is. The only reasonable explanation that I can think of is that Yuniesky Betancourt is a Mutant.

Let's take a look at the history of Betancourt. He's originally from Cuba, where he was considered to be one of the most exciting young players in the Cuban League. Seeking a better life for himself, Betancourt fled Cuba on a speedboat on December 4, 2003. Escaping Cuba is never a safe or easy task. Failing at an attempt can end badly both for the individual and his family. This makes me feel a little bad about all the terrible things I'm going to say about him as a ballplayer. He ended up establishing residence in Mexico, where he demonstrated his amazing talents--especially defensively. In January 2005, at 22 years of age, he was signed by the Seattle Mariners.

Yuni's Major League career started decently enough. In 2006, his first full season, he hit .289/.310/.403. The following year, he went .289/.308/.418. He made amazing plays in the field--the sort of guy who showed up regularly in Baseball Tonight's Web Gems. There were warning signs already however. He had a hyper-aggressive approach at the plate, swinging often at bad pitches. Despite hitting .289, he never walked, posting a walk rate of 2.7% and 2.9% respectively. Despite making amazing plays in the field, advanced metrics like UZR--not developed yet at the time--now show that he wasn't actually all that great defensively. He was solid enough especially playing shortstop, a premium position, netting him 1.6 and 1.4 fWAR in his first two full seasons. The wheels began to fall off in 2008. He hit .279/.300./392, still showing a complete lack of plate discipline. To make matters worse, his defense began to dramatically erode, posting the second worst UZR/150 among shortstops that year. He was worth 0.4 fWAR and certainly fans hoped it was just an off year.

But then 2009 was even worse for him. He started the year hitting .250/.278/.330. He still didn't walk, but now he couldn't even get hits. On July 10, the Mariners traded him to the Kansas City Royals in exchange for pitching prospects Derrick Saito and Dan Cortes. The change of scenery didn't help and Yuni finished the year with a batting line of .245/.274/.351 with horrid defense and a -2.4 fWAR, making him the worst everyday player in baseball. 2010 went a little better. He still couldn't hit or walk, but he flashed a tiny bit of power, posting a .259/.288/.405 line. He was worth 0.6 fWAR, although bWAR was harsher on him at -0.9. The Royals had, wisely, had enough and traded him to the Milwaukee Brewers during the off-season as part of the Zack Greinke deal. Betancourt continued to be a horrible player for the Brewers in 2011. He walked only 2.7% of the time and struck out 10.8% of the time. His BA was .252. His OBP of .271 was the worst among all MLB shortstops. He did have a memorable stretch during the Brewers’ postseason run, hitting .310 with a homerun and six RBIs in the playoffs. It would probably be the best time of his playing career for Yuniesky. Unfortunately, the rest of the season Yuniesky was literally a nothing ballplayer--worth exactly 0.0 fWAR (though his bWAR was -0.5). Despite being paid $3M, his production could be replaced by any theoretical AAA player making the minimum.

Here's where things get strange and we first glimpse Yuniesky's possible Mutant powers. After 2011, Yuni was a free agent for the first time. He was signed by... the Kansas City Royals. For $2M. One would assume that they had learned their lesson. They had certainly seemed happy to package him and his salary with Zack Greinke when they traded the star pitcher to Milwaukee. Yet, here they were signing up for another round. Yuni quickly reminded the Royals why they had sent him out of town. He hit an abysmal .228/.256/.400 and was worth -1.0 fWAR (-1.1 bWAR), playing in only 57 games. The Royals gave him his unconditional release on August 14, 2012. This brings us to 2013. He spent spring training with the Philadelphia Phillies on a minor league contract, but was released before the season began. He was then signed, yet again, by the Milwaukee Brewers. He hit .212/.240/.355. Look at that line! He played first base and, at times, batted cleanup! He was worth -1.8 fWAR and -1.8 bWAR.

Yuniesky Betancourt is a horrible ballplayer. He has been for years. 2007 was the last year when he was clearly an above-replacement level performer. That's six consecutive seasons of being below replacement. Yet, two different teams acquired him twice. Each team gladly got rid of him the first time after he performed horribly for them. Each team signed him again. Why? Is he just a nice guy? Does he have incriminating photos of someone? Are GMs just still in love with the potential he showed as a 22 year old in Mexico and dream of being the ones to finally unlock it? I posit a different theory: he is a Mutant. I think his power is to cause people to forget their previous experiences with him; a selective memory loss, of sorts. For those GMs, each time is the first time they picked him up. Yuni is a free agent again this off-season. It would seem that it's the Mariners' turn to repeat past mistakes, although one can't count out the Royals. Dayton Moore certainly needs a new terrible player on his team now that Jeff Francoeur is no longer there.

Or Yuniesky could coach baseball at Xavier's School for the Gifted.

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