Yuniesky Betancourt Is Taking His Talents to Japan
The Orix Buffaloes of Japan’s NPB have reportedly reached an agreement with long-time major leaguer Yuniesky Betancourt for 2014. It is an interesting and likely expensive (at least by NPB standards) move by Orix which is looking to make a splash after losing star foreign player Dae-ho “Big Boy” Lee to the much wealthier SoftBank Hawks.
Betancourt is pretty much the ultimate anti-Money Ball player. The sabermatricians just hate him. He’s the kind of player who was once common in major league baseball but has largely disappeared in the last two decades as the value of comprehensive statistical analysis has become accepted throughout MLB.
To some eyewitnesses, Betancourt’s talents seemed fairly obvious. He hits for a good average and has good power for a shortstop. However, he walks less often than just about any player of the last generation who has been an every-day player for more than five seasons. He has speed, but is not a good base runner, having stolen 30 bases in his career in 60 attempts. On defense, he makes just enough flashy plays to disguise the fact that his defense is well below major league average.
Betancourt has played in at least 134 games in seven of his nine major league seasons, yet fangraphs values his career contributions as worth negative $7.0 million compared to what his teams would have gotten from a replacement level player, i.e., someone off the team’s bench or out of the minor leagues. That’s pretty bad, and not so easy to do, since players as bad as Betancourt usually don’t stick in the majors as long as he has.
All that being said, I’m not entirely certain that Orix’s decision to sign Betancourt is as bad or inexplicable as the decisions by the Royals and the Brewers (twice each, no less) to sign him the last few seasons. Betancourt has a career .261 major league batting average, and NPB teams still love batting average the way major league teams did 30 or 40 years ago. Also, Betancourt does have some power, which could really blossom in Japan’s small ballparks against an overall inferior level of pitching.
Still, Betancourt’s .595 OPS for Milwaukee last season was particularly bad even for him. Given his exceedingly modest peak value to begin with, one has to wonder whether he’ll be one of those players whose performance falls off a cliff at age 32, the age which Betancourt turns in only three days.