Atlanta Braves catching prospect Christian Bethancourt entered 2013 as an enigma, to me anyway. Many scouts and analysts were very high on him. Signed out of Panama for $600,000 in 2008, he was praised as a top catching prospect for several years despite a history of spotty performances.
Premium defensive tools and a good dose of general athleticism were the main attractions. He looks like an ideal catcher: 6-2, 195, strong arm, a lot of quickness and mobility behind the plate. Some scouts talked about him having Gold Glove defensive potential. Interestingly, he did a solid job against baserunners, usually throwing out around 38%, but his passed ball and error rates were quite high.
Still, mobility and athleticism are more important for young catchers than reliability. Reliability usually improves with time; mobility usually gets worse. You can't teach having a good arm and fast reflexes, and Bethancourt had everything he needed to be a top-notch defender. I bought into the idea that he would be a valuable defender.
But the bat, that was another issue. Although some scouting reports said he had good offensive potential, his actual production was usually very weak. He entered 2013 with a career line of .265/.297/.356; the average was OK, but his OBP was unacceptable and he produced very little power.
I was very skeptical about him this spring, and it wasn't just because of the numbers. Seeing him play in person, the two things that stood out most were an ultra-aggressive lunge-at-anything approach, and a bad swing that seemed to vary between at-bats, sometimes choppy, sometimes loopy and long, and always ineffective. Combine a poor approach with bad hitting mechanics and you get, well, you get a career .297 OBP with a .356 SLG. You also get a .243/.275/.291 line in Double-A, which is what he hit last year at Mississippi.
The potentially saving grace was age: he entered '13 at age 21, still young enough to grow. It was also true that the Braves had promoted him aggressively even when his performance did not warrant it: he was over his head against anything but very mediocre pitching, but the Braves felt he would improve with experience.
Returning to Mississippi for '13, he made some progress this season, hitting .277/.305/.436 overall. That's still not great. . .his wRC+ was 112, decent but not terrific, but it is better than his previous seasons. He's tapping into his power better now, hitting 12 homers and 21 doubles this year. Looking at the splits reveals strong production against left-handed pitching (.308/.360/.495) and a good second half (.297/.325/.486).
Reports from Southern League observers indicate that Bethancourt made progress keeping his swing together this year and is driving balls more effectively. He is still impatient, especially against right-handed pitchers (eight walks against 51 strikeouts), and it remains to be seen if he will maintain his gains against Triple-A competition, let alone major league pitching.
My thinking is that he's made some significant, but not decisive, improvements in his game. Although he's on the 40-man roster, Bethancourt has not (yet) been promoted to the majors for September. We will continue to monitor him.