In my other gig at Baseball Prospectus writing about fantasy baseball, I’m always on the hunt for interesting (or unique) players to profile.  I generally look for players who have altered their output (for better or for worse), try to identify the root causes and then speculate whether it’s sustainable or not.

It was with this approach in mind I decided write about our own Yuniesky Betancourt.

(Groan.  I know.  Another Yuni post.  We are all guilty of flogging this horse to death.  This will be the one and only time I weigh in on this.  Unless he wins the MVP.  Which, according to some PR flacks and assorted media fanboys, seems like a better than 50% shot.  Anyway, keep reading… Hopefully, you’ll find something new.)

We all know that Yuni is something of a free swinger at the plate.  A true grip it and rip it approach.  Only he’s pretty light on the rip it part of that cliche.  Until recently.  What gives?

For the season, Betancourt is expanding his strike zone and swinging at pitches deemed by Pitch f/x to be outside of the zone over 40% of the time.  That’s an astronomically high number – and a career high for Betancourt.  According to Fangraphs, here are the hitters who swing at the highest percentage of pitches outside the zone.

Vladimir Guerrero – 46.7%
Pablo Sandoval – 43.7%
Jeff Francoeur – 43.2%
A.J. Pierzynski – 42.9%
Delmon Young – 42.2%
Brennan Boesch – 42.1%
Alfonso Soriano – 40.8%
Alex Gonzalez – 40.2%
Yuni Betancourt – 40.1%
Adrian Beltre – 40.0%

I present that list without comment.  Mainly because, I don’t know what to make of this collection of players.  We all know that Francoeur isn’t good at baseball, but Guerrero is still capable of crushing a pitch.  Beltre is having a great season and Young is having a breakout year, but Boesch is back in the minors and Pierzynski is just horrible.  OK… maybe I lied about the “without comment” part.  The point is, there are good hitters on this list and there are bad ones.  Discipline isn’t exclusive to the best.

Just like other aspects of the game, the approach of one successful player won’t necessarily translate to the success of another player.  Francoeur and Guerrero swing at everything.  If I asked you which one you’d rather have on your team, I suspect I know the answer.

Let’s put Betancourt into the Francoeur category of those who swing at everything when they would be advised to modify their approach and narrow their strike zone.  It’s not a huge stretch. We’ve all seen Betancourt play.  And we’ve all seen him hit a soft pop up or a weak ground ball more than he’s made what I would call solid contact.  That’s likely because when he goes outside the zone and makes contact – which he does 77% of the time he swings at a pitch outside his zone – the contact he makes is generally weak.

Would it surprise you to learn that Betancourt has a career infield flyball rate of over 15%?  Almost one-fifth of all fly balls that leave his bat don’t travel to the outfield.  That’s embarrassing.  His 17.6% IFFB rate led the majors last year.  Because he doesn’t make good contact.  Because he’s swinging at bad pitches.

In games through August 2, Betancourt was hitting .253/.275/.383.  A little more power through than last year, but the OBP remained distressingly low.  Basically, it was more of the same for Betancourt.

Starting on August 3, Betancourt began his assault on American League pitching.  Since then, he’s had 61 plate appearances, crushed six home runs and hit .373/.383/.712.  Just an extraordinary and unforeseen turn of events.

It’s because he’s improved his plate discipline.

Take a look at the pitches Betancourt swung at in June of this year.  This is just one month, but it’s representative of his entire career.  (Believe me, I looked.  After awhile it’s like reading Green Eggs and Ham for the 215th time.)  If you’re a pitcher, you have to like what you see… There are a ton of ways to attack.  Sliders low and away.   High heat.  Anything inside.  Change-ups down.  It’s as if Betancourt approaches each plate appearance without the slightest idea of a plan of attack. From Texas Leaguers:

Compare that to the pitches he’s swung at during his hot streak.

He’s still offering at the high heat, but he’s not swinging at the inside pitch.  Nor is he chasing the low pitch.  Betancourt will still offer at the slider that’s down and away, but nowhere near as often as he has in the past.
We are all aware of the results.

Now the question is, will this new approach stick?  A couple of things make me skeptical.  For starters, since Betancourt went on this tear, he’s drawn a total of one walk – and it was intentional.  He’s already walking at a career low rate of once every 50 plate appearances, so ignoring the fact he did nothing to earn the solitary walk, he’s even worse than his current rate during his hot streak.  It’s curious that he seems to have improved his discipline, yet has seen his walk rate decline.

This means his lofty OBP is thanks to his inflated batting average.  Once the hits stop falling, the OBP is going to plummet. So will his value.

The second reason I doubt we will see this new and improved Yuni much longer is because the guy has over 2,900 plate appearances in his career.  He’s walked in just 3.2% of those while swinging at pitches outside the zone 32% of the time.  As the cliche goes: Old habits die hard.  Can a 28 year old major league hitter (I use that term loosely) with six years of experience under his belt, suddenly adjust his approach in such an extreme manner to the extent he alters his entire career?  Jeff Francoeur hit .284/.355/.531 in his first 93 plate appearances this year with nine walks.  Nine!  That gave him a 10% walk rate.  New York media was all over this.  It was a new day for Frenchy!  He turned it around, figured it out and was going to be awesome from now on!  This, from a guy who never walked more than 6% of the time in any full season in his career.

How’s that working out?

Since then, he’s hitting .214/.269/.322 and walked 19 times in 324 plate appearances.  Plus, seven of those walks were intentional.  Remove those intentional walks and he’s walking in just under 4% of his plate appearances.  This is the Frenchy everyone knows and loathes.

Eventually, Betancourt will have a couple of games where the hits won’t fall.  He’ll start to press.  The strike zone will expand.  And we’ll be right back to square one.

So I’ll go on the record right now and say there’s no way Betancourt continues his torrid pace for the rest of the year.  I’ll even go out on a limb and predict a line of .255/.262/.356 over the final month plus of the season.  This isn’t a stretch.  This is because we’ve all seen Betancourt play, and we all know exactly who he is.

Hey, I’ve enjoyed this offensive explosion from the man I dubbed the Yunigma as much as anyone.  I’m blogger enough to admit I never thought I’d see anything like this and it’s caught me off guard.  (Fun Yuni fact: eight of his 13 home runs have tied or given the Royals the lead.  I fully expect a barrage of PR Tweets telling me Betancourt is clutch.)

When a player has the tenure of Betancourt, to draw long-term conclusions based on less than one month of production is ill-advised.  Plus, understand that I’m not saying “Betancourt sucks” or the Royals should bench their shortstop.  It’s clear to everyone he’s been more productive at the plate than Mike Aviles, Chris Getz, Willie Bloomquist and anyone else you may think the Royals could use up the middle on the infield.  That speaks more to the cast of characters assembled by Dayton Moore than the talents of Betancourt.  It’s all relative.  While I advocated for Aviles to get more reps at short earlier in the season, he’s had a terrible last couple of months.  Betancourt deserves his time in the lineup.  There’s no one on this team who can dislodge him from his role.

However, by looking at the charts, I understand how this hot streak by Betancourt is happening.  And I understand how it’s going to end.

Old habits…