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Christian Bethancourt’s rough debut

The Padres’ ongoing attempt to turn Christian Bethancourt into a pitcher hit some turbulence in the opening week.

San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

Trying to analyze baseball in April isn’t all that fair to the players. The season just started and here we are trying to break it down, unable to let it develop and breathe for even a week. We’d be awful sommeliers.

Baseball is back, though, and we’re going to talk about it, small sample sizes be damned. I felt the need to acknowledge how unfair this is because what follows revolves around 1 23 innings pitched from a catcher-turned-brand-new-reliever. While few, those innings were still big league innings, so for the first time ever, we can take a look at Christian Bethancourt, reliever.

Let’s just cut to the chase: in his first taste of 2017 action for the Padres, Bethancourt was absolutely terrible. He appeared in the first and fourth games of the season and each instance was a brutal look at a man new to his craft. Here’s a detailed breakdown of his 1 23 innings against the Dodgers to see exactly what we’re working with.

Bethancourt Pitch Breakdown

Pitch Info Total
Pitch Info Total
Pitches 60
Balls 32
Strikes 28
Called Strikes 7
Swinging Strikes 1
Strikeouts 0
Walks 6
Wild Pitches 2
Data via Baseball Savant

Oh my.

Six walks, two wild pitches, and not a single strikeout; that’s not what you want to see. Four of those walks came consecutively in his second appearance. The two wild pitches came in the same at-bat in his first appearance and both scored a runner from third base. It’s an initial conjecture, but it seems as though having someone in his peripheral vision on third is a detriment. Sounds exactly like something a new pitcher not yet comfortable on the mound could struggle with. At the very least it’s something worth keeping an eye on.

As bad as the above numbers are, the most concerning is probably that Bethancourt only induced one swinging strike. His 36.7 percent zone percentage isn’t actually that bad — only a little bit worse than league average — but the type of misses are what’s concerning. Take a look at a strike zone chart of every pitch from his two appearances against the Dodgers opening week.

Strike Zone Plot via Baseball Savant

When he missed, he REALLY missed. His Fastballs tended to sail high, with exaggerated arm-side run. Bethancourt threw just eight changeups and only once was he able to throw the cambio for a strike. By throwing his changeup so rarely and struggling to find the zone with it, Bethancourt effectively rendered himself a one pitch pitcher.

Take a look at the walk he issued to Yasiel Puig, the first of four straight. At no point did Puig, who’s never shy about swinging the bat, show any interest of offering.

The first fastball missed significantly up and in. This was followed by a changeup that actually wasn’t terrible, but was hurt by his wildness. If Bethancourt was ahead in the count, or if the batter had any belief that Bethancourt could possibly get ahead in the count by throwing strikes, he might chase that pitch. Next is a borderline fastball that Puig clearly has no intention of swinging at. Last is a a fastball way inside for ball four.

This seems like a notable at bat because it was the first walk in the sequence of four consecutive. It’s not like Puig had seen the previous two or three hitters get issued free passes and decide to make Bethancourt throw a couple of strikes before he’d swing. This is Puig knowing not to make the same mistake that Chase Utley did in the previous at-bat, which ended up a 3-1 ground-out. The Dodgers said, “prove to us that you can throw the ball over the plate,” and Bethancourt couldn’t do it.

Bethancourt has good fastball velocity and horizontal movement — that’s why he’s been given this chance — but vertically, his fourseamer may not differ enough from his changeup. Again, these numbers are based on very few pitches, but velocity and movement particulars are numbers that are reliable pretty quickly. The change from PITCHf/x to Trackman for collecting velocity data is important to keep in mind generally, but for our purposes here, we’re just comparing the two pitch types in the same year.

Bethancourt FF and CH Characteristics

Pitch Type xMov zMov Velo
Pitch Type xMov zMov Velo
FF (2016, pfx) -6.6 5.8 92.1
CH (2016, pfx) -6.5 5.0 81.8
FF (2017, Trackman) -7.2 6.8 94.7
CH (2017, Trackman) -3.4 8.4 84.4
Data via FanGraphs and Baseball Savant

When comparing the four-seam fastball to the changeup, it’s pretty striking how similar they are. In 2016 their movement was essentially identical, with only velocity as a differentiator. In 2017 the pitches have maintained the velocity difference but have separated some in regards to movement. This is good news, but, in a curious development, the changeup has displayed more rise than the four-seamer. To put that in context only one pitcher in baseball last season (minimum 60 IP) had a changeup with higher vertical movement than his four-seam fastball: David Robertson, and only by half an inch.

There is definite cause for concern around Bethancourt the pitcher. He hasn’t thrown his changeup for strikes and even if he could, does it’s movement differ enough from the fastball to fool anybody? While he can throw the fastball for strikes, when he misses it seems to be far enough off the plate that hitters don’t even have to consider offering.

It’s only been 1 23 innings, so there’s a chance that this is all incredibly premature and that he’ll settle down with more opportunities. But the early returns show a guy in over his head who should probably be in a lower level working to refine his new craft. Christian Bethancourt converting from catcher to pitcher has the potential to be a great story, but only if it works.

. . .

Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @mrchrisanders.