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What To Expect From Wilson Betemit in 2011

Wilson Betemit's breakout performance in 2010 was a feather in an otherwise arrow-filled cap for the Moore regime at the Major League level. Precisely the kind of player any bad team with roster spots to spare should be acquiring, Betemit smacked 13 homers in a half-season for the Royals. Once a highly touted prospect in the Atlanta system, the Royals were Betemit's fifth organization since 2006. That tells you that multiple General Managers have been intrigued by Betemit's potential, and that multiple GMs have also been willing to let him go. The funny thing is, save for a disastrous run with the White Sox in 2009, Betemit's never really been terrible at the big league level. He was just never quite good enough. Was 2010 simply an isolated peak in Betemit's performance or did he establish a new performance level?

The Royals, in effect, have hedged their bets with Wilson. The Royals elected to bring Betemit back in 2011, but they failed to sign him to a long-term contract. Let'stry to break down exactly what happened in 2010 for Betemit:

  • First, we have Betemit's 2010 triple slash (BA/OBP/SLG) line of .297/.378/.511. Betemit has always demonstrated modest power in the Major Leagues, but nothing in his profile suggested that he would post a line like that, especially regarding his average and OBP. If we discount Betemit's two cups of coffee with the Braves in 2001 and 2004, we see that between 2005-2009, he hit .263/.327/.445 in 1218 PAs.
  • You can make the case that seeing regular playing time helped Betemit find his rhythm at the plate. Perhaps it did. Certainly, a .361 average on balls in play (BABIP, you knew it was coming) also helped. However, Betemit has actually posted some high BABIPs in the past. In 2008, his BABIP was .344. This is definitely a little odd for a player who is usually a better bet to hit under .250 than over .300. 
  • The next thing that we notice is that Betemit not only did better with balls in play, he also produced more of them. He's regularly struck out in between a quarter to a third of his PAs over his career. In 2010, he took a small step forward, striking out in "just" 26.8% of his PAs. That's still a very high number, but even including 2010, his career average is 28.3%. He's had years over 30%, and trimming his strikeouts just that modest amount, coupled with a very good/lucky year in having his hits fall, led to a previously unforeseeable batting average.
  • At the same time, Betemit also saw his walk rate modestly tick upwards. Betemit walked in 11.4% of his PAs in 2010, against a career average of 9.4%. His walk rate has fluctuated wildly, but 2010 was his most patient year since 2007. Betemit was more patient in 2010, swinging at just 42.8% of pitches seen, again down from a career average of 45.1%. (All of these career averages, I should repeat, include the 2010 data. Obviously his pre-2010 averages would be lower/worse for each.) When you combine his lower strikeout numbers with his better discipline, you get a compound effect. Betemit was much more in control of the pitcher/hitter battle in 2010.
  • There was also a shift in Betemit's GB/FB profile. In 2010 Betemit hit the ball in the air more than he had in the past, posting a 44.8% FB rate. This was a huge increase over his 36% career average. Curiously, his LD rate was not especially out of line, which may suggest just randomness, or perhaps than a number of his "fly balls" were actually "liners." 

    All in all, 2010 stands out as a year in which a number of modest improvements in various areas led to a career year for Betemit. It wasn't really an out of nowhere breakout, so much as it was simply a guy doing everything a little bit better. However, if Betemit is now functionally patient at the plate, he might indeed be headed for something of a new performance level. It'll be interesting to see if he remains more of a flyball hitter in 2011, and what that may or may not do to his batting average. Year to year, a hitter's batting average on balls in play is unstable (which is why it tends to get talked about as an indicator of luck), although the effect is more volatile for pitchers. Within the realm of luck/possible luck there is one factor working in Betemit's favor: he really didn't have a fluky year in terms of HR/FB. Betemit homered in just 14% of his fly balls, something of a low number, especially in a career year.

    The MARCEL projection system essentially agrees with the view that Betemit may be a new hitter, although not quite one that can hit .300 very often. MARCEL projects a .271/.338/.446 line. That seems very reasonable to me. The mysterious Bill James system, usually thought of as optimistic for hitters, spits out a .261/.332/.442 season in 2011 for Betemit. However, if Betemit's maturity at the plate continues, he might best those projections. Another year of modest upticks in pitches seen and walks, coupled with another reduction in strikeouts, would help Betemit weather a likely drop in raw batting average.

    Betemit isn't a star in the making, I think. With a lingering elbow injury and quasi-competition in the Royal infield, he's not even a sure bet to get 400 PAs. Still, he doesn't seem likely to hit .230 with no walks and a two homers a month either. We'll see.