It's His Yuni-Verse

It has been a little while since we discussed a blog favorite, Yuniesky Betancourt … which is a shame because Yuni is having what might be his worst season and he is on pace to do something that has not been done in more than 100 years.

I’m shocked that I missed this -- I must denounce myself for being distracted by unimportant sports stuff like the U.S. Open and NBA Finals -- but Saturday morning, I was scanning the Baseball Reference best and worst batters of the day. There was our guy Yuni right at the top (or at the bottom) having gone 0-for-5 with an error in the Brewers 4-3 extra-inning loss to Cincinnati. When I clicked on the box score I saw that the Brewers were not only hitting Betancourt fifth -- FIFTH! -- but playing him at first base. Even the Royals didn’t do that. I believe there is a chapter in the Bible somewhere saying something like “He who shall batteth Yuni Betancourt fifth whilst at the same time standest him at the base that is first shall be perfumed in myrrh and beer and stoned with bags of Cracker Jack.”

Then I saw that twice this year, the Brewers have started Betancourt at first and hit him CLEANUP -- and even the Bible does not discuss such heresy.

Betancourt had an amazing journey to the big leagues. He is from Cuba and was, at one point, one of the most thrilling and excellent young players in the Cuban League. He wanted more from life and escaped by speedboat to Mexico where he flashed ridiculous talent, especially as a defender. The Mariners scouts saw him, liked him, and signed him for $3.65 million for four years. I love what Benny Looper, then SeattleVP of player development and scouting (now with the Phillies), said when they signed the deal:

“We are excited by this. We like him as a baseball player.”

Yes, well, that’s the best kind of guy to sign, rather than someone you like as a sous chef or dance instructor. Of course, what he meant was that Betancourt was one of those kaleidoscopic athletes who could really play just about any position, and in this he was right as Betancourt has played at least 30 games at each of the four infield positions.

He was a dazzling fielder when he first arrived on the Seattle scene. No player in baseball made more riveting plays than Yuni. He also hit .289 his first two full seasons, .279 his third year, flashing a bit of power and a tiny bit of speed. The package, shockingly, did not add up into a star player -- you would think a shortstop who makes more dazzling plays than anyone, hits a more than respectable .289 or so and 35 or so doubles would be a star.

But the young Yuni had these kryptonite flaws that made his game less than whole. He made great defensive plays, but he was not a great fielder … he made errors, he could not stay interested, he proved surprisingly lead footed at times. He hit for a decent average but he almost never walked so his on-base percentages, even in his best years, were well below average. Meanest of all, his body agest unnaturally fast. At 25, he was still a pretty decent player for all his failings. By 27, he was one of the worst every day players in baseball.

Well, in retrospect, it wasn’t that hard to see. When he was hitting .289, his offense could almost compensate for his obsession with swinging at bad pitches. But when the average dropped to .250, forget it. When he was making 50 or 60 great plays a year, his defense could almost overcome his inconsistencies. When that dropped to 20 or 30 great plays, forget it. Of course, right when this transformation was happening, the Kansas City Royals traded for him.

I once wrote that Norv Turner must be one heck of a guy -- and great at interviews -- because he keeps getting hired as NFL head coach and keeps his job for shockingly long periods of time. He coached the Washington Hogs football team for seven years while taking them to the playoffs once. Then the Oakland Raiders hired him for two terrible years, which is like seven years for any other team. THEN the San Diego Chargers hired him to coach what had been, perhaps, the best team in the NFL, and he stayed there for six years with stupendously uninteresting results. So when people say that Norv’s a good guy, hey, he MUST be a good guy.

Same goes with Yuni Betancourt. He was traded to Kansas City, where for two seasons he had a negative Wins Above Replacment (WAR) -- meaning he was calculated to play worse than a replacement player who could be found in Class AAA somewhere. He then went to Milwaukee, where, again, he scored a negative WAR.

Then, Kansas City SIGNED HIM AGAIN -- where he scored a negative WAR before the team finally released him. After two brief and, I must assume, unhappy months with the Phillies in spring training, he was released again and who signed him? MILWAUKEE. Man, he must tell the best jokes.

This year, he’s hitting .213/.242/.366, which is amazing, especially that .242 on-base percentage. He has walked eight times this year, but even that’s deceiving because two of them were intentional*.

*One of the intentional walks led to a walk-off single by a 30-year-old backup catcher and pinch hitter named Blake Lalli who is a .128 hitter in his 40 career big league at-bats. That makes me so happy.

He has played five positions this year, but he’s mostly at first base. He’s played more games at first base than any other Brewers players, which, like the concept of black holes and dying stars, boggles the mind. I mean, when he was playing shortstop or second base or some defense-heavy position, well, maybe you could see it. But how bad would your options have to be to make Yuni Betancourt your first baseman? It’s the easiest position on the diamond to play, the far right on the defensive spectrum, which means you can probably find a first baseman just about anywhere who can hit better than Yuni Betancourt. I can only assume that the Yuni flashes of power -- he has eight home runs -- and his general charisma has the Brewers enthralled. Also, their pitching is so bad maybe it just doesn’t matter much.

But here’s the thing: Betancourt is well under replacement level again -- 1.1 wins under replacement already. And he has a chance to do something. If the Brewers will just keep playing him every day, and he can maintain this pace, he will become the first player since Bill Bergen* more than 100 years ago to score SIX CONSECUTIVE SEASONS of negative WAR. For any player to play six consecutive years in the big leagues with negative WAR -- it’s really almost miraculous.

*Bergen was an astonishing player at the beginning of the 20th Century who hit .170/.194/.201 but got more than 3,000 plate appearances in the National League. How was this possible? He was an excellent defensive catcher, really top notch, which doesn’t exactly explain why he got so many big league at-bats but, hey, it’s something.

Bergen is tangentially related to one of the great mysteries in Hall of Fame voting. His older brother Marty was also a big league catcher -- it was said that Bill learned his defensive skills from Marty. While Bill was generally liked, though, Marty was erratic and odd and mean. According to this fine SABR piece, they called him “eccentric” in the press. It was code for dangerous and scary. Marty Bergen once slapped teammate Vic Willis for simply sitting down at the same dining table. He was so despised that, he claimed, his own teammates would yell “strike him out” when he was batting. What was not known then, not in these terms, was that Marty Bergen was mentally ill. He apparently told a doctor that he was afraid that he was “not right in the head.”

Shortly after that, he killed his family in the most violent ways imaginable and then killed himself.

It’s a horrible story without mystery -- everyone knows Marty Bergen did it, and the doctor pronounced him a “maniac” in several interviews -- but here’s the mystery comes 37 years later when Marty Bergen got two Hall of Fame votes. Two. That was more than eight players who would actually end up in the Hall of Fame. Bergen was not an especially good player -- he was a good defender, but everyone despised him him and he only played 344 games in a pre-1900 National League -- so how in the world did TWO people vote him for the Hall of Fame? Was it a sick joke? A strange miscalculation?

Then, in 1938, he got one more Hall of Fame vote.

Then, in 1939, he get still one MORE Hall of Fame vote.

What gives? Bill James has theorized that the Bergen murder was very famous, and so it was possible that by the late 30s there was a writer who saw the name Marty Bergen, remembered it without realizing why he remembered it, and kept voting for him.

I wonder, though, if the guy might not have been confusing him with his brother. Of course voting Bill Bergen into the Hall of Fame is bizarre for entirely different reasons since he is probably the worst hitter in baseball history, but Bergen really did have a reputation as a defensive wizard. He once threw out six would-be base stealers in a single game. So maybe that was the thing. Hey, it’s better than voting for a guy who slaughtered his family.