Newly acquired third baseman Wilson Betemit will be reporting to the Tigers today and should be available for tonight’s series opener with the Twins in Minnesota. Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski hinted that Betemit would bat near the bottom of the lineup, which is something Rod and Mario agreed with during the FSD broadcast last night. Afterall, where but ninth are you going to hit him on most nights?
Betemit brings a .750 OPS with him from Kansas City this year after posting an .885 OPS last season for the Royals. Obviously, his bat, even with only three home runs this year, has a bit of pop and should represent an immediate upgrade to the Tigers’ lineup. It’s what he brings with the glove that scares me.
No matter where he has played, the city or the position, Betemit has been a bad defender. He’s seen major league time at every infield position and both corner outfield spots, but the near 2500 innings he’s gotten at third are over 2000 more than he’s seen at any other spot. Betemit is nothing short of a butcher at the hot corner, however.
Over his career at third base, Betemit has a UZR/150 (Ultimate Zone Rating adjusted to 150 games played) of -13.1. Last season, Betemit played 455 innings at third (roughly 50 games) and was rated 10.1 runs below average at the position, or -30.3 UZR/150. This year, he played in 418 innings at third and has been better, coming in at -2.0 UZR (-4.3 UZR/150). The variance from year to year with UZR is one reason you can’t soley rely on one defensive metric, but when you look at the body of his nine-year career, you can easily see that a negative run value for Betemit at third base isn’t an random occurance.
Sure, you can expect to see Don Kelly take over late in games when the Tigers are leading, but errors and balls not gotten to count in the third and fourth innings just as much as they do in the eighth and ninth. The Tigers are gambling that Betemit can play enough defense to not cost them severely with his glove, and provide enough offense to make up for any shortcomings he does have on defense. That’s precisely why this move had to be made; as good as Brandon Inge had been defensively, he wasn’t performing at that same level this season, and his bat was so poor that he became useless entirely.
Betemit’s bat should give the Tigers a boost at the bottom of the order and at least make them look more like an American League lineup again. Betemit is hitting .345 with runners in scoring position this year and there figures to be regular traffic on the bags ahead of him. He doesn’t walk a ton, and he is prone to strikeouts, but he has good doubles power.
Betemit swings at too many pitches out of the zone, but he makes contact on 70 percent of those swings. You could assume that would contribute to his lower than career average line drive rate of 16.9% and probably also explain his drop in home run production. Even with his free-swinging nature, however, Betemit is carrying a BABiP of .372 this year. While that number seems very high and it is probable to regress, Betemit has a career BABiP of .336, so a significant drop-off shouldn’t be expected.
Another factor that I think could be in play is that while in Kansas City, Betemit was routinely hitting in the middle third of the batting order and was counted upon to be a run-producer. The Tigers already have a deep lineup and hitting eighth or ninth should take some of the pressure off him.
It’s possible, though this is only a guess, that some of the increase in Betemit’s tendency to chase pitches this year could be a product of trying to do too much as a middle-of-the-order hitter, which is something he’s really not. If a drop in the order, and with a lineup full of all-stars around him, can give Betemit a bit of a breather mentally, he might be better able to lay off the bad pitches going forward. Doing that should allow for a rise in his line drive rate and probably also his home runs rates. Obviously, if he’s hitting better pitches, he has a better shot of hitting them hard.
Betemit is not a perfect ballplayer by any stretch, but he will be better than what the Tigers have gotten so far this year. He didn’t cost much in terms of prospects and there is no commitment beyond this season. He’s exactly the kind of player the Tigers should have been targeting to fill the third base void. That said, with Betemit now the everyday man at third, there will be a few more ground balls getting through the left side, and that’s something the Tigers have decided to live with.