Christian Bethancourt as the Ultimate Utility Player

While fans of 20 teams were coping with the end of the season over the weekend, Dennis Lin delivered some incredibly exciting news. Padres manager Andy Green and host of other Padres officials were in Peoria to watch Christian Bethancourt throw a bullpen session. An injured player throwing an October bullpen session wouldn’t normally draw the manager, pitching coach, bullpen coach, minor-league pitching coordinator, and player-development coordinator, but this was no ordinary rehab session.

“We’re flirting with the idea of this guy being a very intriguing ’25th man’ who can catch, can play the outfield and can pitch,” Green said. “I know no team has actually really tried to deploy a guy in that capacity — probably ever when you consider those three dynamics.

“We’ll run as far down that road as his arm allows us to. I don’t know that we’re firmly committed to that or married to that, but it’s worth exploring.”

That’s right: the Padres are exploring the idea of making Bethancourt a catcher, outfielder, and pitcher hybrid.

Since you’re reading something on FanGraphs, you’ve probably already decided that baseball is great. And if you think baseball is great, that probably means there are particular parts of baseball that truly appeal to you. Lots of people love nasty sliders, high heat, or mammoth home runs. Some people dig stolen bases or framing. Everyone has their favorites. Maybe Andrelton Simmons registering a 6-3 putout from left field is your jam.

Three of my absolute favorite parts of baseball are utility players, catchers throwing, and players who are asked to play out of position. In other words, the prospect of an elite throwing catcher turning into a utility player who plays the three least similar positions in baseball is essentially the definition of my beat.

This is an extraordinary event because it’s the first of its kind. If the Padres’ experiment is successful, Bethancourt won’t just pitch in total blowouts; he’ll actually have a semi-regular role as a reliever without giving up his duties as a backup catcher and outfielder. Players have switched from one side of the ball to the other (think Rick Ankiel and Sean Doolittle), but occupying both roles simultaneously isn’t very common. Shohei Otani is dominating the NPB as a hitter and pitcher in a way that would make Babe Ruth blush, but there isn’t a North American equivalent. Micah Owings and Brooks Kieschnick have tried it, but neither were catchers and neither made a significant impact.

There’s a very simple set of reasons why there aren’t more two-way players in MLB. First, you need a player who is capable of playing on both sides of the ball, which means you need someone who can throw a minimum of 90 mph off the mound and perform ably enough in the batter’s box. That qualification doesn’t entirely limit you among the population of major-league players, but nearly everyone with that kind of arm — and reasonable command of it — becomes a pitcher. Madison Bumgarner is probably a good enough hitter that he could have succeeded as a position player if he were placed on that development track, but his talent for pitching led the Giants to choose the mound.

In other words, anyone who is good enough at pitching for this kind of thing to make sense is drafted as a pitcher and then asked to focus on pitching exclusively for the sake of his development. Playing baseball at this level is extremely difficult and choosing a specialty is necessary for young players. For the players who succeed, there’s no going back. For players that fail, they’ve likely been away from the other side of the game too long for their skills to remain. Some players make the transition, but it’s rare.

Enter Christian Bethancourt. He’s a tremendous defensive catcher, registering some of the best pop times of anyone to suit up during the Statcast era, but he’s not much of a hitter. In 482 career MLB plate appearances, he’s recorded a 59 wRC+. He was better in the minors, but two different organizations seem to think he’s never going to develop into a talented hitter. To put it another way, Bethancourt isn’t a good enough hitter for the Padres to plan for him to be their everyday catcher of the future. Despite his defensive skills, the club thinks they can find a better overall player to get the majority of the reps behind the dish. For this reason, Bethancourt got some playing time in the outfield this year (73.2 innings), becoming a rare catcher/outfielder combination. He also got 0.1 innings at second base!

This transition seems obvious. Bethancourt probably can’t hit enough to be a regular, and any flexibility a club can create within its bench is positive. And, of course, every team needs a position player who can pitch in blowouts, so his strong arm made him an obvious fit to get 1.2 innings of necessary mop-up duty in 2016. Pretty much any team would have gone into the winter figuring that Bethancourt could serve as a bench player while also providing bullpen insurance, but the Padres have decided to lean into it and train him to serve as a reliever.

There are three main reasons why this is such a smart idea. First, it creates an extra roster spot. You need a certain number of bench players to make sure you’re covered in case of injury/ejection/fatigue and the more of those necessary backups you fit into each roster spot the better. Having a backup catcher who can do things besides catch gives you another roster spot to use on something else, like a good pinch-hitter who can’t play the field. But Bethancourt takes this to a new level because he can fill that role and the seventh slot in the bullpen. That last pitcher isn’t used in very many important situations but takes up a roster spot all the same. If the Padres carry a super-utility version of Bethancourt, they free up another bullpen spot for a situational guy or another bench bat.

Bethancourt is also a game-changer because he’s a catcher. If you’ve ever watched a baseball game in which the catcher isn’t a great hitter or runner, chances are you’ve realized how terrified managers are about substituting out their catcher in key spots because of what might happen if the backup gets hurt. Most clubs carry two catchers. If the backup gets hurt, they have to turn to the emergency catcher, usually the last man on the bench. Managers don’t care for that arrangement, so they almost never sub out their catcher. Bethancourt changes this because he is a catcher who isn’t really a catcher in the roster-construction sense. If Catcher No. 1 gets pinch run for and Catcher No. 2 gets injured late, the Padres can turn to Bethancourt as a true catcher rather than someone who has never tried to catch a slider in real life.

Additionally, this also allows the Padres to perform the Waxahachie Swap with regularity. If you’re not familiar with this, it’s the move where you bring in a reliever to get an out, move him to the outfield for a single batter to call on a reliever of the opposite hand, and then bring back the first reliever to the mound. If Bethancourt is an effective reliever, the Padres could do this all the time because he’s an actual position player, not just a decent athlete who can probably stay upright when a fly ball comes his way.

There’s also simple the awesomeness factor. Even if it doesn’t save the Padres a lot of roster spots, having him on the roster to throw 10 innings while also catching and playing some outfield would be a lot of fun, especially as the club rebuilds. It would be a delightful novelty.

Yet in a very real way, you could imagine Bethancourt at least saving the Padres one or two roster spots simply with his presence. If the team has eight regulars, five starters, and six other relievers, that leaves you with six available roster spots. Bethancourt is one. You can choose to have five bench players, leaving room for a backup catcher and an extra hitter, or you can junk the other catcher and essentially free up two roster spots for players with limited skills like Terrance Gore or a true bat-only pinch hitter.

I don’t know if Bethancourt has what it takes to become a truly legitimate bullpen piece, but it’s worth a try. He has a great arm and seems more than happy to give it a shot. The downside is that he might get hurt, but that seems like a small enough risk given the potential value he could unlock simply by serving as a fringy reliever. If he winds up being reasonably good, he could provide value on the mound and in the bonus roster spot — to say nothing of the sheer entertainment value of the guy who trots out of the pen to throw an inning and then hits for himself before donning the gear and catching another two innings.

Neil Weinberg is the Site Educator at FanGraphs and can be found writing enthusiastically about the Detroit Tigers at New English D. Follow and interact with him on Twitter @NeilWeinberg44.

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7 years ago

Nice article. To be fair though some position players were so good at hitting that they didn’t go the pitching route. Josh Hamilton hit 99mph in hs, no way he couldn’t of had a future on the mountd. Harper was also an elite pitcher with upper echelon velocity, probably quite a few guys follow that career paths.

7 years ago
Reply to  carter

Played against Clint Frazier in HS, he hit 94 on the mound as a junior at a showcase. He didn’t even pitch for his HS team.