Christian Bethancourt caught his first major league game Saturday night in Philadelphia. He was sort of the Moonlight Graham of the Braves last season, as he had one big league at bat after his promotion in September. But Saturday against the Phillies was his first action behind the plate.
Behind the plate is where Bethancourt is going to make his money. Since the day he was signed as a 16-year-old, in March of 2008, Bethancourt has had the reputation as an above average defensive catcher with a tremendous throwing arm.
Luis Ortiz is the scout that signed Bethancourt out of Panama. Ortiz first saw Bethancourt when he was 14 years old, and Ortiz knew he was seeing something special.
"He lived across the street from the stadium there in Panama City," Ortiz said Saturday night while on the road scouting more international talent for the Braves. "He played all the time in there. That old place was built in 1938 and Christian played little league and high school ball there. He really just loves to play baseball."
Ortiz knew right away Bethancourt's pop time was special. That's the time from when the pitch hits the catcher's mitt to when his throw arrives at second base to try and nail a base runner. When Bethancourt got to the Gulf Coast League as a 17-year-old, he immediately showed Ortiz his special arm.
"I clocked him at 1.74 seconds," Ortiz said.
Anything under 2.0 seconds, specifically 1.9 seconds is considered average in the major leagues.
"It's a missile," Ortiz continued. "It's quick and it's powerful. The ball just leaves his hand… I've never seen anyone throw like that."
That feeling is shared by others.
"He's got the best arm I've ever seen," Gwinnett manager Brian Snitker said Friday. Snitker also said he had no doubt Bethancourt could hold his own if he got the call to the big leagues. It happened less than 24 hours after our conversation.
Bethancourt's arm is a lethal weapon. I have seen Bethancourt several times in spring training, but Friday was the first time I've seen him in an actual game. Sure enough, someone was dumb enough to try and steal second base on him, and Bethancourt gunned the runner down with room to spare.
The arm is special, but Bethancourt still needs development on working with pitchers. He speaks English well, and that's helped learning how to talk to his pitchers. Luckily, that's something that should improve in time.
As for his bat, it's gotten better over his climb up the minor league ladder, particularly in the last year. Since July 1 of last year, when Bethancourt was still in Double-A, he's hit .280 with 11 home runs and 58 runs batted in. In the last two months with Gwinnett, Bethancourt hit .301 with three home runs and 26 RBI.
Some have compared Bethancourt to Benito Santiago, the athletic catcher that spent 20 years in the big leagues with nine different teams (mainly San Diego). Santiago had a rocket arm and loved throwing runners out from his knees. He was rangy, like Bethancourt, who might look more like a shortstop than a catcher when you see him in uniform.
The Braves may need Bethancourt for only a few days, as they evaluate Evan Gattis' back spasms. But there has been talk the Braves were thinking about promoting Bethancourt anyway, to allow Gattis to move to left, Justin Upton to right and Jason Heyward to center to replace the struggling B.J. Upton.
That might be on hold for now, as B.J. Upton has showed a little, and we mean a little more progress as the leadoff hitter. But it's still an option for the Braves this season.
Either way, Bethancourt is definitely a player to watch. He's a player with real value, and whether he's good enough to move Gattis from behind the plate one day or be used in a trade, Bethancourt is someone that can really help this Atlanta team.
And it'll just be fun to watch Bethancourt throw. Let's just hope opposing runners are brave enough (or maybe just plain stupid enough) to run on Atlanta's new young catcher.
Listen to "The Bill Shanks Show" from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WPLA Fox Sports 1670 AM in Macon and online at http://www.foxsports1670.com/. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at email@example.com.
Bethancourt's arm is something special
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