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Calling up Christian Bethancourt would be a bad idea

Atlanta shouldn't make a move just to "shake things up".

Christian Bethancourt's work behind the plate needs more time in the minor leagues.
Christian Bethancourt's work behind the plate needs more time in the minor leagues.

Yesterday, Mark Bowman dropped something of a bombshell when he reported that the Braves had been mulling over the idea of calling up Christian Bethancourt. Bethancourt would slot in at catcher, while Evan Gattis moved to left, Justin Upton moved to right, and Jason Heyward replaced the ever-struggling B.J. Upton in center.

Let me preface all this by saying that I like Christian Bethancourt as a prospect, I really do. But this is a terrible idea, for a number of reasons. Let's break them down.

1. Bethancourt is not ready. Like I said, I really do like Bethancourt as a prospect. But from my own observations, I don't believe he's ready to handle the majors yet. Whether behind the dish or with the bat, Bethancourt is still very raw. On defense, you can get a sense of this by watching his footwork. He's not very smooth yet, and can appear awkward when he has to range to his left or right in order to get in front of a pitch. He's also prone to giving up on and stabbing at pitches low in the zone. Stabbing at low balls, as Gerald Laird has proven, is a great way to guarantee you don't get any borderline strike calls. No one questions the undeniable strength of his arm - it's a true 80 tool - but the rest of his defensive profile can certainly use some seasoning.

Bethancourt's bat has improved since his wretched and forgettable 2012 campaign with AA Mississippi, but let's not get ahead ourselves. In 2013, he repeated AA and posted a .277/.305/.466 line. This year, he's posted a .274/.304/.371 line across 209 PAs with Gwinnett. That's a wOBA of .305 and a wRC+ of 84. That last statistic means he's been 16% worse than the average AAA player at the plate. And we should expect those numbers to decrease against MLB-level pitchers. This is not a Tommy La Stella-type player who can come in and enjoy immediate success. La Stella had 3 more years of polish and had a very good swing and batting eye. Bethancourt has neither.

2. Evan Gattis can't play left field. How quickly we forget. Evan Gattis can not play left field. I'm going to say that again. Evan Gattis can not play left field. In a mere 342 innings in left field in 2013, Gattis had a DRS mark of -10 and a UZR/150 mark of -24.1. For those of you who prefer errors, Gattis committed 4 fielding errors in 47 starts in left last year, despite having a range that even Chris Johnson thinks is bad. Jason Heyward has 7 fielding errors in his 555 start career, for comparison. The much-maligned B.J. Upton has only 29 in 967 career starts. And the eye test confirms what both standard and advanced defensive stats tell us. Gattis has a minuscule range, an awful first step, and no instincts whatsoever in the outfield. Replacing one of Atlanta's regulars with him would be an enormous defensive downgrade in the outfield. Given that Braves starting pitchers have the second-highest flyball percentage in the National League, that downgrade would be further exacerbated.

And here's the other thing: Evan Gattis has actually turned into a pretty decent defensive catcher. He's not great, but he's also not the butcher that some of us were afraid he would be. His pitch calling and pitch framing have both shown marked improvement as the season has worn along. And we all know he has a strong arm - it's no Christian Bethancourt, but it'll definitely play. I'm not trying to say that Bethancourt wouldn't be a defensive upgrade behind the dish over Gattis, but rather that it wouldn't be nearly as marked as some people think, thanks to Gattis's improvements.

Plus, as Ben hinted at on Twitter yesterday, why would you want to move Gattis in the first place? There's no easy way to quantify something like this, but Gattis is in the middle of an incredible tear and is still learning the ropes at catcher. Why would you want to force him into trying to learn a new position? Remember when Atlanta tried to get Joey Terdoslavich to switch to third base in 2012, and his bat suffered mightily as a result? This is anecdotal, to be sure, but it's a chance I wouldn't want to take.

3. B.J. Upton isn't that bad. Bear with me on this one. B.J. Upton is everybody's favorite whipping boy right now, and it's not without cause. His bat's been scuffling for the past year and a half, and he's committed several egregious fielding gaffes in the last few weeks that led directly to runs scoring. Please don't misconstrue this defense as me trying to tell you how awesome B.J. Upton is. He's not. But he's not devoid of value, either.

B.J. has improved on virtually all of his offensive statistics from last year. His putrid .184/.268/.289 line from 2013 has improved to .210/.284/.350 this year. The batting average is awful, but with a walk rate just south of 10% and an ISO of .140, he is contributing with his secondary skills. He's also stolen 11 bases already this year, proving his value on the basepaths. But what about his defense? Of all major league center fielders, Fangraphs ranks Upton 5th in terms of the defense component of WAR. This puts him behind only Billy Hamilton, Emilio Bonifacio, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Leonys Martin in terms of defensive value. That's hard to bench.

It's easy to bust on B.J. because of his nonchalant fielding style and poor batting average. The fact that he is continuing to hit second only serves to further highlight his offensive deficiencies. But don't let that fool you. B.J. has been worth 0.8 WAR so far this year. Over a full season, that comes out to be roughly a 2-win player. That's certainly not what the Braves payed for (which I suspect is reason for the consternation) but is most definitely not worthy of being benched.

To sum everything up, here's what Atlanta would gain and lose from this move:

What Atlanta would get What Atlanta would give up
Evan Gattis's "defense" in left Evan Gattis's defense behind the plate
Christian Bethancourt's offense B.J. Upton's offense
Christian Bethancourt's defense B.J. Upton's defense

To be completely honest with you, I almost view Upton and Bethancourt as a wash right now.  B.J. is hitting .210/.284/.350 right now in the bigs. Bethancourt is hitting .274/.304/.371. Aside for the batting average, there's really not much difference here. Upton has a OPS of .634, while Bethancourt has an OPS of .675 in AAA. I wouldn't expect Bethancourt to be able to put up an OPS over B.J.'s current .634 in the bigs, at least not anytime soon. I imagine that each would be above-average defenders at their respective positions. So, all in all, you'd basically be rolling the dice on Bethancourt to have an OPS greater than .634, and accepting a large defensive dropoff (In moving Gattis from behind the plate) in order to do so.

Bethancourt is still Atlanta's presumptive catcher of the future. But bringing him up now would not benefit Atlanta. In fact, it could even hurt them, especially if it stunts Gattis's bat or Bethancourt's development.


P.S. If you want to improve on the Braves's lineup, might I suggest first starting with regulars who have been worth fewer wins and put up a lower wRC+ than B.J. Upton? Just a thought.

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