The San Diego Padres 2016 season has been full of ups and downs. Okay, well maybe there have been more negatives than positives, but a few moments do stick out as very memorable.
On May 31 against the Seattle Mariners, Christian Bethancourt made his major league debut on the mound in a blowout loss. That moment was indeed memorable as nobody could have imagined how well he would look toeing the rubber. Bethancourt threw two-thirds of an inning for the club featuring a 94 MPH fastball and a 54 MPH eephus pitch. Yes an eephus pitch. Those two outs he recorded got the attention of all of major league baseball.
Throwing mid 90’s was enough to gain some looks, but being able to throw a pitch 40 MPH slower than your fastball is fascinating. I have often questioned why legit major league pitchers don’t utilize this lost pitch more. Not since the days of Bob Tewksbury have I seen an eephus pitch from a Padres pitcher. It is a fantastic way to keep a hitters timing off stride. Of course it is not glamorous tossing a ball up there at that speed, but it’s not about looking good, it’s about getting outs.
That appearance in Seattle was not his only showcase on the mound, as two weeks later he once again pitched for the Padres. On June 13 against the Miami Marlins, Bethancourt pitched a complete inning and kept his major league ERA at 0.00 for his career. Bethancourt struck out his first major league batter in that game and also walked one and hit a Marlin as well. This time out Bethancourt threw a knuckleball/eephus pitch to former teammate Chris Johnson that registered 49 MPH on the radar gun. He followed that up with a 93 MPH fastball that Johnson was late on. He flew out to center field in the at bat. That’s a 44 MPH differential on his pitches. Quite amazing.
Bethancourt has reportedly been throwing bullpen sessions as he and the team are exploring the idea of making him a catcher/outfielder/pitcher hybrid player. That’s pretty unusual news, as Bethancourt had been battling an abdominal injury and was placed on the 60-day D.L. last month. Apparently the injury is not that serious.
The idea of Bethancourt as a hybrid player is really interesting. As an offensive player, the 25-year-old Panamanian native has an intriguing future as well. If you ask some within the coaching staff, Bethancourt has one of the most powerful bats on the Padres team. He has shown light tower type of power with his bat and that is certainly exciting. Defensively, Bethancourt is athletic and nimble behind the plate. We already know about his cannon for a right arm as he continually throws out batters with ease. In the outfield this season he has been surprisingly productive as well. He is not a gold glover by any means, but he has shown the ability to track balls down and make the play. His athleticism has made the transition pretty much flawless. However, the Padres are stacked in the outfield currently and he has virtually no chance of playing there moving forward. Maybe pitching is the best way to utilize his talents.
The first pitch of that June 13 at bat against Chris Johnson is shown below in a GIF. A 49 MPH knuckleball is nearly impossible to square up when you are preparing yourself to hit a mid 90’s fastball.
We know he has the ability on a small-scale, but can he transition into a role like this successfully?
Bethancourt hasn’t allowed a single run yet as a pitcher, but he has only pitched in low-stress games that were way out of hand. The Padres might consider using him in that role moving forward, but they will do it with caution. In reality, Bethancourt has never pitcher before this season. Not in high school nor in the minors. Never. Yes, he does have a mid 90’s fastball and there are examples of players that have been converted from behind the dish, but those were special circumstances and those transitions were made in the minor leagues, not at the highest level of professional baseball. Those players that have made this change did it working solely on their new craft. Bethancourt would have to keep his timing with his swing, work with the pitchers and also get on the mound himself. Talk about a ton of work to be done.
Bethancourt is out of options as well. The team can not send him down to work on his pitching. All the learning must be done at the major league level. It’s not as though the Padres have the unrealistic expectations of him being a 7th or 8th inning guy, but he will have to learn against major league hitters. That could be tough, especially for a player who is to be your backup catcher and possible outfielder. There are even rumors about him at third base. Bethancourt might be able to play all these positions on the field, but to ask him to pitch is just way too much, in my opinion.
If the team wants to use him in blowouts occasionally then that is a different story. But please do it with caution. The last thing the team needs is a player like Bethancourt to injure himself in the 8th inning of a 10-1 game. That would be stupid. He has a decent future behind the dish. The Padres are loaded at the catcher position with Austin Hedges, Derek Norris, Hector Sanchez and Bethancourt all on the roster. Perhaps they believe the only way to keep Bethancourt is to make him into a hybrid player. It certainly would help with roster space limitations, but again the toll on him as a player would be rough.
Witnessing him playing the field and then pitching an inning would be a fun sight to see. You cannot argue that. Even the heartiest of baseball purists would be interested in watching. The future of Bethancourt is yet to be determined. Once spring training games hit in March we will get a better idea of what the Padres intentions are with him. A lot of that is yet to be determined as Bethancourt has a whole off-season to tinker with his pitching mechanics. Hopefully this distraction of possibly throwing for the Padres doesn’t stunt his development offensively. He has special tools and should be handled accordingly, not treated like a side-show attraction. If this experiment becomes too much of a distraction I would expect the Padres to pull the plug rather quickly. They might also pull the plug if a catcher or two was dealt from their squad. If a trade happens, they would not want to subject Bethancourt to any possible injury. A lot could happen. Stay tuned. Preller will surely be Prelling very soon. His requested vacation by MLB ends very soon. This offseason will be fun.