Christian Bethancourt caught his first major league game Saturday night in Philadelphia. He was sort of the Moonlight Graham of the Atlanta Braves last season, as he had one big league at-bat after his promotion in September. But Saturday against the Philadelphia 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 who signed Bethancourt out of Panama. Ortiz first saw Bethancourt when he was 14, 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 Bethancourts pop time was special. Thats the time from when the pitch hits the catchers mitt to when his throw arrives at second base to try and nail a baserunner. 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 below 2.0 seconds, specifically 1.9 seconds, is considered average in the major leagues.
Its a missile, Ortiz said. Its quick, and its powerful. The ball just leaves his hand. ... Ive never seen anyone throw like that.
That feeling is shared by others.
Hes got the best arm Ive 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.
Bethancourts arm is a lethal weapon. I have seen Bethancourt several times in spring training, but Friday was the first time Ive 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 has helped learning how to talk to his pitchers. Luckily, thats something that should improve in time.
As for his bat, it has gotten better during his climb up the minor league ladder, particularly in the last year. Since July 1, when Bethancourt was still in Double-A, he has hit .280 with 11 home runs and 58 RBI. In the past two months with Gwinnett, Bethancourt hit .301 with three home runs and 26 RBI.
Some have compared Bethancourt to Benito Santiago, the athletic catcher who 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 might 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 its still an option for the Braves this season.
Either way, Bethancourt is definitely a player to watch. Hes a player with real value, and whether hes good enough to move Gattis from behind the plate one day or be used in a trade, Bethancourt is someone who can really help this Atlanta team.
And itll just be fun to watch Bethancourt throw. Lets just hope opposing runners are brave enough (or maybe just plain stupid enough) to run on Atlantas 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 www.foxsports1670.com. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and e-mail him at email@example.com