Seven years ago, a young, 16-year-old kid from Panama walked onto the fields for the first time at Atlanta Braves spring training. Christian Bethancourt had just signed a big-money contract, and many wondered how long it would take before he would become Atlanta’s starting catcher.
Well, that time has come. Bethancourt is 23 years old now. He has climbed one level at a time through the minor leagues, with a couple of cups of coffee in the big leagues the past two seasons. Now the rookie is the primed to take over after the trade of Evan Gattis to Houston in January.
From the time the name of Christian Bethancourt was first spoken, you also heard, “He’s got a cannon of an arm.” That was his reputation then, and he has done nothing to dispel that talk since. Bethancourt has a game-changing arm behind home plate, making him a defensive wizard who has been compared to Tony Pena and Benito Santiago.
Since he has never had to worry about his throws to second base to nail potential base runners, Bethancourt has worked hard to improve calling the games and working with his pitchers.
“I’ve got to make them feel when they’re on the mound like their watching TV in their living room in their house,” Bethancourt said. “You can’t be more comfortable than that. If they’re comfortable, they’re going to have confidence.”
He also has learned to speak English. He couldn’t speak a lick of it when he got to Orlando in 2008, but Bethancourt knew catchers have to talk with their pitchers. So he learned the language.
“I’m a catcher, so I’ve got to be able to communicate and talk with everyone and be on the same page with the starter,” Bethancourt said. “You’ve got to have good pace and make him feel comfortable. You want to make him to want to throw to you.”
Bethancourt also has developed into a decent hitter. He may not hit home runs like Gattis, but his improvement the past two years shows Bethancourt is capable of being productive at the plate.
In Double-A Mississippi two years ago, Bethancourt hit .277. Then last season in Triple-A Gwinnett he hit .283. Bethancourt has a career .270 batting average in the minor leagues, which is pretty good, considering many wondered if he would be able to hit.
That was probably because his defense always got the attention. It was always his calling card, but Bethancourt is proud of what he has done to be a well-rounded ballplayer.
“I’ve never been a .180 or .220 hitter,” Bethancourt said. “I’m always around .260 or .280, which is pretty good for a catcher I think. I’m happy. It seems like every year I’m getting better and better. I can tell I’ve improved every year. That’s what good players do. They improve every year. They’re not going to go back and forth. You’ll have struggles, but as long as you make adjustments, it’ll make you better.”
Coaches have raved about Bethancourt this spring. He has matured on and off the field. And his pitchers sound confident in the young receiver.
“I don’t think you can ask much more from what he’s done so far this spring,” starting pitcher Alex Wood said. “He knew he was coming in and the reins were being handed to him, and he’s worked hard. He’s had a great spring, and hopefully it will carry over into the regular season.”
Bethancourt will join second baseman Jace Peterson to give the Braves two rookies in the starting lineup. No one is sure what either player will do, although you know as rookies there will be some struggles. But the early results are positive, as Bethancourt has hit .313 in the Grapefruit League.
And while he still hasn’t been told officially yet, Bethancourt knows he’s going to get the majority of the work behind the plate. His dream is getting ready to come true.
“It’s exciting,” Bethancourt said. “I’m just here doing my job. I’m trying to not think about that. Whenever it happens, it happens. Whenever they think I’m ready to be the starting catcher, I’ll be ready.”
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 email him at email@example.com.