Jorge L. Ortiz
USA TODAY Sports
Christian Bethancourt is familiar with the tale of Kenley Jansen, the minor league catcher who became an elite closer with the Los Angeles Dodgers.
It’s an intriguing proposition, but not nearly as much as what the San Diego Padres catcher is aiming for.
Bethancourt, 25, is attempting to become the first player in memory to pitch and catch regularly in the majors. To get a sense for the uniqueness of Bethancourt’s pursuit, consider the last big-leaguer to make frequent appearances on the mound and in any other everyday position was Brooks Kieschnick, who pitched in 42 games for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2003, the same year he started four games as a DH and three as a left fielder.
“This is an opportunity to do something nobody else in the game does, catch and pitch,” Padres manager Andy Green said. “It’s almost like that Little League mentality, ‘Hey, I’ll do whatever. I just want to help the team win.“’
Green and general manager A.J. Preller concocted the idea last season, when Bethancourt was twice called on to mop up in blowouts. Despite unrefined mechanics, his fastball reached 96 mph and averaged 92.32, the hardest ever measured for a non-pitcher since baseball implemented the PITCHf/x tracking system in 2008.
A .223 hitter over four seasons, Bethancourt said he was open to the notion of pitching — something he had not done since he was 12 — when Green and Preller brought it up. He worked on his mechanics at the Padres complex in the fall in Arizona and pitched a few times during winter ball in his native Panama, allowing one earned run in seven innings.
“It’s strange, because I felt comfortable, not like it was the first time I was doing it or like it was something I was learning,” said Bethancourt, who now reaches 97-98 mph on the radar gun and throws a changeup and a slider. “I felt like it was something I had been doing for a long time.”
Besides Jansen, there have been several instances of position players becoming pitchers or the other way around, most famously in recent years Rick Ankiel. Last year, 2004 No. 1 overall pick Matt Bush, who washed out as a shortstop prospect, became a valuable reliever for the Texas Rangers.
But in all those cases the players abandoned their previous position and focused on the new one and they all went through a minor league apprenticeship. That’s not the plan with Bethancourt, who figures to back up starting catcher Austin Hedges.
If successful, Bethancourt would expand the definition of a utilityman to include the two most specialized skills in the game, pitching and catching.
“Is that like a super-super utility guy?” Padres bullpen coach Doug Bochtler said.
Bochtler was among the observers of Bethancourt’s first bullpen session of the spring Friday — he focused on his catching responsibilities the previous two days — and the coach noticed improved mechanics and control.
Bethancourt is also expected to see action in the outfield, where he played 12 games last season. That versatility would allow Green to use him in a number of situations — pinch-hitting, double-switches, defensive replacements, middle relief — while saving his bench and bullpen.
“You could bring him in to face a tough righty, stick him out in left field for a batter, then bring him right back on the mound to pitch again,” Green said. “Play matchups that way.”
He pointed out that Bethancourt’s combination of skills — he’s a powerfully built 6-2, 210 pounds with outstanding athleticism — lends itself to this experiment, as does the fact he doesn’t profile as a starting player.
He also has the right mentality, agreeing to consider a new path for his career rather than clutching to the position that got him to the majors. Bethancourt said he can envision himself as a full-time pitcher at some point if he finds success in that role.
Bethancourt was one of the stars of the Panama City team that reached the 2004 Little League World Series, and his emerging status as a multiposition player takes him back to his younger days.
“When I was in Little League, I was the team’s shortstop, the catcher, the right fielder, the pitcher when needed,” he said. “I’ve always had that in me. I like to play. This is what I’ve done since I was 5 years old, so it’s something I’ve always enjoyed.”