PEORIA, Ariz. -- If you watched Christian Bethancourt at all last season, you might have a hard time recognizing that same player in 2016.In need of a backup catcher, the Padres acquired Bethancourt in a December trade with Atlanta for oft-injured right-hander Casey Kelly and 18-year-old backstop Ricardo Rodriguez. That's
PEORIA, Ariz. -- If you watched Christian Bethancourt at all last season, you might have a hard time recognizing that same player in 2016.
In need of a backup catcher, the Padres acquired Bethancourt in a December trade with Atlanta for oft-injured right-hander Casey Kelly and 18-year-old backstop Ricardo Rodriguez. That's when the evolution of Bethancourt's mechanics -- both offensively and defensively -- began.
Hitting coach Alan Zinter took a trip to visit Bethancourt in Panama shortly after the deal. The two were going through a routine soft-toss drill, when Zinter asked Bethancourt to try loading by lifting his front leg before the ball arrived.
Bethancourt, who was playing winter ball in Panama at the time, hasn't used his old stance since.
"It's basically something brand new to me," Bethancourt said. "So I tried to work on it, keeping my legs up, getting that balance, timing your load time with the pitcher. I see the ball longer, and it's been easier for me to recognize breaking balls and not chase."
The results thus far have been in favor of the offensive adjustment. Bethancourt is hitting .346/.379/.538 this spring entering play Saturday.
Bethancourt's offensive game clearly needed an overhaul. (He batted just .219/.245/.283 in 80 career games for Atlanta.) But he has always been highly regarded defensively.
That didn't stop the Padres and Bethancourt from revamping his mechanics behind the plate, as well. Instead of keeping his feet square in the catcher's box, Bethancourt has begun offsetting his stance, in an attempt to become more athletic. The goal is to be better positioned to block balls in the dirt, to pop and throw to second, and to adjust his mitt for better presentation.
"I've been working a lot on my defense, I've been doing early work every single day here," Bethancourt said. "I'm also a completely new catcher with my catching stance, receiving, blocking, everything. I went back to what I was before I signed with the Braves."
During the regular season, Bethancourt will be forced to apply those changes without a whole lot of game action. Derek Norris is unquestionably the No. 1 backstop in San Diego, and the main reason the Padres acquired Bethancourt was so he could serve as Norris' backup. With Bethancourt on the Major League roster, there would be no need to rush the progression of Austin Hedges, who will most likely start the season at Triple-A.
But Bethancourt is fine with that role.
"Everybody wishes to be starters, but it's not all the time you get a chance to be a starter," Bethancourt said. "So you've got to take whatever they give you. I've just got to be ready any time they want to put me in the lineup, take advantage of every little opportunity."
AJ Cassavell is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter @ajcassavell.