Dellin Betances made his major-league debut as a top prospect in 2011. Here’s how that went for him:
(via Baseball Savant)
You don’t need to know much about that chart to know that Betances was terrible. Beyond struggling with precise location, he struggled with general location, and he looked nothing like a pitcher a team would want to use. He had size and he had heat, but he didn’t have anything else, and there were signs he’d end up nothing but a bust.
In one sense, Betances is back. In another sense, he’s arrived for the first time. Betances now is excelling as a Yankees reliever, and the past no longer has much relevance. He’s changed some parts about his delivery. He’s changed his breaking ball. He’s changed his role, which is the most significant change of all. The things Betances has kept are his size and his heat, but the questions from the past aren’t the questions of today. I’m not sure today there are any questions.
In spring training, Betances had to fight to make the roster, as it turned out he had a fourth-year option. He was more than good enough, though, and since the end of camp he’s taken things to another level. Betances owns baseball’s second-highest strikeout rate. His walks have been perfectly fine, and he’s even managed to keep the ball on the ground. The whole result: Betances is running an xFIP- of 32, where 100 is league average. Put another way, if you add together Betances’ ERA, FIP, and xFIP, you get 4.01. David Price‘s ERA is 4.28.
The numbers might be best described as “stupid-good”, Betances looking like an elite closer in waiting. It was clear a year ago he took quite the liking to bullpen work. As a starter in triple-A, he posted 16 walks and 25 strikeouts in 24 innings. Upon shifting to relief, he posted 28 walks and 93 strikeouts in 65 innings. As a reliever, Betances could throw harder. As a reliever, Betances could shed his troublesome third and fourth pitches. Like many relievers, Betances alternates between two weapons; unlike many relievers, Betances has found his combination to be lethal.
You know about the advantage of the starter-to-reliever transition. Betances has also adjusted his delivery somewhat, these pictures comparing 2011 and 2014:
Betances now is further to the left on the rubber, and these days he’s more consistent and more able to get on top of the ball and throw it down. Betances’ release point has dropped, not so much because of a change in arm angle, but because he’s releasing the ball closer to the plate. He’s flying open less, the obvious result being better command.
And it has to be noted that Betances throws a different breaking ball than he used to. He doesn’t know quite what to call it, but he knows he likes it more than the first thing he had:
Betances said he learned the pitch — whatever it is — in the 2012 Arizona Fall League.
During that regular season, Betances said, he couldn’t throw his curveball for strikes. What’s worse, he said, it was breaking the nail on his right pointer finger, and causing bruising and bleeding from the finger. It all added up to a 6.44 ERA that season — the last he’d spend as a full-time starter.
That fall, teammate Michael O’Brien showed Betances a new way to hold his curveball — adjusting his grip and wrist tilt, Betances said. Betances figured he’d give it a shot, he said, since the cutter he was working on wasn’t getting him anywhere.
How good has that weapon been? Betances used it to great effect in 2013. This year, Betances’ breaking ball has the highest whiff rate of any pitch in baseball that’s been thrown at least 100 times. Out of every ten swings, more than six have missed, and small sample be damned, that stat is extraordinary. The pitch has left batters almost entirely helpless.
But, we know about the fastball/swing-and-miss breaking ball relief-pitcher profile. That’s somewhat familiar. The Betances profile comes with an additional twist. Betances has been doing something that’s far more unusual.
Here, now, are Betances’ 2014 called strikeouts:
So far, already 18, with 15 of them coming on the breaking ball (here identified as a knuckle curve). Here’s the current MLB leaderboard of called strikeouts on offspeed pitches:
- Dellin Betances, 15
- Masahiro Tanaka, 11
- Jose Fernandez, 11
- Justin Masterson, 10
- Madison Bumgarner, 9
- Yu Darvish, 9
Making up most of the list: starting pitchers. Standing on top of the list: a relief pitcher. Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, and Kenley Jansen, for their careers, come in around 7-10% of plate appearances ending with a called strikeout. This year, Dellin Betances is at 18%. Dellin Betances has a higher called strikeout rate than Justin Verlander‘s overall strikeout rate.
Betances has been a few things. One is unhittable. Another is somewhat unswingable. A pitcher against whom it’s hard to make contact is likely to be successful. A pitcher who also gets called strikes is going to be one of the best pitchers in the whole league.
What’s going on here? In all, 233 different pitchers have thrown at least 20 innings. Betances’ zone-swing rate ranks third-lowest. His zone-contact rate is in the best 10%. His out-of-zone contact rate is the very lowest. So hitters are missing pitches out of the zone. They’re not offering at many pitches in the zone, and when they do, they’re also fairly likely to miss. This is what a perfect stat line would look like. Quality balls, and strikes that don’t get punished. Betances, mostly, has his breaking ball to thank.
Hitters have swung at 36% of Betances’ breaking balls out of the zone. They’ve swung at 31% of Betances’ breaking balls in the zone. That’s a lower rate. That’s nuts. Hitters expect Betances to bury his breaking ball, like relievers do, but then he’ll also throw it for strikes, and hitters get caught in between. It’s a reflection of a good approach, and of a good pitch, and of the blessing of being physically enormous. Betances’ fastball is good, but he’s been awesome with his other pitch, constantly getting hitters off guard.
In one relief appearance against the Mets, Betances struck out six consecutive hitters, four of them looking. Here are two of those called third strikes:
Meanwhile, here’s a recent three-pitch plate appearance between Betances and Anthony Rizzo:
On the first pitch, Rizzo swung at a pitch that hit him. On the second pitch, Rizzo did it again, and while replays revealed that he didn’t really go around, it’s remarkable he even thought about it. Twice in a row, Betances made Rizzo want to swing away a free base. The third pitch was basically the same pitch, and Rizzo was dismissed. Betances has struck out more than half of the lefties that he’s faced.
When you observe something crazy, you have to wonder about its sustainability. Betances will almost have to slow down from being virtually perfect. At some point hitters will make some successful adjustments, probably. But last season in the minors, Betances maintained a low swing rate with plenty of called strikeouts, so this isn’t a new thing, and he’s only gotten better with his delivery. He has more experience with the breaking ball, and more experience against major-league opponents, and as much as reliever success can be fleeting, Betances looks as good as anybody else. He should stay amazing, until or unless the thing that happens to relievers sometimes happens to him.
Dellin Betances is a young righty reliever with a hard fastball and a sharp breaking ball. You know all about that run-of-the-mill profile. Betances, though, also does something a little bit different. And that makes Betances a little bit different. That makes Betances a little bit amazing.
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