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Rafael Betancourt, Still Undervalued

Only five relievers have a higher WAR than Rafael Betancourt since 2009, Matt Thornton, Mariano Rivera, Jonathan Papelbon, Brian Wilson, and Sean Marshall. Despite ranking up there with the best relievers in the league over that time period, Betancourt, who will close for the Rockies this season, has been receiving little love in mock drafts this year.

While his ERA of 3.09 since ’09 is not spectacular, he does have two seasons with an ERA under 2.90 in three years. He has also tallied 223 strikeouts in 180.2 innings, or 11.11 strikeouts per nine. Of relievers expected to close next season, only Carlos Marmol has a higher strikeout percentage than Betancourt’s 31.3% rate. Only Thornton has a lower xFIP of expected closers, and Addison Reed may end up being the man in the ninth for the White Sox. Betancourt’s 10.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio over the past two years of is double that of all but two pitchers’, Edward Mujica at 6.75 and Mariano Rivera at 5.53.

Dave Golebiewski wrote an article for RotoGraphs two months ago stating that Betancourt has the potential to be an elite closer. It is hard to disagree with Dave, though mock drafters have not come to that same conclusion just yet.

With such solid numbers over the past three years and his 9.13 strikeout-to-walk ratio last season, why is Betancourt being drafted as the 24th reliever? Joe Nathan, Huston Street, and Chris Perez are a few who are being drafted ahead of Betancourt in Mock Draft Central mocks. That simply should not be the case.

Averaging 80% fastballs over the course of his career may sound a bit troubling, especially in that ball park and with a 50% fly ball rate. Even with those trepidations, pitchers who pitch consistently as well as Betancourt has often see success, even in the most hitter friendly ballparks. And even with such an extraordinary amount of fastballs, the pitch has been one of the main reasons for his abnormally low walk rate and subsequently low WHIP.

Rex Brothers poses some threat to Betancourt’s safety as a closer, but Betancourt would need a series of consecutive blown saves to lose his role last year. The easy answer to protect against this would be to draft Brothers as a handcuff. Brothers can provide solid value even as a set-up man, so owning him has benefits even if Betancourt excels as the closer.

In my personal rankings, I have Betancourt as the eighth best reliever entering the season, though I would obviously not draft him that high. In a Mock Draft Central experts mock I participated in last week, I took Betancourt as the 14th reliever, right after I took Jordan Walden and right before Andrew Bailey was taken. The pick was lauded in the comment section, with many other fantasy writers claiming Betancourt as their favorite sleeper closer this year. There is just something about an eight walk season over 62.1 innings that makes him a must-target on draft day.

Bill James, whose projections are usually at least somewhat favorable, has Betancourt maintaining a 9.87 strikeout per walk rate and an ERA of 2.32. The opportunity for an ERA in the 2.70-2.90 range, along with over 75 strikeouts, and a WHIP under 1.00 is certainly attainable. This is what made Betancourt an ownable reliever as a set up man, but now that he will close he has the potential to be a top tier roto reliever over the course of the season. In terms of draft position to expected production, Betancourt is one of the most undervalued relievers. Worse things could happen than drafting Betancourt significantly ahead of his ADP, and that is a risk that most roto players should be willing to take this season.