It has been seven years (seven years!) since the Yankees bought local right-hander Dellin Betances away from Vanderbilt with a $1M signing bonus as their eighth round pick. He was a consensus first round talent who fell due to signability concerns, and the Bombers took advantage under the old system. It was a great get at the time.
Unfortunately, the now 25-year-old Betances has made very little improvement in those seven years. The 6-foot-8, 260-pounder still struggles to repeat his delivery because he isn’t a great athlete, and the result has been just awful strike-throwing ability. In almost 600 career minor league innings, he owns a 4.9 BB/9 and 12.4 BB%. Last season it was 6.8 BB/9 and 15.7 BB%, which is why he was demoted from Triple-A Scranton to Double-A Trenton at midseason.
During the first month of this season, there was still no improvement. Betances walked 16 batters in 24 innings across his first six starts (6.0 BB/9 and 15.0 BB), which prompted the team to move him to the bullpen full-time. Brian Cashman admitted the move had as much to do with Betances’ lack of minor league options — he used his final option this year, meaning he will not be able to go to Triple-A without first passing through waivers starting in 2014 — as it did his poor performance.
“This is the problem with the development clock,” said the GM. “If he had two or three more options, we would keep working with him as a starter. But with him being out of options after this year, it is becoming more obvious that if he is going to help us, it is going to be out of the ‘pen … Every reliever is a failed starter. Mariano Rivera is a failed starter. He is going to the Hall of Fame, but he is a failed starter. We will see what we have here.”
Relieving isn’t completely foreign to Betances, who did it in the Arizona Fall League last year. That led me to believe he would open this season in the bullpen, but the team decided to give him that one last chance as a starter. He’s been doing the relief thing for a little more than five weeks now — he did spend eight days with the big league team as an extra arm, but he didn’t pitch and I don’t even remember him warming up — and the early results are positive:
Yesterday’s outing — his first on less than two days of rest — was pretty rough, which uglifies the overall pitching line a bit. Otherwise Betances has thrown an acceptable amount of strikes (58% compared to 55% last year) and gotten plenty of swings and misses (12%). He had walked only six batters before yesterday, including just two during one 12-inning stretch, which is substantially better than his career norm. Of course, we’re talking about 19.0 innings. Given his history, it’s impossible to trust that walk rate at this point.
According to Donnie Collins, Betances was sitting 93-95 mph with his fastball while topping out at 98 in his last outing over the weekend. That is a tick better that his velocity as a starter but not a huge spike. Besides, raw stuff was never the question here. Betances always threw hard and missed bats. The problem was staying around the plate, like basic strike-throwing. I’m not even talking about being pinpoint and dotting the corners, just getting around the general area of the zone was an issue.
I do wonder about the mental aspect of going from starter to reliever as well. Perhaps Betances has a hard time focusing and pacing himself as a starter — Tim Lincecum said that was the case for him a few weeks ago — and the bullpen makes life easier. He can focus on his two best pitches and adopt a simple grip it and rip it mentality without worrying about being efficient or having to turn a lineup over multiple times. I have no idea if this is the case, I’m just spit-balling here. There is a mental aspect to this that has to be considered though.
Relievers can survive with below-average command, especially when they can pump mid-to-high-90s heat with a swing-and-miss breaking ball. They aren’t ideal late-inning guys, but the middle innings need love too. Betances has another two and a half months to get acclimated to the bullpen and show the Yankees — and the other 29 teams, for that matter — he is worth keeping on the 40-man roster over the winter and carrying as a sixth or seventh reliever at the outset of 2014. The odds are against it working, but Betances has shown some improvement as a reliever. He’s gone from no-shot to long-shot.