Same All-Star reliever but with minor concerns [2017 Season Preview]

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

For the last three years, I have essentially marked games as wins in my mind whenever Dellin Betances comes in. Sure, there have been a few blown saves here and there, but for the most part, the Yankees win when Dellin comes into the game whether they lead or are tied.

And it isn’t just his pure performance. He’s fun to watch, too. That nasty breaking pitch surely haunts the dreams of every hitter in the AL East and sends Yankee fans home happy. That’s even before you get to his fastball.

What does Betances — who turns 29 on Thursday — have in store for 2017? Let’s take a look.

All-Star stuff with some concern

Betances, when he gets to utilize his stuff to the best of his ability, is unhittable and it’s memorizing. He walks a few too many batters (3.5 per 9 career and in 2016) and his hits rose to 6.7 per 9 last year, but his pure stuff is still beautiful.

His fastball averaged 98.42 mph in 2016, which is just silly good. It doesn’t hurt that he has an above-average 2509 RPM spin rate. It’s surprising considering his September struggles, but his velocity actually jumped higher from August to September. Same for his curveball. When Betances really needs to hit another gear, he can. That 100 mph strikeout of Miguel Cabrera from 2014 is perhaps the best example. Or perhaps the 2016 All-Star Game.

And then there’s his curveball. It’s genuinely my favorite pitch going these days with all respect to Andrew Miller‘s slider. It sits in the mid-80s and just falls off the table. Even the best hitters in baseball — like Giancarlo Stanton — have zero idea what to do with it.

As he displayed in the WBC this spring, he’s among the best relievers in the game when he’s on. The Yankees’ AL East rivals know this all too well.

He throws his four-seamer (39.3) and his curve (55.3) about 95 percent of the time, occasionally mixing in a cutter. His curveball remained a behemoth in 2016, holding batters to a .371 OPS (14 wRC+) and accounting for 103 of his 124 strikeouts.

Hitters actually got to his fastball pretty well last year. They batted .350/.447/.563 (184 wRC+) against it, a mark much higher than previous years (124 wRC+ against in 2015 and 95 in 2014). He peaked as a pitcher in 2014 (his -21 wRC+ against for the curveball says more than enough), but the trend with his fastball is a bit concerning. It began in the later months of 2015 and continued throughout 2016. Luckily, he still has a dynamite curveball, yet it’s worth monitoring how hitters do against Betances’ normally overwhelming velocity in 2017.

One quick aside: If you want to see how dominant Betances can truly be, check out the ISO power against him, especially right-handed batters. On pitches on the inner third of the plate, righties literally had a .000 ISO. All singles and outs. Here’s the chart via Baseball Savant.

dellin-betances-1

Workload

If there’s one chief concern for Betances, it’s his workload. In his three full big league seasons, he’s pitched in at least 70 games and thrown at least 73 innings. His innings have decreased year-by-year (90 to 84 to 73) and his ERA has increased year over year, including more than doubling from 2015 to 2016 (1.50 to 3.08). There have certainly been times when Betances, cursed in part by his own success, has been overused as the Yankees try to sneak out close victories.

There is no better example than this past September. After Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller were dealt at the trade deadline, the closer role fell to Betances, a role which he is more than capable of filling. He may be more valuable as the stopper in the 7th and 8th innings, yet I think there are few people (maybe outside the front office) that believe Betances can handle the 9th. He surely has the stuff.

But the Yankees were in the midst of a playoff chase and they needed to hand him the ball as much as possible with plenty of save chances. Therefore, Joe Girardi used him on three straight days twice within an 11-day span. It started out just fine but ended with two straight losses, one because he couldn’t field the ball and the other simply because he was exhausted. That five-run ninth in Boston essentially finished the Yankees and also showed that Betances needed a rest. For the month, hitters were getting to not only his fastball but also hit curveball.

With Chapman’s return, Betances is obviously back in the middle innings, but that doesn’t mean he’s going to get much of a reprieve from important spots. He consistently comes in during the highest leverage situations, sometimes for more than one inning, and now has 217 games in the last three seasons in his recent past. Hopefully, Tyler Clippard, Adam Warren and the rest of the ‘pen will be able to handle some big innings because the big man needs a rest.

World Baseball Classic

Wasn’t it fun to watch Betances pitch in the WBC? He seemed to really enjoy himself while dominating hitters during the tournament. It was even better than when he takes down a set of National League All-Stars in the Midsummer Classic.

He threw five innings for the Dominican Republic, giving up six baserunners while striking out five batters. Basically normal Dellin. If you add in his two innings with the Yankees earlier in the spring, he’s only thrown two more innings than Aroldis Chapman and is just as ready for the season. Perhaps more?

This is just to say that the WBC doesn’t seem to have hurt Betances going into April and may even have him more prepared for opening day. Maybe have high-ish leverage innings earlier will benefit him early in the season but help wear him down later in the season. It remains to be seen.

Contract welp and minor flaws

Things really got ugly between Betances and the Yankees front office after his arbitration hearing in February. Randy Levine made some really boneheaded comments about Betances in an unnecessary conference call and created some significant tension between Betances and the club. That shouldn’t affect his performance on the field — baseball is a business after all — but it may make Betances think twice before re-signing long-term.

As for the arbitration hearing itself, the Yankees brought up Betances’ struggles fielding the ball and holding runners. These are legitimate issues for the big righty. He’s allowed extra runs to score because he’s been unable to throw the ball to the bases or prevent runners from stealing. Even Gary Sanchez with his laser from behind the plate was unable to throw out runners with Betances’ deliberate delivery.

Good news is that Betances is working on his flaws. He made a basic fielding play during the WBC (nothing major) and Sanchez did throw out a runner during one of Dellin’s early spring outings. If Betances could improve on those two flaws, it’d make him that much more dominant, both at preventing runners from getting on base and then from scoring.

He may not throw 105 mph, but Betances is pretty much everything you want in a reliever. High velocity, killer breaking pitch and general fantastic performance. The guy literally struck out over 15 batters per nine innings last season. However, he may not be quite as good as his out-of-this-world 2014-15 in 2017 and there are reasons to doubt him after a lesser 2016. Still, expect Betances to be an essential part of the Yankees’ bullpen in this season.

Spring Training Game Thread: In Search of a Shortstop

Wade. (Presswire)
Wade. (Presswire)

Thanks to Didi Gregoriusshoulder injury, the Yankees suddenly have an opening at shortstop that will last for at least the first few weeks of the regular season. They have a small army of okay-ish fill-in shortstops, and now they have to sort through them and figure out who can best handle the job. Opening Day is only eleven days away now. There’s not much time to evaluate.

On the mound this afternoon is Masahiro Tanaka, who is making his fifth Grapefruit League start. He’s looked excellent this spring, allowing only three hits and two walks in 13.1 scoreless innings. Tanaka has struck out 19 and is currently riding a 8.2-inning hitless streak. One more out to complete the hidden Spring Training no-hitter. Here is the Phillies’ lineup and here are the players the Yankees sent across the bay to Clearwater:

  1. CF Brett Gardner
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. 1B Greg Bird
  4. 2B Starlin Castro
  5. DH Chris Carter
  6. 3B Chase Headley
  7. SS Tyler Wade
  8. LF Rob Refsnyder
  9. RF Billy McKinney
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Available Pitchers: RHP Gio Gallegos, RHP Matt Marsh, RHP Ernesto Frieri, RHP Jonathan Holder, LHP Caleb Frare, and LHP Joe Mantiply are all expected to pitch after Tanaka. It’s a Johnny Wholestaff kinda day. Gallegos, Marsh, Frare, and Mantiply are all up from minor league camp. (Gallegos and Mantiply were reassigned earlier this month after being in big league camp.)

Available Position Players: C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Ji-Man Choi, 2B Donovan Solano, SS Ruben Tejada, 3B Pete Kozma, LF Zack Zehner, CF Dustin Fowler, and RF Rashad Crawford will be the second string off the bench. C Radley Haddad, IF Abi Avelino, OF Clint Frazier, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo also made the trip. Zehner, Crawford, Haddad, and Avelino are up from minor league camp for the day.

It’s a very pleasant afternoon in Clearwater, the internet tells me. Mostly sunny with temperatures in the mid-70s. Perfect. This afternoon’s game will begin a little after 1pm ET. If you’re in the Philadelphia market, you can watch the game on TCN. If not, you can watch on MLB Network and MLB.tv, even in the New York market. Enjoy the game.

It’s official: Yankees name Greg Bird starting first baseman

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

As expected, Greg Bird has officially been named the starting first baseman. Joe Girardi made the announcement this morning, according to Andrew Marchand. Bird is hitting .421/.500/.947 with four home runs and eleven extra-base hits this spring, the most in baseball. He’s been the team’s best hitter all Spring Training.

Bird, 24, missed all of last season following shoulder surgery, so while he was the favorite for the first base job coming into camp, the Yankees had to see how he looked following the lost season. It was fair to wonder whether he’d need time in Triple-A to regain his strength and/or timing at the plate. That’s been a non-issue this spring.

Also, the Chris Carter signing gave the Yankees a viable first base alternative, and the team could have sent Bird down for service time reasons. Roughly two months in Triple-A would have “bought back” the year of control the Yankees lost to the injury last season. I totally get why teams manipulate service time, but I believe big league caliber players should be in the big leagues.

Now that the first base question has been answered, the Yankees still have to figure out right field (Aaron Judge vs. Aaron Hicks) as well as two rotation and two bullpen spots. And also shortstop following the Didi Gregorius injury. Those competitions are a bit more wide open at the moment.

Thoughts following the Didi Gregorius injury

(Matt Roberts/Getty)
(Matt Roberts/Getty)

The Yankees were dealt some tough news these last two days, as starting shortstop Didi Gregorius suffered a shoulder strain while away at the World Baseball Classic. He’s going to be shut down from baseball activities for two weeks, and it’s possible he’ll miss all of April. Sucks. The Yankees suddenly have an opening at shortstop. I have some thoughts on the injury and the shortstop situation.

1. All things considered, I’m actually pretty relieved Gregorius will be shut down only two weeks. (He’ll then need some time to get back into game shape, and you know the Yankees will be cautious with him.) I was worried this injury would be something much more serious and keep Gregorius out for months, not weeks. A strain is by definition a tear, though obviously this isn’t something so severe he needs surgery. Worst case scenario was Gregorius having a big enough tear in his rotator cuff that he’d have to go under the knife. Thankfully that’s not the case. A little rest and rehab is expected to knock this out. Huge relief. Huge. Losing Gregorius really sucks because he’s a good player and fun to watch, but at least it isn’t worse. This is the best of a bad situation, I’d say.

2. Without Gregorius, the Yankees are going to be really short on left-handed power to start the season. It’s basically Greg Bird. That’s it. Perhaps Brett Gardner and/or Jacoby Ellsbury will turn back the clock to their double digit home run days, but I’m not counting on it. The Yankees have some righty bats who can take advantage of the short porch, so maybe the lack of lefty pop won’t matter. It will almost certainly create some lineup imbalance though. The only left-handed hitting replacement shortstop candidate is Tyler Wade. Everyone else is a righty. The Yankees are now looking at the possibility of a lineup with three lefties (Bird, Ellsbury, Gardner), one switch-hitter (Chase Headley), and five righties (Gary Sanchez, Starlin Castro, Aaron Judge, Matt Holliday, replacement shortstop). I’d feel a little better about that if Ellsbury, Gardner, and Headley were better hitters than they are at this point of their careers. Alas.

3. Brian Cashman told Brendan Kuty yesterday Wade is now indeed in the mix for the shortstop job, and while playing him everyday would be fun as hell, I don’t think it’s the right move. The Gregorius injury shouldn’t change a prospect’s development plan, whether it’s Wade or Gleyber Torres or whoever. Wade is not magically more MLB ready today than he was three days ago because Didi got hurt. The Yankees and every other team sign dudes like Ruben Tejada and Pete Kozma each offseason specifically so they won’t have to rush prospects whenever someone gets hurt. The Yankees know Wade better than I ever will and if they deem him ready to be the starting big league shortstop, even for only a month while Gregorius is out, then they’ll go with him. And hopefully it’ll work. From where I sit, jumping him over Triple-A completely seems like maybe not the best idea, even if it would be the most fun idea (aside from Torres).

Torreyes. (Presswire)
Torreyes. (Presswire)

4. The Yankees now have ten days or so to figure out the shortstop situation before Opening Day. The easiest solution is sticking Ronald Torreyes at shortstop, relying on Castro as the backup, and carrying Rob Refsnyder on the bench as the backup second baseman. That wouldn’t require any kind of 40-man roster move and I’d argue those are three most prepared, ready to help players. The Yankees could do that for a bit, see how it works, then change plans if necessary. My gut feeling is it will not be one guy who fills in at short while Gregorius is sidelined. They’ll probably cycle through a few players, a la Cody Ransom and Angel Berroa at third base while Alex Rodriguez was injured early in 2009. And Rakin’ Ramiro Pena too. Forgot about him. When the Yankees have gone young the last few years, such as calling up Bird and Luis Severino in 2015, and Sanchez and Judge in 2016, it was done as part of a plan. They weren’t called up in response to someone getting hurt. That’s why I think it’ll be some combination of Torreyes, Tejada, Kozma, and Donovan Solano that handles short. That why you sign those guys in the first place.

5. I have a hard time blaming Didi’s injury on the WBC. Players make thousands and thousands of throws from the start of Spring Training through the end of the season, and this injury could have happened on any one of them. What was so different about this one? The injury happened during an exhibition game. How is the intensity any different than a Grapefruit League game? Joe Girardi said Gregorius hurt himself making a throw from second base on a double play, a throw he’s made countless times before and will make countless times again. Same deal with Mark Teixeira‘s wrist in 2013. What was so different about the swings he took in batting practice with Team USA and the thousands he would have taken with the Yankees? I am in no way convinced Didi’s injury is a result of the WBC. It just so happened Gregorius was away when it happened. Heck, the Yankees are probably a little happy about that since the WBC will pay his salary while he’s on the disabled list (I think). I know it’s cool to hate the WBC and we need to be outraged and assign blame all the time, but sometimes injuries just happen. That’s baseball. An infielder hurting his shoulder making a throw is not something caused by the WBC.

March 21st Camp Notes: Torres, Gregorius, Castro, Betances

The Yankees dropped their Spring Training game to the Red Sox tonight. It was a pretty quiet night for the offense, though Matt Holliday socked a dinger against Chris Sale, and Starlin Castro had two hits as well. One of the two was a double. Dustin “better than Dexter” Fowler forced an error with his speed and stole a base. Not too much else happened for the guys at the plate.

Bryan Mitchell started and got dinked and dunked most of the game. He allowed two runs in 4.1 innings, but did strike out seven and walk none. Mitchell has a 19/3 K/BB in 18.2 total innings this spring. Aroldis Chapman struck out two in his scoreless inning, and Luis Cessa allowed a run in his two innings of work. Probably doesn’t bode well for Cessa that he’s working two innings at a time while guys like Mitchell and Luis Severino are going much longer. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here is the rest of the day’s notes from Tampa:

  • Update: Following tonight’s game, the Yankees announced they have reassigned Gleyber Torres to minor league camp. Lame. There are 45 players still in big league camp, by my unofficial count.
  • In case you missed it earlier, Didi Gregorius will be shut down for two weeks with a shoulder strain. The Yankees are expecting Gregorius to miss April by time it’s all said and done. They’re going to be cautious with him, of course.
  • Not surprisingly, the Yankees will have Castro play some shortstop in Spring Training. I expected that to happen even with a healthy Didi. No reason not to give him a few games there just to keep him sharp at the position. [Bryan Hoch]
  • Dellin Betances is back in camp. The Dominican Republic was knocked out of the World Baseball Classic on Saturday night. He struck out five in five scoreless innings during the WBC, and looked to be in midseason form in Saturday’s game. [Brendan Kuty]
  • Hoch has the pitching assignments and hitting/fielding groups for the guys who didn’t play in tonight’s game, if you’re interested. CC Sabathia and Adam Warren threw their usual between starts bullpen sessions. That’s about it.
  • Sad news: Jerry Krause passed away today. He was 77. Krause is known mostly for being general manager of Michael Jordan era Bulls, but he also worked as a baseball scout both before and after his time in basketball. George Steinbrenner hired him in 2004.

The Yankees will be on the road to play the Phillies tomorrow afternoon. That’s a regular ol’ 1pm ET start. The game will be on MLB Network and MLB.tv. Masahiro Tanaka is lined up to start.

Spring Training Game Thread: Rotation Competition Continues

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees will again play a Spring Training game under the lights tonight, and this time the Red Sox will be in town. Get ready to renew the Grapefruit League rivalry, y’all. The Red Sox brought Chris Sale to Tampa too. Spoiler alert: he’s good. The Yankees have been a wrecking crew all spring though. It would be kinda cool if they lit up Boston’s shiny new rotation toy.

Anyway, on to more important matters. Rotation candidates Bryan Mitchell and Luis Cessa will pitch tonight, and gosh, it sure would be cool if someone stepped up and grabbed one of those spots. Joe Girardi insists there are no favorites in that race right now, and while I buy that in general, I do think Luis Severino is one of their preferred options. Here is the Red Sox’s lineup and here are the players the Yankees will use:

  1. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  2. C Gary Sanchez
  3. 2B Starlin Castro
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 1B Chris Carter
  6. LF Aaron Hicks
  7. RF Aaron Judge
  8. SS Ronald Torreyes
  9. 3B Ruben Tejada
    RHP Bryan Mitchell

Available Pitchers: LHP Aroldis Chapman, RHP Luis Cessa, LHP Jon Niese, and LHP Tommy Layne are all scheduled to pitch tonight. RHP Matt Marsh, RHP Dillon McNamara, RHP Ernesto Frieri, RHP Eric Ruth, RHP Mark Montgomery, and RHP Anyelo Gomez are the extra arms. Frieri is in big league camp. The rest of the extra guys are up from minor league camp for the night.

Available Position Players: C Austin Romine, 1B Wilkin Castillo, 2B Pete Kozma, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Thairo Estrada, LF Ji-Man Choi, CF Dustin Fowler, RF Clint Frazier, and DH Donovan Solano will come off the bench. C Kyle Higashioka, C Radley Haddad, OF Billy McKinney, and UTIL Tyler Wade are the extra players. Thairo and Haddad came over from minor league camp.

It is cool and clear in Tampa tonight. Nice night for a ballgame. There is no YES Network broadcast tonight. If you’re in the Red Sox’s home market, you can watch on NESN+. If not, MLB.tv is your only option. There is no MLB Network simulcast. Tonight’s game will start at 6:35pm ET. Enjoy the game.

Didi Gregorius will miss Opening Day with shoulder strain

(Mike Stobe/Getty)
(Mike Stobe/Getty)

The Yankees received good news and bad news about Didi Gregorius and his injured shoulder today. The good news: Gregorius does not have a serious injury. It’s a shoulder strain and he will be shut down from baseball activities for two weeks. The bad news: Didi will miss Opening Day. Bummer. Bryan Hoch has the news.

Joe Girardi acknowledged Gregorius may miss all of April because they’re going to be cautious with him, obviously. They won’t try to rush him back or anything like that. It’s better to miss a few games now than many games later. Gregorius will be shut down for two weeks, then he’ll have to get back into game shape before playing.

Gregorius hurt himself making a throw while playing second base in a World Baseball Classic tune-up game in Arizona over the weekend, Girardi told Michael Silverman. The Netherlands clinched a spot in the semifinals last week, and they had a long layoff before last night’s game because they had to travel from Tokyo, so they played an exhibition game to stay sharp.

The Yankees have a not terrible collection of replacement shortstop options. My guess is they’ll ride out Didi’s injury with Ronald Torreyes and either Ruben Tejada or Donovan Solano. I suppose they could continue the youth movement and go with Tyler Wade though. We’ll see. Either way, Gregorius will be out a while, but at least it’s not something more serious.