Yankees discussed a multi-year deal with Betances, but going year to year makes the most sense

Stride length. (Harry How/Getty)
Stride length. (Harry How/Getty)

At some point in the next few weeks, the Yankees and Dellin Betances will go to an arbitration hearing to determine his 2017 salary. Brian Cashman confirmed it. Betances is seeking $5M while the team countered with $3M. The two sides will make their arguments and the three-person panel will pick either the $5M or $3M, nothing in-between.

Although the Yankees and Betances could still agree to a contract of any size prior to a hearing, Cashman indicated that won’t happen. They’re going to a hearing. Cashman also told Dan Martin that at some point during their contract talks, the two sides discussed a multi-year contract. Obviously nothing came of it given where things stand now.

These days teams rush to lock up their young players to long-term contracts because that’s the best way to get bang for your buck. Sign the player early in his career and you get his peak years at a discount relative to what he’d earn through arbitration or free agency. That’s the idea, anyway. Sometimes things don’t go according to plan and the contract goes bad. That’s baseball.

Betances is not all that young by baseball standards anymore — he turns 29 in March — though as his upcoming arbitration hearing suggests, he’s about to get pretty expensive. Even if the Yankees win the hearing and Betances makes $3M in 2017, that’s still a record salary for a non-closing reliever going through arbitration the first time. Dellin will help establish a new salary standard for relievers, specifically top setup men.

In many cases signing a player to a multi-year extension is an obvious move. The Indians should lock up Francisco Lindor for the next eight to ten years, right? Of course. With relievers, even one as good as Betances, it’s not always so obvious. Relievers are inherently volatile. They’re all relievers because something prevented them from starting, like bad command or lack of a third pitch or injury history. That makes them riskier assets.

So, not surprisingly, very few relievers have received multi-year contracts prior to free agency. In fact, over the last 20 months, only two relievers signed extensions during their team control years: Adam Ottavino and Nate Jones. Both were rehabbing from Tommy John surgery at the time. Their value was down, and their teams took advantage by locking them up at a lower rate than usual. And hey, Ottavino and Jones got a couple million bucks out of it, so who are they to complain?

Point is, there are very few multi-year contract benchmarks for Betances, similar to how there are few salary benchmarks among first year arbitration-eligible setup man. Here is the full list of relievers to sign extensions at the same service time level Betances is at right now:

  • Craig Kimbrel: Four years, $42M with a club option.
  • Sam LeCure: Two years, $3.05M.
  • Josh Collmenter: Two years, $2.425M.

That’s it. Kimbrel is, by far, the most relevant of the three to Betances, and Kimbrel was a closer who was going to smash arbitration salary records had he not signed his extension. Dellin won’t set salary records because he lacks saves, and saves pay. The Yankees and Betances would have had to break a lot of new ground to come to terms on a multi-year deal.

It’s unclear whether the Yankees approached Betances about a multi-year deal or vice versa, but the most important questions are these: why would Betances do it and why would the Yankees do it? Betances would do it because it’s a chance to lock in a pretty nice guaranteed contract. He’d pass on maximizing his earning potential through arbitration in exchange for the guaranteed cash. Remember, he spent eight years in the minors before reaching MLB for good, and had a lot of injuries along the way. The guaranteed deal might be pretty appealing to him.

As for the Yankees, they’d gain cost certainty over a player who is already in uncharted salary territory for setup men. Like I said before, even if Betances loses his arbitration hearing, his $3M salary this coming season will still be a record for a setup man in his first trip through arbitration. The Yankees, who are trying to get under the luxury tax threshold next year, would lock Betances in at some number they can plan around going forward.

At the same time, the Yankees would be assuming quite a bit of risk, moreso than Betances. The only thing Dellin would be risking is his chance to earn even more through arbitration. He’ll still have set for life money coming his way. The Yankees, meanwhile, would still be on the hook if Betances breaks down or suddenly loses effectiveness. As good as he is, Betances is pretty risky. He had arm problems earlier in his career and his history of strike-throwing issues is well documented.

A multi-year contract doesn’t have to extend into free agency, remember. A three-year contract would buy out Betances’ remaining arbitration years and give the Yankees cost certainty over what could be three very pricey years without delaying his free agency at all. That figures to appeal to Dellin and his representatives. A three-year deal worth $22.5M — that’s assuming $4M in 2017, $7.5M in 2018, and $11M in 2019 — could be more budget friendly than going through arbitration three times.

Ultimately, the Yankees can afford to pay Betances whatever he gets the next few years. They’ll just have to work around his salary to get under the luxury tax. That’s all. And given the risk involved based on Dellin’s injury history and on again off again command issues, going year to year is the safe play. Should things go wrong at some point, the Yankees could walk away, like they did when Chien-Ming Wang‘s shoulder gave out. Multi-year deals are nice in theory, but with a risky asset like Betances, I think going year to year makes the most sense for the team.

Cashman confirms the Yankees will go to an arbitration hearing with Dellin Betances

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

According to Brendan Kuty, yesterday afternoon Brian Cashman confirmed the Yankees and Dellin Betances are indeed heading to an arbitration hearing. Betances filed a $5M salary prior to last week’s deadline and the team countered with $3M. Cashman says the $2M gap is simply too big to bridge, so they’ll let the arbitration panel make the decision.

“We’re not going to reach a resolution with Dellin,” said Cashman to Kuty. “The conversations we had with our representatives were if we file, we trial. Based on all of our discussions, it was clear that the different perspectives were such a wide bridge. We’ll go out and just basically have a polite discussion about market value and history of where the marketplace sits versus attempts for new market creation. We’re going to wind up in an arbitration hearing with Dellin.”

Arbitration hearings usually take place in early-to-mid February and the two sides could still negotiate a contract of any size prior to a hearing (and even after), though Cashman indicated that won’t happen. At the hearing, each side will state their case and the three-person panel will chose either the $5M or $3M for Dellin’s 2017 salary. Nothing in-between. I have some quick thoughts on this.

1. Dellin’s case is very unique. Arbitration salaries are based on the salaries of similar players at similar service time levels, so Betances is referencing other top relievers when they went through arbitration the first time. The problem? He has very few peers in terms of performance, and those that have been this good are closers. When a pitcher comes up and dominates like Betances has, he tends to wind up in the ninth inning. That hasn’t happened with Dellin because the Yankees have always had multiple high-end relievers, and the veteran got the ninth inning. Saves matter in arbitration and Betances doesn’t have many.

2. The Yankees seem to have an easier case. I broke this down earlier this week, but it’s worth repeating: the Yankees are offering Betances what sure seems to be a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible non-closing reliever. I can’t find another setup man at $2M in their first arbitration year, nevermind $3M. That $5M ask by Dellin’s camp says he wants to be paid like a top closer. The Yankees are instead offering an unprecedented salary for a setup man. Because of that and Betances’ general lack of saves, I think the team has an easier salary to defend. Dellin’s camp will have some convincing to do at the hearing.

3. Arbitration hearings can be ugly. Maybe uncomfortable is a better word than ugly. Like I said earlier, during the hearing itself, the two sides will state their case to the arbitration panel. For the team, that means detailing the player’s shortcomings and explaining why he deserves the lower salary while he sits in the room. Awkward! Cashman said they’ll have a “polite discussion,” but who knows.

Here’s what Vinnie Pestano, former Yankees non-roster invitee to Spring Training, told Jordan Bastian following his arbitration hearing with the Indians a few years ago:

“You’re being honest and accountable and saying the right things and being there,” Pestano said, “and then later you find your own words in the paper, and somebody is trying to use your words against you to drive your value down. Whether that played a big role in the decision, I don’t know.

“That was the only thing that I didn’t care for. I definitely think it’ll affect how I see things going forward. I don’t really know if I can be as honest and up-front anymore. I’ve got three more years of arbitration left. I don’t know what they’ll pick to use against me next year or two years from now.”

At the end of the day, this is a business, and the player is making the decision to go to a hearing by not agreeing to a contract beforehand. Betances knows what he’s getting into, just like last year, when he rejected the team’s modest raise to $540,000 and instead had his contract renewed for the $507,500 league minimum. He knew that was a possibility and he accepted it. Same with the hearing.

4. A hearing doesn’t have to ruin a relationship, though. I can understand why Yankees fans would worry an arbitration hearing would damage the team’s relationship with Betances, one of their best and most popular players. And you know what? I’m sure it’s happened in the past, a team going to a hearing and their relationship with the player never quite being the same afterward.

It doesn’t have to be that way, however. The Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since 2008, when they beat Chien-Ming Wang and saved $600,000 ($4M vs. $4.6M). The team’s last arbitration hearing before that? Mariano Rivera in 2000. The last two before that? Rivera and Derek Jeter, both in 1999. The Yankees and those players went on to live happily ever after following the hearings. (Injuries ruined Wang’s career, not an arbitration hearing.)

Point is, even though avoiding an arbitration hearing is always preferred, sometimes they are necessary because the two sides value the player very differently. It doesn’t have ruin relationships. The Yankees offered Betances a record first year arbitration salary for a setup man as best I can tell, but he wants to be paid like a closer, and that’s his right. He’ll allowed to try to get it. And because salaries carry over from year to year and affect raises, there’s a lot more on the line here than $2M in 2017. It adds up in future years.

Update: 2017 Salary Arbitration Filing Day Signings

Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Original Post (Friday, 12pm ET): Today is a significant day on the offseason calendar. The deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to file salary figures for the 2017 season is 1pm ET. The team submits the salary they believe the player deserves while the player submits the salary he feels he deserves. Simple, right?

The Yankees have seven arbitration-eligible players on the roster right now. They started the offseason with nine, but Nathan Eovaldi and Dustin Ackley were released when 40-man roster space was needed back in November. Here are the seven arbitration-eligible players and their projected 2017 salaries, per MLB Trade Rumors:

Most arbitration-eligible players around the league will sign a new contract prior to the filing deadline. Last year the Yankees signed Pineda and Ackley before the deadline, but ended up filing figures with Gregorius, Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Aroldis Chapman. It was the first time they failed to sign an eligible player before the filing deadline in several years.

It’s important to note exchanging figures today doesn’t mean the two sides have to go to an arbitration hearing. They can still hammer out a contract of any size at any point. In fact, the Yankees were able to sign Gregorius, Eovaldi, Nova, and Chapman not too long after the filing deadline last year. New York hasn’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang during the 2007-08 offseason.

We’re going to keep track of today’s Yankee-related arbitration news right here, assuming nothing crazy like a long-term extension happens. I’m not counting on it. Make sure you check back for updates often. The deadline is 1pm ET, but the news tends to trickle in all throughout the afternoon.

Update (Friday, 11:39am ET): The Yankees and Gregorius have agreed to a one-year contract worth $5.1M, reports Jon Heyman. Exactly as MLBTR projected. Gregorius made $2.425M last season, which was his first of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two. A long-term extension was always a long shot. Didi can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season.

Update (Friday, 12:27pm ET): Romine and the Yankees have an $805,000 agreement in place, says Heyman. Quite a bit below MLBTR’s projection, relatively speaking. Romine made made $556,000 last season. This was his first trip through arbitration.

Update (Friday, 4:52pm ET): Pineda and the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract worth $7.4M, per Heyman. That’s up from his $4.3M salary in 2016. It pays to be a (middling) starting pitcher. Pineda came in just under his MLBTR projected salary.

Update (Friday, 4:55pm ET): The Yankees have a $2.29M agreement with Warren, according to Josh Norris. Almost exactly what MLBTR projected. He made $1.7M a year ago. Warren will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018 as well.

Update (Friday, 5:30pm ET): The Yankees announced they have agreements in place with both Hicks and Layne. They’re one-year contracts. No word on the money yet though. That leaves Betances as the only unsigned arbitration-eligible player. I’m not surprised. Contract talks weren’t smooth last year.

Update (Friday, 7:13pm ET): Betances filed for $5M and the Yankees countered with $3M, according to Heyman. That’s a pretty significant gap. They might end up going to a hearing. Then again, I said the same thing about Chapman last year, and they hammered out a deal. Get that paper, Dellin.

Update (Friday, 7:56pm ET): Layne received $1.075M, so says Bryan Hoch. He was arbitration-eligible for the first of four times as a Super Two this offseason, so he’s under team control through 2020. Then again, Layne is already 32 and he’s been in four organizations the last five years, so yeah.

Update (Tuesday, 6:00pm ET): The Yankees and Hicks agreed to a $1.35M salary for 2017, reports Ronald Blum. Just a touch below MLBTR’s projection. Hicks made $574,000 last season. He will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2019.

The complicated arbitration case of Dellin Betances

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

Last Friday, the Yankees signed all their arbitration-eligible players prior to the salary filing deadline except one: Dellin Betances. Betances, who is up for arbitration for the first time, filed a $5M salary with the panel. The Yankees countered with $3M. The $2M gap is enormous. In fact, it’s the second biggest gap in filing figures this offseason. (Drew Pomeranz and the Red Sox are $2.1M apart.)

Before we go any further, I should make it clear the Yankees and Betances are not automatically going to an arbitration hearing now that they’ve filed salary figures. They can still negotiate a contract of any size. Last offseason the Yankees and Aroldis Chapman were a whopping $4.1M apart with their filing figures ($13.1M vs. $9M), yet they hammered out an $11.32M deal before a hearing. The Yankees and Betances could do the same.

Now, that said, the Yankees and Betances have had difficult contract negotiations in the past. Last offseason the team offered a $540,000 salary, which was only slightly above the $507,500 league minimum. Betances rejected the modest raise because he believed he deserved more, so the Yankees renewed him at the minimum. Dellin took a stand, which was his right, and the Yankees renewed his contract at a salary of their choosing, which was their right.

Things are different this offseason because of arbitration, so if Betances is not happy with what the Yankees are offering, he can take them to a hearing and state his case. If it does get to a hearing — the Yankees haven’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang in 2008 — the two sides will make their arguments, and the three-personal panel will chose either the $5M or $3M for 2017, nothing in-between.

The big gap in filing figures tells us a few things. First and foremost, it tells us Betances and his representatives believe he deserves to be paid not just like a closer, but like a great closer. Consider that just last offseason, established closers like Jeurys Familia ($4.05M), Cody Allen ($4.15M), and Hector Rondon ($4.2M) all signed for less than Dellin’s filing figure in their first trip through arbitration. He’s looking for an unprecedented payday for a non-closer reliever.

Secondly, the filing figures tell us the Yankees are willing to pay Betances a top salary for a non-closer. That $3M is pretty damn high. Top setup relievers like David Robertson ($1.6M), Kelvin Herrera ($1.6M), and Tony Watson ($1.75M) all signed for way less than $3M in their first trip through arbitration. The Yankees are willing to pay Betances handsomely relative to other non-closers. He wants to be paid like a closer though. A great closer.

It’s important to note the arbitration process is very archaic. Things like WAR and FIP are pointless. Saves matter more than anything for relievers. Strikeouts are good, but not as good as saves. All-Star appearances matter too. Betances is going into arbitration with three All-Star Game selections, a handful of saves (22 to be exact), and a boatload of strikeouts. (Dellin led all relievers with 392 strikeouts from 2014-16. Andrew Miller is second with 326.) His case is strong, but it would be stronger with more saves.

How exactly did Betances and his representatives come up with that $5M salary? It’s not like they pulled a number out of thin air. Arbitration is based on the salaries of other players at the same service time level, and Dellin’s camp had to come up with a number they can defend in a hearing. Go too high, and the arbitration panel will side with the Yankees. This is where I’m guessing that $5M comes from:

SV IP ERA WHIP FIP K% BB% GB% HR/9 bWAR fWAR ASG
Dellin at Arb1 22 254.2 2.16 1.00 2.06 39.8 9.9 48.3 0.57 8.3 8.5 3
Aroldis at Arb1 77 198.2 2.40 1.02 2.27 40.9 12.4 42.7 0.59 6.4 6.2 2

Aside from saves, Betances compares favorably to Chapman when he went through arbitration the first time. And what did Chapman make in his first year as an arbitration-eligible player? Yep, $5M. On the nose. Dellin’s camp will have to hope three years worth of inflation — Aroldis went through arbitration for the first time during the 2013-14 offseason — can make up for the lack of saves.

There is a big problem with the Betances-Chapman comp, however. Even beyond saves, I mean. Chapman was not a normal pre-arbitration player like Betances. He signed a six-year contract worth $30.25M with the Reds and pulled in $2M in base salary in both 2012 and 2013. Chapman actually opted into arbitration. His contract included a $3M salary for 2014, so he used the opt-out to go through arbitration, where he made $5M instead.

Chapman started with a much higher base salary, and that matters. Going from $2M in 2013 to $5M in 2014 is a $3M raise. Betances wants to go from $507,500 in 2016 to $5M in 2017. That’s a $4.4925M raise. Pretty big difference there, eh? Dellin’s camp can say he deserves $5M because his numbers match up with Chapman’s. The Yankees can counter by saying Chapman only received a $3M raise, so their $3M filing figure is more appropriate, especially when factoring in saves.

How did the Yankees come up with their $3M filing figure? I have no idea. As far as I can tell, no non-closer reliever received that much in their first year of arbitration. They’re offering him an unprecedented salary for a first year eligible setup man. Kenley Jansen, like Chapman, had numbers comparable to Betances in his first year of arbitration-eligibility and he received $4.3M. That was a $3.788M raise from the previous year. Dellin is asking for quite a bit more than that.

(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)
(Sean M. Haffey/Getty)

It’s easy to say the cheap ass Yankees are being cheap asses, and they should just pay one of their best and most popular (and homegrown!) players what he wants to maintain a good relationship, especially after renewing him at the minimum last year. After all, what’s another $2M when you’re running a payroll near $220M? They’re going to pay Brian McCann $5.5M to play for the Astros in 2017. Why nickle and dime Betances?

That’s not how it works though. Arbitration salaries are based on the player’s salary in the previous year, so it carries over. It’s not just $2M this year. It’s $2M this year plus whatever raises on top of that Betances will receive in the next two offseasons Let’s assume Betances will get $3M raises each year going forward. I’m just pulling that number out of thin air for argument’s sake. A $3M base salary means his three arbitration years go $3M-$6M-$9M for $18M total. Start at $5M instead, and it’s $5M-$8M-$11M. That’s $24M total. And that’s the super simple version. A larger base salary means larger raises. That extra $2M in 2017 can turn into an extra $7M or $8M (or more) from 2017-19 quick.

This is why the Yankees went to hearing with Wang over a mere $600,000 in 2008. It adds up in future years. Do you know the last time the Yankees went to an arbitration hearing before Wang? It was with Mariano Rivera in 2000. He wanted $9.25M and the team countered with $7.25M. They went to a hearing, the Yankees won, and they saved a boatload of cash. And then they and Mo lived happily ever after. Arbitration hearings can be ugly — the team basically details the player’s shortcomings — but they don’t have to be the beginning of the end of the relationship either.

Also, I have to point out it’s not only the Yankees and Betances who have something on the line here. This deal could change the reliever pay scale dramatically going forward. We’re already seeing some free agent setup men get closer money (Miller, Darren O’Day, etc.). Betances could extend that salary growth to arbitration-eligible players now. We’ve seen teams use their top relievers as setup men to intentionally avoid saves and keep arbitration salaries down. Dellin can break the salary mold.

Arbitration hearings take place in mid-February, so the Yankees and Betances have several weeks to come to an agreement. I have no idea whether they’ll actually get a deal done. Dellin’s camp may think their case is airtight and they can get that $5M after being renewed at the minimum last year. I thought the Yankees would end up going to a hearing with Chapman last year given the $4.1M gap in their filing figures and that didn’t happen, so who knows?

Either way, Betances is going to end up with what sure appears to be a record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible non-closing reliever. His floor right now is $3M. That’s the worst he can do in 2017, and that’s more than any other setup man I can find at the same point of their careers. Dellin and his agent are thinking bigger though. They want closer money. And if they succeed, it will change the reliever pay scale. The MLBPA is rooting hard for Betances right now. There’s a lot of the line.

The Third Wheel

(Christian Petersen/Getty)
(Christian Petersen/Getty)

That whole “New Year, New Me,” meme that we always see as the number turns on the calendar is not going to apply to the New York Yankees in 2017. Some of the names and faces may be different, but the big picture looks a whole lot like the one from last year. Questions about veteran bats like Mark Teixeira‘s, Alex Rodriguez‘s, and Carlos Beltran‘s have given way to questions about young players’ bats, like Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and the returning Greg Bird. The rotation, as it seems to have been for a while, is far from secure. Leading the similarities, however, is a bullpen headed by a “Big Three,” though this year’s trio will be missing the best of the bunch in Andrew Miller. Replacing him, as he did at the trade deadline last year, is right hander Tyler Clippard.

Clippard pitched well in his 25.1 innings for the Yankees last year, striking out 24.3% of the batters he faced (9.24 K/9) and posting a 2.49 ERA (177 ERA+; 59 ERA-), though that is somewhat belied by a 4.05 FIP (99 FIP-), owed to a high walk rate of 10.3% (3.91 BB/9). In what is likely to be his first full season as a Yankee (provided he doesn’t get traded), Clippard is going to play an important role as gatekeeper to the superior Dellin Betances and Aroldis Chapman.

Given that the rotation isn’t likely to give much length, something I discussed last month, it’s possible that a lot of games are going to hinge on Clippard performing well in the sixth or seventh inning, holding onto tight leads to turn them over to Betances and Chapman. To mix metaphors, the success of the Yankees’ three-headed-monster may rely on its third wheel, represented by Clippard.

Unless the Yankees improve their rotation before the start of the season, though, they risk the team’s biggest strength being mostly mitigated from the start. While it’s obviously better to have a solid game-ending trio than to not have one, the importance of said trio is lessened when the rotation can’t provide quality or length and the lineup can’t thump its ways through thickets of poor starting to the meadows of high-scoring leads. This isn’t really a thing, but the team’s questionable starting pitching is a case of a weakness potentially turning a strength into something, well, less strong.

To cut back on some of the falling sky here, Clippard is still a good enough pitcher that I’m not too worried about him blowing leads before they’re put into more capable hands. I am worried, though, that he’ll be pressed into early service too often and that, as the season wears on, fatigue may set in. The Yankees need an innings eat to help make sure this doesn’t happen.

Betances commits to Dominican Republic for 2017 WBC

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Dellin Betances will indeed pitch in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, but not for Team USA. He told George King he has committed to pitch for the Dominican Republic instead. “Both teams want me to play (for them), but I made a commitment to the DR. That is where my family is from, and I want to make them proud,” said Dellin.

The Dominican Republic won the 2013 WBC and there’s no reason to think they won’t be among the top contenders next spring. Fernando Rodney was their closer and most heavily used reliever in 2013, throwing 7.1 innings in the tournament. Pedro Strop (6.2 innings), Santiago Casilla (5.0), and Kelvin Herrera (4.1) were also on the roster.

The WBC has pitch limits that really only apply to starters, not relievers. Still, no manager is going to push their players too hard. If anything, they’ll be overly cautious. Yankees first base coach Tony Pena will manage the Dominican Republic team, so Betances will have a familiar face looking over him. Pena knows how important Dellin is to the Yankees. He won’t overdo it.

Betances, 28, had a 3.08 ERA (1.78 FIP) with 126 strikeouts in 73 innings this past season. That is both outrageously good and Dellin’s worst season since breaking into the big leagues for good three years ago. Betances has worn down in September the last few years and throwing high-leverage innings in mid-March is not ideal, but what can you do?

Betances was the only Yankee on the preliminary 50-man roster Team USA filed last month. The final rosters aren’t due until January, and Team USA can still add players to their preliminary roster. They’re not obligated to select their final roster from that pool of 50 players or anything like that.

Didi Gregorius (Netherlands), Masahiro Tanaka (Japan), and Gary Sanchez (Dominican Republic) are the other prominent Yankees with a chance to be selected for the WBC. The Yankees can not prevent a player from playing in the WBC unless they’re coming back from a injury.

The 2017 WBC begins with pool play on March 6th. The Championship Game will be played on March 22nd at Dodger Stadium. Here’s the full WBC schedule.

A Down Season for Dellin Betances is a Great Season for Most Relievers [2016 Season Review]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

It’s not often a team can have a reliever as dominant as Dellin Betances be the third best option in their bullpen. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance that never once happened in baseball history prior to this season. Coming into 2016, Betances was third on the Yankees’ bullpen depth chart behind Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman. Wild.

Betances was the only one of those three to make it through the season with the Yankees, but I’m guessing had another team presented Brian Cashman with a massive offer at the trade deadline, Dellin would have been gone too. Instead, he remains with the Yankees and is coming off his worst full season in the big leagues. Of course, Betances was still one of the most dominant relievers in baseball.

The Same Ol’ Dellin (For Five Months)

When the season started, Betances was back in a familiar role: eighth inning guy. Chapman had to serve his 30-game suspension, which meant Miller closed and Betances set up. And on Opening Day, Dellin took the loss after allowing three unearned runs on one hit and two walks in two-thirds of an inning. It was his own error that opened the floodgates.

The Yankees actually played that game under protest. Joe Girardi argued Carlos Correa was in the baseline and impeded Betances’ throw, but that wasn’t going to hold up, so the protest was dropped after the game. The Astros won the game thanks to the error and Dellin was saddled with New York’s first loss of the new season. So it goes.

Following that game, Betances went on a two-month rampage. He took all his frustration out on opposing hitters. In his next 23 appearances following the error, Dellin struck out 45 (!) in 22.2 innings. He allowed five runs and walked only three. That’s a 54.2% strikeout rate and a 3.6% walk rate. At one point Betances struck out 21 of 29 batters faced in mid-April. I mean, geez.

Weirdly enough, that insane early-season stretch included a stretch of games in which Betances allowed a home run in three straight outings. He’d never done that before. It proved to be just a blip though; Dellin allowed zero home runs in his next 45 games and 45.2 innings. Betances finished the first half with a 2.66 ERA (1.17 FIP) with 45.1% strikeouts and 5.8% walks in 44 innings. That earned him his third straight All-Star Game selection. He’s the only reliever selected to each of the last three All-Star Games.

Dellin threw a scoreless seventh inning with a two-run lead in the Midsummer Classic, and it went strikeout (Corey Seager), single (Daniel Murphy), fly out (Paul Goldschmidt), strikeout (Nolan Arenado). Then, in his first seven outings after the All-Star Game, he allowed one run and struck out eleven in 6.1 innings. That took the Yankees to the trade deadline. Chapman and Miller were gone, so Betances took over as closer.

In his first five weeks as closer, Betances went nine-for-ten in save chances — in the one blown save, he inherited a runner on third with one out in the eighth and allowed a game-tying sac fly — and struck out 21 in 12.1 innings. Typical Betances. On September 4th, he needed 12 pitches to strike out two and retire all four batters he faced. On September 5th, he needed ten pitches to fan two and retire all three batters he faced. That was the last time we saw a consistently effective Betances in 2016.

The Stumble to the Finish

Following that September 5th game, Dellin had a 2.05 ERA (1.43 FIP) with excellent strikeout (44.7%) and walk (7.8%) rates in 66 innings. It was a typical Betances year. It all started to fall apart on September 6th, in his third straight day of work. Betances allowed two runs on two hits and three walks — only 22 of his 40 pitches were strikes — in one-third of an inning against the Blue Jays. Blake Parker had to bail him out with an assist from Brett Gardner‘s leaping catch.

Three days later, Betances allowed a run on three hits in one inning of work. Five days after that, he allowed two unearned runs in an inning thanks in part to his own throwing error. (A Starlin Castro error opened the inning.) Dellin shot-putted a comebacker to the backstop. Yuck. Then, the following night, Betances served up the most devastating home run of the season, Hanley Ramirez’s postseason hopes crushing walk-off blast. I’m not even sure why I’m embedding this video but:

Welp. That was: bad. Worst game in a long, long time. And because that wasn’t bad enough, Betances allowed two runs on a hit and two walks ten days later. And the day after that, he allowed another two runs (one earned) on two walks while retiring zero batters. That’s 13 runs (ten earned) in the span of eight games and six innings. Dellin closed out his season by striking out the side with authority in Game 161, but by then the damage had been done. His September was dreadful.

The Sudden Loss of Control, Again

Following 136 games of total domination, Betances hit a wall in the final 26 games, and I thought he looked worse than he had at any point since arriving in the show for good back in 2014. The problem was control; Dellin walked eight in his final seven innings. This was the second straight year he was completely unable to locate late in the season too.

Dellin Betances walks1

Once is a blip, twice is a trend. I know Betances has a long history of control issues, so it’s not completely unexpected anytime he loses the strike zone, but when it happens so suddenly late in the season two years in a row, it’s hard to chalk it up to coincidence. Fatigue sure seems like a potential problem, especially since he looked visibly gassed on the mound. He had to put more effort into each pitch and that’s never good.

Now, Dellin’s workload has declined each of the last three years, at least in terms of total innings. He threw 90 innings in 2014. It was 84 innings last year and 73 innings this year. The problem is Betances has had to work harder with each passing year. He averaged 15.2 pitches per inning 2014, 16.3 pitches per inning in 2015, and 17.2 pitches per inning in 2016. Also, there’s the cumulative effect. All the innings add up year after year.

I have no idea whether fatigue is the root cause of Betances’ late season control problems the last two years. The circumstantial evidence points in that direction but we don’t really know. Whatever it is, it’s now happened two years in a row, and this year was much worse than last year. The Yankees want to win the World Series against some day. The sooner the better. If Dellin is running out gas in September, what happens in October?

The Unignorable Inability to Hold Runners

It’s become a bigger and bigger problem with each passing season. Two years ago runners went 12-for-15 stealing bases against Betances. Last year it was 17-for-21. This year it was 21-for-21. 21-for-21! Runners had 118 chances to steal against Dellin — that’s the number of runners on first or second with no runner ahead of them — and they went 21 times, or 17.8%. The MLB average is 5.5%.

This is a big problem. It’s not a fatal flaw the same way Jon Lester’s inability to hold runners isn’t a fatal flaw, but it is a big problem. Betances mostly pitches in the late innings of close games, when those extra 90 feet can be a pretty big deal. He doesn’t even had a pickoff move. If he does, I can’t ever remember seeing it. Betances varies his times to the plate and he has a slide step, but obviously they’re not enough. Runners are still going at will.

Now here’s the thing: Dellin is never going to be good at holding runners. Tall right-handed pitchers rarely are. Base-stealers have an 87.2% success rate against 6-foot-10 Chris Young, for example. At least tall lefties like CC Sabathia and Randy Johnson had the advantage of staring the runner down at first base. Betances, with that high leg kick and slow delivery to the plate, doesn’t give his catcher a chance. Even with Gary Sanchez‘s rocket arm behind the plate, runners still went 6-for-6 against Dellin.

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Betances doesn’t have to develop an Andy Pettitte pickoff move (or a Nathan Eovaldi pickoff move!). But he has to develop a pickoff move. Something he can put in the back of the runner’s mind. Even if it’s only a lob over to first, it’s better than nothing. Betances is so insanely good that he’s been one of the two or three most dominant relievers in baseball without holding runners the last three years. This is a flaw teams are going to take advantage more and more in the future though, so it’s something he has to work on.

Outlook for 2017

The idea Betances can’t handle the pressure of being the closer would hold water if, you know, he hadn’t completely dominated in his first five weeks on the job. Also, he’s been throwing high-leverage innings for the Yankees for three years now. The guy has excelled in pressure situations since 2014. He’s shown us he can do it. If you don’t think he can handle the ninth inning, then there’s nothing I can tell you to change your mind.

Anyway, as it stands right now, Dellin is the Yankees’ closer. There’s a pretty good chance that will change this offseason because the Yankees are in big on the top free agent relievers, including Chapman. And you know what? Signing Chapman or Kenley Jansen to close would make the Yankees a lot better. I mean, duh. Those guys are great. It wouldn’t make them better because Dellin can’t close, but because he can slide back into that dynamic setup role where he has been such a weapon the last few years.

By many measures, the 2016 season was Betances’ worst since arriving for good three years ago despite a career high strikeout rate (42.1%) and a career high ground ball rate (53.9%). He had a career high ERA (3.08) and a career high WHIP (1.12). Hitters put up a .201/.279/.299 batting line against Dellin this year. That’s outrageously good! But it was .157/.266/.244 a year ago and .149/.218/.224 two years ago. This is not a positive trend!

Betances is still excellent and the Yankees are lucky to have him in their bullpen. I think they have to seriously consider lightening his workload next year — that doesn’t mean he can’t ever go multiple innings, just that he can’t do it as often — perhaps getting it down into the 60-65 innings range. A normal short reliever workload. Also, working on controlling the running game is a must. Betances is still great despite those flaws. He’s just not quite as overwhelming as he was two years.