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Dellin Betances could be even more unfair in 2017

There are some indications that Dellin Betances was actually better than ever in 2016, despite worse overall numbers.

Baseball: World Baseball Classic-Canada at Dominican Republic Logan Bowles-USA TODAY Sports

In his worst full season as a major league reliever, Dellin Betances struck out over 15.5 batters per nine innings. Prior to his now-infamous September struggles, Betances had a 2.12 ERA with under three walks per nine innings, striking out 44.4% of the hitters he faced. Despite a messy September and an even messier spring with Arbitrationgate, Betances may be gearing up to have his best season of all in 2017.

There are a few indicators of how ridiculous Betances is poised to be in 2017. In 2016, his fastball was actually very hittable, with hitters posting an OPS of 1.009 against it. His curveball, which may well be the best in baseball, masked his heater’s ineffectiveness, as he threw it over 56% of the time.

What is strange about his fastball is that his command might actually be improving. In 2014, his first full season in the big leagues, Betances clearly didn’t care where his fastball went. He was intent on hitting the strike zone whenever possible, something he actually got away with:

The heatmap above shows that Betances generally pounded the middle of the strike zone with his fastball. Here is how he located the pitch in 2016:

Whether by design or not, he elevated his fastball more last season, and even got a whiff 12.6% of the time. In 2014, hitters swung through his fastball just 9.9% of the time. What’s more, according to Pitch F/X, Betances hit 101 mph with his fastball for the first time in 2016, posting a career high average velocity of 97.6 mph.

There are a couple of interpretations that can be drawn from this development. One is that Betances was trying to elevate his fastball in order to get more strikeouts. This would be indicative of improved command, which would suggest that his fastball could be more effective than ever in 2017.

Another possibility is that he was missing upstairs, losing deception on his knuckle curve. However, hitters chased his breaking ball more than ever in 2016, which would suggest the opposite.

For a slightly more macro-level look, Betances had opposing BABIP’s of .241 and .257 in 2014 and 2015, respectively. In 2016, his BABIP spiked to .353, while his LOB% dropped by over 20 percentage points. In his contentious arbitration hearing, the Yankees’ brass made sure to note that he was ineffective when it came to holding runners, something that probably contributed to his inability to strand them.

It would also be possible that he has corrected whatever led to that problem over the offseason. In all, we could be looking at a version of Dellin Betances who can strike out more hitters and has improved fastball command. Combine that with a drop in BABIP and an increase in LOB%, and we might see him put up even more logic-defying numbers in 2017.

Data and heatmaps are courtesy of FanGraphs.