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How can the Yankees fix Dellin Betances?

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The right-handed relief ace is struggling. What does he need to do to turn it around?

MLB: New York Yankees at Houston Astros Shanna Lockwood-USA TODAY Sports

Several years ago, when Mariano Rivera served as the Yankees closer, there came a stretch of time when Mo struggled to record saves. It happened every season. The trademark cutter would linger over the plate and batters squared it up. Given his status as the greatest relief pitcher of all time, these blips of ineffectiveness were just that - anomalies that pop up over the course of a long season. Nonetheless, it prompted the coining of What’s Wrong With Mariano Week.

Fast forward to 2017, and we’re in the middle of What’s Wrong With Dellin Betances Week. In fact, it’s been close to a month since the right-hander has been his dominant self. Betances seems to have fallen apart once the calendar flipped to June. The numbers back this up, too.

Dellin Betances’ 2017 Results

Dates IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA FIP
Dates IP K/9 BB/9 HR/9 GB% ERA FIP
April 4 - May 27 17.1 16.62 4.67 0.00 50.00 0.52 1.00
June 3 - July 1 8.2 16.62 12.46 1.04 41.20 8.31 5.79

Save for strikeouts, Betances has struggled across the board. He suffered a decline in nearly every category. There are far too many walks and too few groundballs. The contrast in results is pretty striking. What explains such a drop-off in performance? A few reasons come to mind.

He’s overusing his (suddenly ineffective) curveball

It’s been said that when Betances struggles with control, he turns to his curveball. It supposedly slows him down and helps him recapture the strike zone. When it’s on, he has a plus-pitch that he can drop in for a strike or use to generate a swing-and-miss. This season, however, he’s relied on the curveball, and it hasn’t been particularly effective.

That’s a lot of breaking pitches! The good news here is that his curveball has a strong spin rate, averaging 2866 rpm. For context, a spin rate over 2600 rpm is considered above average. The bad news, however, comes as his whiff counts on the pitch are below his usual marks. The numbers have been better in June, but for most the season they fall outside of his prodigious range.

Betances became a lights-out reliever because of the way he mixes an electric fastball with ridiculous breaking pitch. He’s leaned on the curveball too much this season, and many of them haven’t been good. More than a few went for balls, which could explain his increased walk rate. He might find it more effective to tighten up the pitch - its vertical movement is far more pronounced than most of his career - and go to it sparingly.

He might have a mechanical issue

At 6’8” and 280 pounds, Betances is among the largest pitchers in baseball. He has more of the build of a defensive lineman than a big league reliever. That makes his delivery, which isn’t the smoothest in the word, tough to repeat. It’s not unheard of for Betances’ mechanics to get out of sync. After all, he landed in bullpen because he couldn’t repeat his delivery.

It’s possible mechanics have contributed to his recent struggles. To see if that’s the case, I found two examples of Betances tossing a curveball. In both instances, he’s pitching from the stretch and to a right-handed batter. The GIFs are synced up to the start of his delivery. First, here he is in May pitching to Jorge Soler:

Now compare that to the walk-off single he surrendered to Jose Abreu.

I’m no expert on pitching mechanics, but it looks like Betances is collapsing his front leg sooner in June than he did in May. It’s especially noticeable when you look at his release point. Does this mean anything? That’s tough for us to say for sure. If it does, however, then one could assume that he’s working with Larry Rothschild on it already.

He requires regular usage

It’s clear that Betances is a creature of habit. He needs to pitch on a routine schedule to remain effective. He hasn’t had that this season. Most notably, the right-hander went through lengthy periods of inactivity this June. For example, he didn’t appear in a four game stretch from June 16th - 20th. The Yankees either ran up the score or Joe Girardi went to other relievers who then threw the games away. Betances hasn’t figured into many of the club’s games, which is problematic for him.

Remember how he struggled with control to start the 2015 season? Many attributed that to the fact he only pitched 8.1 innings during spring training. He grew stronger as the season progressed. Without regular work, he loses the strike zone. While some argue that his lack of innings proves advantageous in keeping him fresh down the stretch, it could be all for naught if he can’t help them win games now.

It’s no exaggeration to label Betances as one of most important players on the Yankees’ roster. He’s been among the game’s elite relief pitchers over the last few seasons. That production doesn’t come along too often. Hopefully he will iron things out in the near future. If not, the Yankees will find themselves in more trouble in the second half.