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Dellin Betances is struggling with his command

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The All-Star closer has not been his usual self. What is behind his recent struggles?

MLB: New York Yankees at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

The Yankees suffered a back-breaking loss in Baltimore late Tuesday night/early Wednesday morning when closer Dellin Betances surrendered a game-winning home run to Manny Machado in the bottom of the ninth. Sure, Machado is on fire right now and is a tough out for any pitcher, but it was also the fourth time in seven appearances that Betances had allowed at least one run.

That is not like Betances, who has represented the Yankees in the All-Star Game each of the past four seasons, and earned the closer’s spot when Aroldis Chapman imploded. There have been flashes of vintage Betances during his rough stretch, but he also has had to sweat for a lot of his saves recently. So, what is behind this recent slump?

Command is the first issue that comes to mind. In two of Betances’ final three appearances in August, he surrendered two walks in an inning. Machado’s home run was made possible by a two-out walk to Tim Beckham on five pitches. Walks in the late innings always spell trouble, especially in tight games when Betances is usually on the mound.

When Betances is at his best, he is pounding the corners and the upper part of the strike zone with fastballs to set up that nasty curve. Think back to May when he was lights-out while Chapman was on the DL. The whiff percentages on his fastball were through the roof, which helped him get through the entire month without surrendering an earned run. During that time, he also went through a stretch of six straight appearances in which he didn’t walk a batter.

Somewhere along the way, Betances lost some effectiveness on his fastball, and in turn lost confidence in using it. His fastball percentage was at a season low in August, as Betances has been leaning much more heavily on his curve ball. Here is Betances’ pitch usage percentages this season:

If you notice, there is a similar pattern in the past month as there was in May when Betances was at his best. So why are the results so different if he is using his pitches at a similar percentage? Well, while he is using the curve only a bit more frequently than he did in May, he is not locating it nearly as effectively. Here’s how he was pinpointing the curveball in May:

Now let’s compare that to his chart for the past seven appearances, up to the Machado home run:

Clearly, Betances has been erratic with the curve recently, despite throwing it more than he has all season. With a major decline in fastball usage, hitters can sit back for the breaking ball that has recently been left up in the zone, which is precisely what Machado did at Camden Yards.

The Yankee bullpen was seen as an overwhelming strength once David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle were acquired, but individual struggles have led to the Yanks giving away multiple games that were crucial to making up ground in the division. The Yankees had a chance to create more breathing room in the Wild Card race on Tuesday night before Machado spoiled that. Betances will have to be more effective the rest of the way if the Yanks are to have a shot at the division, or hang on to a Wild Card spot.

If Betances can rediscover the command of his breaking ball, his fastball can become more of an asset again. He doesn’t necessarily have to throw more fastballs, as his performance in May showed, but he needs to get the curve down so he can return to being one of the best bullpen arms in the game.