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Dellin Betances and the quest to find command

Dellin Betances needs to regain his fastball command, but the Yankees can afford to be patient with him if it takes some time.

Divisional Round - New York Yankees v Cleveland Indians - Game Two Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

As we are now just a few weeks away from pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training, one of the biggest question marks in the Yankees’ pitching staff is Dellin Betances. After an up-and-down year last year, bouncing back will be key for the four-time All-Star in 2018. However, even if he can’t quite piece it together by Opening Day, the Yankees bullpen is strong enough to carry the load until he does.

Inconsistency plagued Dellin Betances’ 2017 season. On one hand, the big righty remained a dominant force out of the bullpen. He threw an immaculate inning back in August and posted some of the league’s best K/9 and K% rates. Additionally, Betances proved, again, to be one of the best at keeping the ball in the park. He generated a soft contact percentage of 34.9%, which was tops among all relievers.

However, at several points throughout last season Betances simply couldn’t control the baseball. Walks and command issues are nothing new, as they forced him into the bullpen back in the minors, but the problem worsened in 2017. Betances was the league’s worst pitcher at preventing walks last year. His 6.64 BB/9 and 16.9 BB% were dead last for pitchers who had thrown at least 50 innings.

By season’s end, Joe Girardi clearly couldn’t depend on Betances at all. Betances didn’t make an appearance in the bullpen-heavy Wild Card game. He did make five appearances between the ALDS and the ALCS, but none went very smoothly. In Game 2 of the ALDS, he took the loss after letting his lead-off walk come around to score. In Game 4 of the ALDS and Game 3 of the ALCS, Betances threw fewer than 50% of his pitches for strikes and had to be pulled from both games before recording an out. It is clear that something was amiss for Dellin Betances in 2017.

In all likelihood, inconsistent mechanics are to blame for his struggles. As the axiom goes— big guys like the 6-foot-8 Betances often have problems repeating their delivery. Considering how erratic his fastball was last year, that probably rings true in this instance as well. In an interview with George A. King III last month, Betances identified inconsistent mechanics and fastball command as two focal points of his offseason workout plan. With spring training now less than three weeks away, it won’t be long before Yankee fans see how Dellin has bounced back from his toughest season yet.

Ideally, Dellin Betances will return to previous form and limit walks. Granted, he’s never been great at limiting walks, but his 2017 rates nearly doubled from the year before. Still, walks are really the only part of his game that are broken. Even at age 30, his fastball hasn’t lost any velocity and contact rates have stayed consistent. However, hitters didn’t swing at his 2017 pitches at nearly the same rates, possibly because a lot of those pitches weren’t anywhere near the zone. Hitters didn’t beat Betances last year. It was often the case he beat himself. If he finds consistency within his mechanics, Betances could regain the dominance that eluded him at times last season.

If it becomes evident Betances hasn’t regained form in the offseason or in spring training, it would seem the Yankees can afford him some time during the season to hone his mechanics. The 2018 bullpen certainly has more depth than the 2017 Opening Day bullpen. The emergence of Chad Green and the additions of David Robertson and Tommy Kahnle are obviously huge improvements to the Tommy Layne, Tyler Clippard, and Bryan Mitchell bullpen of early last year. Factor in Aroldis Chapman and even an under-the-radar guy like Adam Warren, and the Yankees have what could be a “possibly historic” bullpen in 2018. If it so happens that Dellin needs more time to literally straighten things out, then the Yankees ought to be able to weather that storm while giving other arms higher-leverage spots. Until then, watching how Dellin has bounced back from last season could be one of the more compelling preseason storylines.