The Yankees entered the 2018 season boasting a bullpen that has been debated as one of the best of all time. Through one series of the young season, the relief core showed some cracks in their armor. The biggest concern has come from Dellin Betances, who seems to have carried over his struggles from the conclusion of the 2017 campaign.
Aaron Boone tried to ease Betances into the new season by bringing him in during a 6-0 Yankees lead on Opening Day. Betances responded by surrendering a solo homer to Kevin Pillar on the first pitch of the eighth inning, as Pillar jumped on a fastball right down Broadway. The damage for Betances would end there as he lucked out on a screaming line drive from Devon Travis (on another fastball) that ended up in first baseman Neil Walker’s glove.
Boone tested the waters again with Betances on Saturday, this time in a tie game in the seventh inning. Once again, the big righty struggled to get outs with his fastball, as former Yankee “legend” Yangervis Solarte launched a go-ahead solo homer to center field. Pillar followed with a single and a trio of steals, including a swipe of home plate as Betances spiked a throw home into the ground, still haunted by his inability to hold runners on and throw to bases. The Yankees would lose 5-3, and Betances would leave with three earned runs (two via home run) surrendered in his first three innings of work in 2018.
The sample size is small, but a prevalent problem for Betances so far is opponents sitting on his fastball, likely due to his inability to locate his wicked hook. Pillar was sitting first-pitch fastball on Opening Day and jumped on it, while the other three hits Betances allowed were also on fastballs, thanks to falling behind on curveballs early in the count. The laser line drive by Travis on Thursday was after Betances fell behind 3-1 on four-straight curveballs, while the Solarte homer came on a 2-0 fastball after a pair of curves were taken out of the zone. The Blue Jays were not biting on Betances’ curve, instead sitting dead red on fastballs and daring the struggling reliever to locate his breaking ball.
So, what should be the plan with Betances going forward? For Boone, he would obviously like for Betances to return to the form that made him a four-time All-Star and the team’s most reliable bullpen presence early in the 2017 season. Unfortunately, Betances lost his command during the early months of last year’s campaign, resulting in a scary 6.6-percent walks per nine in 2017. His swing rate also dropped dramatically (from 34 to 24-percent), likely due to hitters like Pillar, who lay off the curveballs out of the zone. Due to his lack of control, it’s becoming harder to trust Betances in close game scenarios, especially with other options lingering beyond the outfield wall.
Last season, Yankees fans saw Joe Girardi struggle with reliever Tyler Clippard, who had lost his way in the form of an 11.17 ERA in June. Girardi continued to turn to Clippard in hopes of a rebound, only to suffer through more late-inning losses until Clippard was finally traded away. Clippard’s June swoon contributed to the Yankees losing hold of their division lead, one that they would fail to get back.
Of course, Betances has way more potential than Clippard. He has an extended resume of success, and his stuff is light years ahead of Clippard’s. Still, Boone may have to make sure he doesn’t repeat Girardi’s mistake by consistently turning to a struggling pitcher when games are on the line. The Yankees would benefit greatly from an effective Betances, who would make their bullpen even deeper and more lethal. The bullpen has plenty of weapons, and Boone will have to rely on them more if Betances cannot rediscover his command.