The date is Friday, October 6, 2017. The New York Yankees are in the 13th inning of a crucial Game Two in the ALDS at Progressive Field against the Cleveland Indians. Dellin Betances is in his third inning of work on the mound. With the game on the line, manager Joe Girardi has to rely on his top reliever to keep the game alive.
Betances navigated his first two innings ably, but could hold on no longer. He surrendered a walk, a stolen base and the game-winning single in rapid succession, putting the Yankees in a 2-0 hole in the best-of-five series.
The right-hander would pitch in three more playoff games, but he looked completely shot. He walked more batters than he got out, struck out just one hitter and became almost unusable at the most important time of the year. Unable to turn the page, Betances opened up the 2018 campaign by giving up home runs in his first two appearances and losing a ballgame on an embarrassing steal of home. This seemed to be the beginning of the end for Betances, four-time MLB All-Star.
He bounced back, however, and in the most improbable of ways. Just when it seemed like Betances hit the wall, he has become the Yankees’ best relief pitcher once again, and seems impervious to the high-pressure situations that sunk him just a few months ago.
How has he completed this comeback? Betances has returned to the approach that he used back in his early years to trick hitters. He has the enviable gift of deploying two of the nastiest pitches on the Yankees’ staff: his fastball and his curveball. Betances’ fastball works because he hides it well, only to unleash it on hitters at speeds of 97-100 mph. Every pitcher knows, though, that a good fastball is truly at its best when paired with an elite off-speed pitch.
Luckily, Betances also has that wicked hook in his arsenal. He throws it at a high velocity for a breaking ball (84 mph) and has knee-buckling movement. Betances’ curveball is among the best in the game, and his high swing-and-miss rate on the pitch encouraged him to keep using it.
This, however, is where he ran into some trouble. When he burst onto the scene in 2014, Betances had almost a 50-50 mix of his pitches. But from 2016-2017, he threw 55.2 percent curveballs. He was becoming more predictable, and seemed to shelve his heater at crucial times. Although his strikeout rate increased, so too did his walk rate. Batters were also hitting way more hard contact off of Betances, and he showed a complete inability to hold baserunners or field his position. Although he remained a trusty pitcher, there were some warning signs that the league was catching up to him.
After the debacle of Betances’ 2017 playoffs, the big right-hander has switched things up. The most notable change has been the re-inclusion of his fastball. He’s back to a 50-50 split of his pitches, and his numbers have rebounded as a result. Throwing his fastball more often gives hitters something else to sit on, and then Betances can unleash that dirty curveball and generate swings and misses.
In kind, Betances’ rate stats are among the best of his career. His strikeout rate is the best it’s ever been, and he’s posted his second-best walk percentage and third-highest strand rate of his career. His chase rate is also higher than last year. He’s throwing strikes more than ever, and he has improved his performance with runners on base. The numbers don’t lie: Betances is back.
Aaron Boone has used Betances almost exclusively as a one-inning setup man this season. While that’s fine in the regular season, it’s getting close to crunch time. Every good playoff team needs a fireman that can pitch a few innings and step into tricky situations, and Betances could be a perfect fit. At the very least, we shouldn’t keep seeing other relievers pitch in high-leverage spots while Betances sits until the eighth inning. Much like Tommy Kahnle or David Robertson of last year, Betances should be ready to go at any time in the playoffs.
Last year, Betances hit rock bottom at the worst possible time. This year, he’s ready to be the Yankees’ relief ace for the stretch run. He’s simplified his approach and has regained his confidence, and the Yankees are all the better for sticking with him through the tough times. There was a time when Dellin Betances was one of the most feared relievers in all of baseball. That time has come once again.