Among relievers with at least 150 innings of work over the past four seasons, Dellin Betances ranks in the top five in K/9, ERA, FIP, and WAR. In other words, Betances is undoubtedly one of MLB’s most dominant relief pitchers when healthy. Luckily for the Yankees, Betances should be back on the mound in time for the 2019 playoffs, assuming his rehab from a right lat strain doesn’t hit any more bumps in the road. There’s no question the Yankees are going to use Betances once he’s healthy, but Aaron Boone will have to decide where Betances fits into one of the league’s best bullpens.
Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Betances trails only Josh Hader and Aroldis Chapman with a 14.63 K/9 rate. That’s why the Yankees have frequently gone to Betances in high leverage situations when they’re in dire need of a strikeout. During that same stretch, Betances stranded 81% of runners on base, the 12th best total in MLB. Anybody would be thrilled to have a weapon like that in the bullpen, but the Yankees might have MLB’s best high leverage option at their disposal already.
Adam Ottavino trails only the Rays’ Emilio Pagan with a 91.7% LOB% and the right-hander ranks third in MLB with a 1.64 ERA (among relief pitchers with 50+ IP). It’s hard to imagine Betances coming off the injured list and instantly becoming a more effective option than Ottavino. So how can the Yankees make the most of two dominant right-handed arms as they bridge the gap between their starters and Aroldis Chapman?
If both Betances and Ottavino are healthy and pitching up to their standards, the Yankees will certainly take matchups into account. They’ll look at the history of each batter vs. pitcher matchup, but also lefty vs. righty matchups. Ottavino is historically much tougher on righties than lefties, as can be expected for a right-handed pitcher who features a devastating slider. This season, lefties are slashing .270/.368/.426 against Ottavino, while righties own a much worse .210/.289/.317 line.
Betances went away from his curveball-centric two-pitch mix after the 2016 season and incorporated a slider beginning in 2017. In the 2017 and 2018 seasons combined, Betances was actually more effective against left-handed batters than he was against righties. Left-handed batters posted a .162/.275/.253 line in 57 innings over that two year stretch, while righties posted a .168/.320/.266 line that won’t jump out as a great success, but indicates slightly better results for the offense. These numbers indicate that Betances might be a better option than Ottavino against both lefties and righties, but that’s with the assumption that Betances is the same dominant force he was the past two seasons.
In addition to head-to-head results and handedness, the Yankees will surely factor in the unique pitch-mix of both Betances and Ottavino when they make matchup decisions. Batters who struggle against sinkers and sliders will more likely see a heavy dose of Ottavino throughout a playoff series, and those who struggle to handle high velocity could face Betances more frequently. Betances actually posted a better opponent xWOBA than Ottavino against sliders over the 2017 and 2018 seasons, but he pitches off of his fastball and curveball and surprises hitters with a slider usage around 15%, according to Statcast. The importance of getting back a healthy Betances can’t be understated for the Yankees as they inch closer to playoff time. If the big right-hander returns to full strength, Boone will have tough decisions to make in high leverage situations, but those decisions would be the envy of 29 other MLB managers.