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Reflecting on Dellin Betances’ legacy

Let’s remember the lasting mark that Betances left on bullpen usage around the game.

MLB: New York Yankees at Seattle Mariners Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Dellin Betances was extremely influential in shaping how I — and the baseball world writ large — view the potential impact that a relief ace can have on a team. His primary five-year run in the Bronx was one of the most dominant stretches ever experienced by any reliever. The first three years were highlighted by Dellin getting the call from manager Joe Girardi pretty much anytime there was a semi-important situation in a game. My brother and I used to make a joke that he was the only reliever who Girardi knew existed in the bullpen.

To put it into perspective, he threw 251 innings in 217 games between 2014-16, more than any other bullpen arm around the game. Those Yankees offenses were quite middling, and Girardi put his full faith in the right-hander’s ability to preserve slim leads in extended outings. WAR is weird for relievers and probably not the best way of evaluating them, but it says a lot that Betances even led in that statistic as well, with only Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller coming close among all relievers in baseball (lol).

Dellin’s retirement leaves so many thoughts in my head. As a literal NYC-bred homegrown player, it made it easier for me to appreciate his time in pinstripes, from the beginning to the end. Coming up as a top prospect for the New York Yankees is a tall task. Remaking himself from a struggling starting pitching prospect into a dominant reliever felt like it happened overnight. It’s not easy to change yourself so quickly, but Dellin did with flying colors. He was meant to be a high-powered reliever. It doesn’t hurt that he had a one of the best curveballs in baseball at the time. In fact, Dellin’s movement on his curve reminds me of sweepers today. He was ahead of his time.

It’s impossible to stick to only positives when reflecting on Betances’ career though. The thing about him that frustrates the hell out of me is he was dramatically underpaid during his stretch of dominance, and by the time his free agency came around, his injury risk had skyrocketed along with a significant drop off in fastball velocity. He is a perfect example of how the current system destroys young, uber-talented relievers.

During his stretch of dominance from 2014-16, he barely made $1.5 million. He set records for relievers in arbitration because of his unprecedented performance, but his hyper usage by Girardi significantly impacted his long-term trajectory and health outlook. We just recently saw something very similar happen to another Yankees reliever, Chad Green. While Green was not nearly as dominant as Betances, he has suffered a similar fate. In his contract year, he was given a worst-case scenario diagnosis of Tommy John surgery.

Like Dellin, Green has only earned around $10 million in his rookie and arb years. Going into free agency on the wrong side of 30 and arm troubles is a recipe for below market contracts. I’m not saying that his performance is doomed, but he has thrown a lot of pitches for the Yankees in the early stages of his career. You have to imagine it isn’t likely to go up from here.

It’s not all bleak for relievers. There are the Chapmans, Brittons, Kimbrels, and Jansens of the world who have made more than a pretty penny as relievers. However, none of those pitchers’ large contracts gave have exactly justified the payday (in the eyes of most front offices, anyway). In fact, most of them have encountered their own struggles or health issues on this side of 30. Unfortunately for Betances, he did not make it as far as these arms, despite being just as dominant in his peak, if not moreso.

So that’s how I think about the career of Dellin Betances. He won’t be appreciated for the level of impact he had and was often the culprit of unnecessary scrutiny from Yankee fans. I appreciate his dominance though, and hope this article motivates you to consider how someone like Dellin was exploited by the current rookie-arbitration system and was deserving of more money than he took in. Why should you penalized for being great early in your career? Anyway, thank you, Dellin. You were the one of the greatest non-Mariano Rivera relievers who the Yankees have seen in the past 30 years.