Full Name: Dellin Betances
Position: Relief pitcher
Born: March 23, 1988 (New York, NY)
Yankee Years: 2011-19
Primary number: 68
Yankee statistics: 21-22, 36 SV, 381.2 IP, 2.36 ERA, 621 K, 14.6 K/9, 40.1% K%, 11.4 rWAR, 11.2 fWAR
Dellin Betances is one of the most intimidating, overpowering presences to take the mound late in games for a franchise that has had its share of fireballers and, of course, the GOAT himself. No. 68 took a meandering path to get to the Bronx, but once he found his niche, he put together one of the great five-year stretches a reliever could ever hope to achieve.
Betances’ Yankee tenure ended with injury, and his big-league career came to a close not long after that. But anyone who watched the super-talented starting pitching prospect turned ace reliever is unlikely to forget it. Betances at his best was absolutely unhittable.
The Hometown Phenom
Betances was raised in the figurative shadow of the franchise he would one day star for. Born in Manhattan, he later moved to the Lower East Side at the age of 10. That same year, Betances, alongside his godfather and his cousin, found himself at Yankee Stadium. The date was May 17, 1998. The starting pitcher was David Wells. The outcome was baseball history. Reminiscing a decade later, Betances recalled chanting “Daaay-vid Well-ells!” alongside the frenetic crowd that day as they collectively realized what they were watching.
Dellin did more than watch baseball, however. By the time he was a senior at Grand Street Campus in Brooklyn, it was obvious that there was special talent in his skyscraper-esque frame.
In the spring of 2006, Betances was considered a sure-fire first round pick in the upcoming MLB Draft. At 6-foot-9 as a high school senior, Betances already featured the fastball-curveball combo that he would one day wield with devastating effect in the majors. The former was already streaking out of his hand at 95-mph. Imagine being a high school hitter in New York.
From Bleacher Creature to Baby Bomber
The Yankees brought Betances in to the old Yankee Stadium in the weeks leading up to the 2006 draft to see what he could do. General manager Brian Cashman was sold on the towering righty from the very beginning. “Wow, who is this guy… We are going to draft him,” Cashman later recalled saying after seeing Betances work out. Sounds easy. Cashman loved Betances. The Yankees had a first-round pick.
But life is seldom so simple. With the 21st overall pick, New York chose right-handed pitcher… Ian Kennedy out of USC (who actually just retired). The Yankees were not the only club to pass on Betances in the first round. Every single team did likewise. There was a reason: Betances had committed to Vanderbilt. Damon Oppenheimer, the Yankees’ head of amateur scouting, had warned Cashman it might take a Brink’s truck to prompt the young man to break his commitment. The GM was undaunted.
Every club apparently shared some level of concern as to whether they could sign Betances. Seven rounds came and went and his name went uncalled. His availability was despite Cashman’s best efforts. “Pop him now,’” Cashman said during the third round. Oppenheimer counseled patience. The same routine played out in the fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh rounds.
Finally, at 254th overall in the eighth round, when Cashman said “pop him now,” Oppenheimer popped him. Dellin Betances was a Yankee… if they could sign him. Eventually, a $1 million signing bonus was enough to entice Betances away from college ball. He joined Kennedy, who signed for $2.25 million and Joba Chamberlain (41st overall), who inked a $1.1 million signing bonus as seven-figure Yankee hurlers chosen in what turned out to be a pretty good 2006 draft class.
A Killer B’s Long Journey to the Bronx
Betances conceivably could have been gone from the Yankee organization long before he ever got the chance to don pinstripes. After the 2007 season, New York was chasing two-time Cy Young Award winner Johan Santana. In early December, the New York Times reported that the club was willing to offer Phil Hughes and Melky Cabrera for the ace. Santana’s club, the Twins, insisted on a third elite prospect. New York refused. Betances found his name on a list of five (alongside Kennedy, Alan Horne, Austin Jackson, and José Tabata) that the Yankees steadfastly refused to send to Minnesota. If nothing else, it’s a fascinating inflection point.
It’s fair to wonder if the Yankee brass regretted holding so tightly to Betances, who had entered the 2007 season as Baseball America’s 100th-ranked prospect. Three years later, he’d managed to reach Double-A with a late-season promotion to the Trenton Thunder. But the previous three seasons had taken some shine off him as a prospect and he’d disappeared from the pre-season lists. Dellin was still difficult to hit, but his walk rates had begun to make fans sweat.
Betances’ 2010 performance, though, shot him back up the ladder. Headed into 2011, BA ranked him 43rd on its preseason list, and he was one of the top three Yankee pitching prospects, alongside Andrew Brackman and Manny Bañuelos. The vaunted, much-ballyhooed “Killer B’s.” For anyone old enough to remember the Yankee farm system a decade-plus ago, these three guys were the dream.* Three high-ceiling starting pitching prospects that were going to come to the Bronx and mow down opposing hitters for years to come.
*Evidently, we hadn’t learned much from the “Big Three” of a couple years prior, as the trio of Kennedy, Chamberlain, and Hughes only did so much.
A Bronx cameo but a dream on life support
In late September 2011, the Yankees were comfortably headed to the playoffs. On Sept. 22nd, Betances entered in relief against the Rays. Four walks in two-thirds of an inning led two runs to cross the plate — an inauspicious start to his major league career. Six days later, though, he got a chance of redemption. On the 28th with the Yankees already locked into the AL East crown, Betances made his first, last, and only big league start, again versus a Tampa Bay team desperately trying to stay in the Wild Card race.
Two shutout innings, punctuated by his first two MLB punchouts (spoiler alert: he’d rack up a ton of those during his Yankee tenure) and Dellin was done, ready to take a seat and watch the utter chaos to follow in the fateful Game 162. But he’d reached the Show.
It was back to the minors for Betances in 2012 and, to put it mildly, his season was catastrophic. By the time it came to close he’d been demoted from Triple-A back to Trenton, walked 99 batters in 131.1 innings (6.8 BB/9) and his ERA sat at a wretched 6.44. A small sample size, this was not.
Headed into 2013, the dream of the Killer B’s was on life support. Betances couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn, Brackman was gone, and Bañuelos was recovering from Tommy John surgery. A February New York Times article lamented: “Four years ago, they represented the future of the Yankees’ rotation, young arms with enormous potential. Now, the Killer B’s stand for something else entirely: the pitfalls of drafting can’t-miss pitching prospects. Too often, they miss.”
For Betances, fastball command continued to be a bugaboo, and he headed back to Scranton Wilkes-Barre to begin the 2013 campaign. He walked 16 batters across his first 6 starts and the Yankees finally threw in the towel. To save the 25-year-old’s career, he had to be tried in the bullpen.
There are nigh-countless pitchers in MLB history who looked to be toast until they were moved to the bullpen. That’s just how the cycle goes. Few, however, take to it as ferociously as Dellin Betances did. In 32 outings from mid-May through the end of his time in Triple-A, he struck out 83 batters in 60 innings (12.5 K/9) with a 1.35 ERA, 2.20 FIP, and a more palatable 3.9 BB/9, leading to a sub-1.00 WHIP. The results were startling.
Called up in September, Dellin struggled in a cup of coffee in New York, but there was hope.
A Supernova on the mound
And then there was 2014. Look, full disclosure: I love Betances. Dellin is my guy. When we did our breakout season series, I wrote about his 2014 performance:
“Betances was absolutely on another level. He basically turned MLB hitters — the best in the world at what they do — into John Smoltz at the plate for an entire season. The Hall of Fame hurler retired with a career .159 BA and a .433 OPS. Opponents hit .149 against Dellin in his breakout campaign, with a .442 OPS.”
If you want video evidence, rather than my shabby prose, here’s May 15, 2014. Betances entered in the bottom of the fifth and eviscerated the Mets.
When the 2014 campaign concluded, Betances had an eye-popping 3.7 rWAR and a 274 ERA+ (!!) in 90 IP. Eight years after the Yankees drafted him, four or so years after folks dreamed on him as a homegrown ace, Dellin electrified the Yankee fanbase out of the bullpen with his devastating fastball-curveball combo.
As wild as it is, he was better (at least by rWAR) in 2015. Betances wasn’t sneaking up on anyone anymore and it did not matter. For example, it took until June 5, 2015, his 27th appearance of the season, for an opposing team to hang an earned run around his neck. That was the Yankees’ 55th game of the season, for reference. If you’re wondering, he’d tossed 29.1 innings to that point, with 49 strikeouts entering that day. He’d whiffed 13 in his previous 5.1 frames. He was so dominant in 2015 that when the season concluded, he led the Yankees — a team that made the playoffs (however briefly) — in rWAR. Not Yankees pitchers. All Yankees.
Betances’ spectacular two-season stretch, one that included two All-Star Game selections, a third-place finish in 2014 American League Rookie of the Year voting, and down-ballot points in 2015 Cy voting, is one of the great two-year performances by a reliever in the last 30+ years.
Since 1990, the list of relievers who topped Betances by rWAR over two years is short: Boston’s Jonathan Papelbon, who compiled 8.1 rWAR from 2006-07, and Mariano Rivera, who bested Dellin in five different two-year stretches (lol). That’s it. No Billy Wagner. No Craig Kimbrel. No Eric Gagne. No Francisco Rodriguez. Not even a Trevor Hoffman. It’s just Mo, Papelbon, and Dellin.
If Dellin was, as I have suggested, a supernova, he definitely burned brightest in 2014 and 2015. There were signs of some trouble in the latter season, however. Command, which had plagued him for years, cropped up as in issue as he walked 40 in only 84 innings in 2015 (he gave out 24 free passes in 90 frames the season prior, for reference sake).
Nonetheless, Betances ran back out to the mound in 2016, albeit in a changed role. For the first time in three seasons, he did not average more than three outs per outing. He was still devastatingly effective, however, holding his own in an intimidating bullpen that also featured Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller. One-inning Dellin whiffed 126 opposing batters in 73 innings and finished that season with a brilliant 1.78 FIP, though his ERA lagged behind at 3.08.
The Levine Incident
Arbitration: a club and a player squabbling over what might seem like inconsequential amounts of money. But teams want to avoid setting precedents, and players want to maximize their earnings while they can. Betances and the Yankees found themselves headed to arbitration prior to the 2017 season.
Headed into his first season of arbitration, Betances was seeking $5 million from the Yankees. The club, meanwhile, was offering him $3 million. Either way, he was going to reset the market for non-closers, as the New York Times pointed out. But 29 other clubs doubtlessly watched, wondering what the new marker for 99th-percentile setup men would be.
And this got ugly. The Yankees won the hearing. If that’s where it ended, I suspect many fans wouldn’t remember this so clearly. But instead, Yankees president Randy Levine decided to take a victory lap and dunk on Betances (after calling him “Dylan” during the proceedings).
Levine, after New York’s victory, referred to Betances as a “victim” and accused the reliever’s agent of making a wild attempt to jack up the ceiling for the salaries of non-closers. The New York Times recounted Levine’s comments: “It’s like me saying, ‘I’m not the president of the Yankees; I’m an astronaut,’” Levine said. “No, I’m not an astronaut, and Dellin Betances is not a closer.”
Anyone who remembers the Betances hearing likely recalls the fallout. Levine’s victory lap was a tasteless tap-dance on a player who had been absolutely invaluable to the Yankees the previous three seasons. Imperfect tool though it may be, FanGraphs has a $/fWAR calculator. By their estimate, Betances had provided about $72 million in value to the Yankees from 2014 through 2016.
The final seasons
Despite any lingering feelings, Betances was back in the Yankee bullpen in 2017. Continuing an ongoing trend, his usage declined again from the year prior. He remained effective, however, and despite only tossing 59.2 innings, Betances managed to reach 100 strikeouts for the fourth season in a row out of the bullpen. An immaculate inning in September against the Tigers that culminated with an impressive whiff of Miguel Cabrera, doubtless helped.
It was a special year for the Yankees, and Betances got to part of an extended playoff run for the first time. Sadly, it didn’t go too well for him personally, as he walked five and allowed a pair of runs across four innings in five games. In the ALCS, the Yankees fell in seven to Houston.
2018 was Betances’ final blaze of glory with New York. For the first time as a big league stalwart, he did not get selected to the Midsummer Classic, but he did do something no other reliever had ever done: five consecutive seasons with 100 strikeouts out of the bullpen.
This time around, Betances had a good October. His three K’s across two shutout innings in the Wild Card Game earned him the win over Oakland, and he mostly looked sharp against Boston, too. But his teammates came up short in the ALDS, which the Red Sox won in four.
Betances had been very durable for the Yankees since they made him a long-term member of their bullpen in 2014. But all good things come to an end, and that included his streak of good health. In March 2019, an impingement in his right shoulder sent Betances to the injured list, and he did not step on the mound again until September 15th. He entered a game against the Blue Jays in the fourth inning and struck out both batters he faced.
Two nights later, the Yankees announced that, during his outing, Betances partially tore his left Achilles tendon, ending his season and, ultimately, his Yankee career. It was a devastating outcome and an awful way for his tenure in pinstripes to finish.
Post-Yankees and post-baseball
Betances stuck around New York, signing a deal with the Mets in December 2019. He did get back on a big league mound, but the control never came close to returning. He walked 12 in 11.2 shaky innings during the COVID-shortened 2020, and the shoulder began barking again the next year. His sole appearance in the 2021 season was his last in the major leagues. Betances signed with the Dodgers in 2022, but never made it to the mound for them outside of Triple-A before being released. He officially retired on August 17, 2022.
Betances is evidently still following baseball though, as he remains close friends with CC Sabathia, and he made an appearance this postseason at Game 7 of the National League Championship in Philadelphia.
Betances got married in 2018 and had his first child in 2019. Judging from his social media, he seems to be doing well. In at least one parallel universe, he pitched a few more seasons for the Yankees, and appears even higher on that universe’s list of the Top 100 Yankees of all-time.
As it stands, we salute a man who, in his prime, was one of the most dominant relievers ever seen. When Dellin Betances was on, you weren’t going to hit him. It simply wasn’t going to happen.
Staff rank: 79
Community rank: N/A
Stats rank: N/A
2013 rank: N/A
Canner-O’Mealy, Ryan. “Crowd Pleaser: ‘Baby Unit’ Betances draws attention on the mound.” Sports Illustrated. June 5, 2006.
Marchand, Andrew. “From Bleacher Creature… to Bomber?” ESPN. February 17, 2011.
The New York Times. Various articles between 2006 and 2019.