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Dellin Betances has turned his season around

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The Yankees’ mercurial setup man had a rough start, but Betances’ fastball has returned recently.

Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

Dellin Betances has been a source of worry for the better part of a year. His 2014-2016 seasons were historic in their dominance, and he was similarly dominant for much of 2017. He struggled a little down the stretch, though, and as the Yankees progressed through the playoffs, then-manager Joe Girardi showed reticence to let Betances near anything resembling a high leverage situation.

Betances did nothing to quell those fears when he yielded five runs in 6.2 spring training innings, nor when he yielded a home run in each of his first two regular season outings. After a five-hit, three-run stinker of an appearance two weeks into the season against the Tigers, Betances’ ERA stood at an unsightly 8.10. He had faced 31 batters total, who posted a cumulative 1.157 OPS against him.

Early in the year, I wrote about which Yankees had shown worrisome or promising signs regarding their initial velocities. Betances ranked among those exhibiting worrisome indicators. His velocity was down early, more than would be expected even in the midst of the cool mid-April weather. Safe to say, a few weeks into the 2018 campaign, Betances had been trending in the wrong direction for quite a while.

Finally, however, Betances might be starting to assuage the Yankees’ concerns. He’s certainly not out of the woods, and given his tendency to occasionally swing from wildly dominant to just plain wild at a moment’s notice, it would be no surprise if Bad Betances is lurking right around the corner again. Yet over the past month or so, Betances has at last flashed some positive signs.

Betances’ velocity reached its nadir on April 6th against the Orioles, at an even 96.0 mph according to Brooks Baseball. Pitchers often come out of the gate throwing a tad softer due to early-season rust and cooler climates, but for Betances, who spent the past couple seasons pushing 99 on the gun, sitting 96 was a major red flag.

Vitally, Betances has curtailed that trend. Consider this game-by-game velocity chart for his four-seam fastball, courtesy of Brooks Baseball:

Ever since bottoming out in mid-April, both in terms of velocity and overall performance, Betances has regained his fire. It’s not unusual for Betances to gain strength as the season progresses, as it is something he’s done before. After several seasons of throwing so hard for so many innings, though, such a large early drop was concerning. It is huge news that Betances has bounced back, and that this early velocity loss appears merely temporary.

More importantly, that increased velocity seems to have coincided with a major improvement in performance. Ever since his velocity started to trend upward, Betances has registered whiffs on half of swings against his rejuvenated four-seamer. That’s a startling figure, one that has surely helped propel Betances to a career-best strikeout rate so far on the year.

Better overall results have followed. From FanGraphs, here’s Betances rolling average groundball rate and line drive rate:

Betances’ batted ball profile has just looked much better lately. Per Baseball Savant, since his ERA topped out, Betances has allowed an average exit velocity of 85 mph, down from 91 mph prior. Over that improved stretch, Betances has allowed four earned runs in 11 outings, allowing an OPS of just .506. In other words, ever since Betances started throwing as hard as usual, Betances has been crushing opponents like usual.

In fact, beyond seemingly righting the ship velocity-wise and returning to his typical results, there might be reason to believe Betances has improved on last season. Betances’ control was garish at times in 2017, as he posted the highest walk rate among qualified relievers. According to FanGraphs, Betances has thrown pitches in the zone 46% of the time, nearly a career-high, and well above the league average. That’s allowed him to halve his walk rate from last year.

Opposing batters still look at Betances and see a wild pitcher: Betances has seen one of the nine lowest rates of swings among relievers. If Betances keeps his velocity and continues to pound the zone at unprecedented rates, that could be an easy recipe for piles of strikes, swinging and looking. In that case, the eye-popping strikeout and walk rates Betances has been running may not be entirely unsustainable.

Betances has just been better lately, ever since his fastball returned. Not only that, it seems that there could be a path for Betances to pitch as well as he ever has. Now, given Betances’ inconsistencies, it’s impossible to know if he will actually stick to that path, holding his control and his velocity. But the possibility is there, and at the least, as his recent performance has shown, Betances may just be ready to return to high leverage moments again.