An immaculate inning is when a pitcher strikes out three batters in an inning on exactly nine pitches. That’s three pitches per batter, leaving no room for balls and no time for fouls on two strikes. Dellin Betances threw an immaculate inning during Wednesday’s 2-0 loss against the Detroit Tigers following a three-hour, 11-minute rain delay. But do we care?
The immaculate inning, like many feats in baseball, used to be something we rarely saw. Sometimes we went years without seeing one, like after the 1979 season, it wasn’t until 1984 that someone was able to pull one off again. This is now the 87th immaculate inning since 1889, but it’s also the sixth this season and the 16th since the 2014 season. MLB has actually had at least one (and usually more) immaculate innings since the 2003 season.
While I won’t sit here and tell you it wasn’t cool to see a Yankee do something (relatively) rare in an incredibly difficult game, it’s not exactly indicative of long-term baseball skill. Names like Max Scherzer, Kenley Jansen, and Craig Kimbrel have been attached to the feat just this season, but so have the likes of Rex Brothers, Justin Masterson, and Steve Delabar in the past. All at the top of their game at the time, but have since fallen from their pedestals.
Dellin Betances with the rarely seen but always awesome Immaculate Inning pic.twitter.com/ehspKp3zyI— Sports Illustrated (@SInow) August 3, 2017
This is not something that is unique to this specific feat either. As we all know, the no-hitter, which was once sacred above most else in this game, has become commonplace. 30 years ago you would have been lucky to see one every 10 years or so. In 2015 alone we saw five of them. Just like an immaculate inning, a no-hitter is no indicator of long-term success. After all, Philip Humber and Dallas Braden each pitched one in their lifetimes.
So what does pitching an immaculate inning—or achieving any single accomplishment—mean for Dellin in 2017? In the long run it means nothing, because you can never be sure what the future holds, but for right now it means he’s back.
By the time Dellin Betances pitched in the 2017 MLB All-Star Game, he had a 3.18 ERA and an appalling 8.26 BB/9. Afflicted by control problems for most of his young professional career, it never looked like he would make it as a major league player. In 2012, he owned a 6.8 BB/9 between Triple-A and Double-A as a starter. Things obviously turned around for him to earn four-straight All-Star appearances and votes for major MLB awards.
Betances has been through a lot, but you can never be sure what will happen to a relief pitcher. Now, in the second half, he has a 0.77 ERA and his walk rate has dropped to a more manageable 4.63 BB/9. In fact, since his July 5th appearance where he walked four batters while only managing to get one out, he’s only walked six in 12.2 innings of work.
Whether it’s an immaculate inning or a no-hitter, it certainly takes some luck to pull the whole thing off. For the former, especially, you essentially HAVE to be perfect. You also need skill, though. You need to pitch hard and throw accurately. You need to be able to miss bats. We know Dellin can do the first thing, but until this moment, it became questionable whether or not he could keep the ball in the strike zone.
In the grand scheme of things, an immaculate inning is an accomplishment not much different from a quality start (less than four runs, at least six innings pitched) or a Maddux (complete game shutout on fewer than 100 pitches)—made up circumstances to denote success after the fact. Stats like these can certainly feel arbitrary at times, but it’s also good when they manage to back up what we already know: that Dellin Betances is back.