With the fly-ball revolution and starting pitching limits in full effect, relievers have taken a more prominent role than in previous seasons. They’re called upon much more often than prior years and at an ever-growing rate. At this point in the game, relievers play just as of an important role in success and victory as do the starters. With the home runs and strikeouts skyrocketing the last few seasons it’s incredibly important to have a solid back-end of your bullpen to prevail over your opponents.
One such member of a strong back-end is Dellin Betances. He could easily be considered the glue of the New York Yankees’ bullpen since his debut in 2014. Betances burst on the major league scene in 2014 taking relieving by storm, posting a 1.40 ERA, a 1.64 FIP, and a 1.86 xFIP with the Yankees in his first full season. Additionally, he pitched at least 50 innings each season since 2014, proving without a doubt that not only is he highly skilled, he’s also very durable and his health leaves little questions.
So, it will likely come as a shock to hear that after 18 innings of work so far he’s allowed 11 runs. This leads us to question what could possibly cause such a dramatic shift in performance from someone who was so consistent and so dominant from the start? Is he unlucky, has he lost his touch with command, or is his pitch usage and sequencing off? What could make a reliever who regularly posted 2+ WAR each season suddenly become so questionable?
Is it his command? While there may be some outlying factors, Betances is throwing less than a percent shy of a career high in pitches thrown in the zone with 46 percent. So while his command might not be the right question, his choice of pitches and the placement of pitches will likely result in better answers.
From the heatmaps on FanGraphs’ website, it clearly shows that despite throwing a high percentage of pitches in the zone, most of them are right over the heart of the plate. There are numerous pitchers who can get away with throwing in that location frequently, but a major factor in success with that location is generating weak or no contact at all.
Betances is approaching a career high in hard contact rate at 32.4 percent, almost ten percent higher than it was last season and his soft contact rate also has regressed, down to 18.9 percent, almost half of what it was last season and at least seven percent lower than every other full season. So while the location doesn’t necessarily have to change, if he wants to keep putting pitches in those spots he has to work on generating weaker or zero contact.
While the outcomes and location may need to change, what’s even more incredible about his struggles is how stingy he’s been with base runners, giving up an average one hit per inning pitched and only walking 7.9 percent of the batters he’s faced. His walk rate is the lowest it’s been since his first full season as a rookie and only short a career high by less than one percent. Furthermore, he is striking out batters at a career high rate of 43.4 percent so that has to mean something, right? I would have to agree with that sentiment as you cannot ask for much more as far as peripherals go from an elite reliever like Betances.
A big question Yankees’ fans are asking is whether his struggles are simply due to bad luck. Well that’s really a tough question to answer, so far the stats sure show that he’s at the helm of a very unlucky start to the season. With that said, the eye test slightly disagrees with that belief. Given that all of Betances’ 11 runs allowed in 17 total appearances, came in six outings, luck seems to play less of a factor than other probable causes. Eight of those 11 runs came in just three appearances. As much as luck has played a factor, clutch pitching has not favored Betances one bit this season.
With his .424 BABIP to his 50 percent home run per flyball rate, the numbers suggest he’s going to turn things around rather quickly. Anyone looking at his player page on FanGraphs would likely shout out about how unlucky he’s been, but realistically a lot of that is not so much unluckiness but rather mistakes and shortcomings.
Take for instance his heat map that I showed you earlier, it’s very likely had he located more pitches near the edge of the strike zone the chances his home run numbers would be lower are basically a certainty. Hitting a home run on a pitch painted on the black is something very rare for any batter who’s not truly elite. Normally, that’s not a huge issue but when batters are increasing their prominence & focus on fly balls in hopes it translates into home runs, pitchers have to be more careful than ever at keeping pitches on the edges of the zone.
We also have to factor in the ballpark that he’s making the majority of his appearances in, and that would be Yankee Stadium. With notoriously short fences in the Bronx, a double at best can easily turn into a deep home run at that park. While he’s pitched most of his games there his entire career, it’s unquestionably hard to control whether a fly ball reaches 290 feet for a fly out or 330 feet for a home run. A lot of that has to do with command and sequencing which largely relies on keeping the batter off balance, preventing him from making solid contact.
Despite all of this, most of Betances’ issues are that he’s relying way too heavily on his breaking ball, which from all recorded accounts is a curveball. While his curveball usage has steadily increased the past few seasons it never reached above 60 percent and his only other pitch, the fastball’s usage never dropped below 40 percent. Both of those facts have changed thus far in 2018. According to Brooks Baseball, which manually reviews pitch data to ensure accuracy, his curveball rate has spiked to over 60 percent.
While this alone wouldn’t cause someone to struggle because of the large amount of variables with pitching and the results that follow, Betances could easily have something around a 45 percent whiff rate on his breaking ball with a 75 percent in-zone rate, although it’s highly unlikely. However, if batters are making solid contact off the curveball regularly it would cause similar issues in results like what we’re seeing with Betances currently. His whiff per swing rate would agree as it has dropped over five percent between this season and last and almost 13 percent over the past two seasons.
Regardless of the specific cause of Betances’ issues, he needs to address them—and quickly. A Yankees team that is among the best in baseball thus far will rely heavily on a bullpen in important games given the current climate of baseball and their home ballpark. Yankees manager Aaron Boone cannot and will not continue putting Betances in close ballgames if he cannot fix the issues that have caused one of the best relievers in baseball to turn into an unreliable liability.