Betances is now the best FA reliever available
The best relief pitcher available this offseason just might be a guy who pitched to exactly two Major League hitters in 2019.
This was a lost year for Dellin Betances -- hardly the sort that a pending free agent desires.
A right shoulder injury held the 6-foot-8 right-hander out until Sept. 15, when a left Achilles injury turned his season debut into his season finale.
It might prove to have been Betances’ Yankees finale as well. An eighth-round pick by the team in the 2006 Draft out of a Brooklyn high school, Betances has spent his entire career in pinstripes but now finds himself on the open market as he heads toward his age-32 season.
Despite the less-than-ideal circumstances, Betances still should do quite well this winter, perhaps in the form of a one-year deal that would give him a chance to take another crack at free agency in 2020-21. The fact that the Achilles injury didn’t require surgery should help, along with the news that, per SNY’s Andy Martino, Betances is expected to be “fully recovered” by December.
Betances’ prospects this time around also will benefit from what is a thin class of free-agent relievers. With the Yankees working out a new contract with Aroldis Chapman, and the Braves quickly snatching up Will Smith and Chris Martin, the pickings are slim. There are no big-time closer types here. Betances aside, Will Harris is probably the most reliable option, complemented by the likes of righties Daniel Hudson, Craig Stammen and Steve Cishek. Lefty Drew Pomeranz is another intriguing pick, as MLB.com’s Mike Petriello recently detailed, and he’s reportedly headed to San Diego. Considering all that, there is a reasonable argument that Betances is now the best reliever available.
Teams in need of bullpen help -- and there is never a shortage of those -- could always look to the trade market instead. There may be some strong options there, such as Toronto’s Ken Giles, but dealing for a quality reliever is going to require some significant talent in return.
Betances will only cost money, and that cost should be relatively reasonable, given his misfortune in 2019. The four-time All-Star has better stuff and unquestionably a higher ceiling than those fellow free-agent righties, and a much more robust track record as a reliever than Pomeranz.
Lots of teams should be interested. A reunion with the Yankees is one possibility, and the Mets could be in play as well. The Dodgers need bullpen help, and have the resources and depth to take a high-reward risk. The White Sox are clearly gearing up for 2020, and ranked 26th in the Majors in bullpen strikeout rate last year. The Nationals’ ‘pen issues didn’t go away with their championship trophy, especially as Hudson is a free agent. The Rays are always on the lookout for a bargain as they try to contend yet again. The list of potential suitors certainly doesn’t end there.
Here are five reasons why Betances is an attractive free agent, despite the recent injuries.
1) He’s been an effective workhorse
Betances missing basically an entire season, with two different serious injuries, cannot simply be ignored, especially as he approaches his 32nd birthday in March. At the same time, the five previous seasons have to count for something, too.
After brief Major League stints in 2011 and ‘13, Betances ranked fifth from 2014-18 in games pitched (349) and first in relief innings (373 1/3). It wasn’t just about volume. Of the 176 pitchers who made at least 150 relief appearances over those five years, Betances ranked fifth in ERA (2.22), behind only Zack Britton, Andrew Miller, Wade Davis, and Chapman. That was backed up by a 2.26 FIP.
2) He’s a strikeout machine
Let’s get this out of the way first. Betances has a towering frame, which can make repeating mechanics a challenge. That means walks are always going to be part of the equation. Betances handed out more free passes (162) than any other reliever from 2014-18, although his 10.8% walk rate during that time was not exceptionally high, ranking comfortably between Chapman (11.1%) and Craig Kimbrel (10.2%).
Meanwhile, the K's more than make up for it. Betances’ 607 strikeouts in that five-year period were more than 100 more than any other reliever, and his 40.3% K-rate was third behind Chapman (42.2%) and Kimbrel (40.5%). That strikeout ability hasn’t shown signs of slipping, given Betances’ 42.3% K-rate in 2018 (He also, for what it’s worth, struck out both batters he faced in his one ‘19 appearance).
3) He brings the heat -- and the hook
Discounting the grand total of five fastballs Betances threw in 2019, he consistently ranks among the game’s elite flamethrowers. In 2018, his four-seamer averaged 97.7 mph, putting him in the 98th percentile of MLB pitchers. For good measure, he also had 79th percentile spin rate on the pitch, and generated a 32.6% whiff rate that ranked near the top of the league.
He’s hardly just a fastball pitcher, though. Betances throws his heater only about half the time, mixing liberally with a slider and curveball -- he calls them a slurve and spike-curve, respectively -- that both give hitters fits. Batters missed on nearly half of their swings against the curve from 2014-18, and the slider has proven completely unhittable of late, thanks to nearly unmatched vertical movement. From 2017-18, in at-bats ending with that pitch, opponents were a jaw-dropping 9-for-171 (.053) with zero extra-base hits and 119 strikeouts.
4) Contact is rare, and weak
As mentioned, it’s difficult to put the bat on the ball against Betances. Even when that happens, squaring him up is unusual.
Each year from Statcast’s 2015 debut through ‘18, Betances ranked in at least the 93rd percentile in lowest average exit velocity allowed. His overall average of 84.6 mph during that time was tied for third lowest among MLB pitchers (minimum 500 batted balls). Opponents also barreled balls off Betances far less than average -- on 4.7% of balls in play.
5) The expected stats support him
From 2014-18, opponents batted a paltry .167 and slugged .256 off Betances. Not only did those figures make him one of the most difficult pitchers to hit in the Majors, but Statcast’s expected metrics showed that he fully earned that status. The expected batting average (xBA) against Betances -- factoring in strikeouts and quality of contact -- was .165. The expected slugging percentage (xSLG) was .253.
Expected wOBA (xwOBA) goes one step further, providing an overall view of performance that includes strikeouts, walks, and quality of contact. The .254 wOBA against Betances over those five years was backed up by the righty’s elite xwOBA.
Lowest xwOBA allowed, 2015-18
Min. 750 batters faced (338 pitchers)
- Kenley Jansen: .222
- Andrew Miller: .233
- Aroldis Chapman: .242
- Edwin Diaz: .246
5) Dellin Betances: .248
None of that will mean much if Betances can’t shake off his 2019 injuries and make a healthy return to the mound, so teams certainly will be diligent about seeing if he is in a good place physically before making a commitment. But if Betances is ready to go in 2020, he could prove to be the jewel of this free-agent reliever class.