Dellin Betances is no stranger to overcoming adversity. Before he put together a string of four All-Star seasons, the relief pitcher struggled to advance through the Minors and received harsh treatment from the first big league batters he faced. So when he lost his way during the second half of the 2017 season and again at the beginning of 2018, he knew that hard work and a strong self-confidence would lead him back to the top of his game.
That’s exactly where the New York City native ended up. From mid-May of 2018 through the end of the end of September, Betances was nearly unhittable, finishing the 2018 season with a 2.70 ERA in 66 2/3 innings of work. He also struck out 115 batters while walking just 26.
When the calendar turned to October, Betances was even more dominant, posting a 1.69 ERA in three postseason appearances that included a crucial performance in the American League Wild Card Game against Oakland. In that game, Betances took the ball from starter Luis Severino with no outs and two on in the fifth. Betances retired the next three Oakland hitters in order, as well as all three batters he faced in the sixth, preserving the Yankees’ 2-0 lead.
Over the winter, Betances spoke with Yankees Magazine editor-in-chief Alfred Santasiere III over dinner at Il Fresco restaurant in Orangeburg, New York.
Looking back at the All-Star Game in 2017, what did it mean to be selected to play in the Midsummer Classic for a fourth consecutive season?
Every All-Star Game has a different meaning to me. Being there for the fourth straight year was something I never could have imagined. I just tried to enjoy the atmosphere as much as I could, especially in Miami. But just like the previous three selections, getting there just shows all of the work I put in, and that meant a lot to me. Being recognized by my peers, guys who I’m facing on a daily basis, was meaningful. There are a lot of great players who never get to go to one All-Star Game, so for me to get to four in a row is something I consider to be a huge accomplishment.
After that All-Star Game, you began to struggle, especially down the stretch and in the postseason. To what do you attribute those struggles?
The 2017 season was a weird year for me. At the start of the season, I felt like I was pitching at a dominant level, and when I got into trouble, I could get out of it. My delivery was something that led to some of the struggles I had in the later part of the year. I felt like I was constantly trying to fix things, and it was a tough season. I was paying too much attention to my delivery, as opposed to what I needed to do to get guys out. My delivery was giving me trouble, and although I was putting in a lot of work with our pitching coach and our bullpen coach and trying to figure some things out, I was distracted in a lot of ways. My mindset wasn’t where it needed to be. I let a lot of things get in the way, and I’m usually better at handling those things.
How much does the mental aspect of the game matter?
Big league players are at this level because they can play. Some have more talent than others, but we can all play. When you’re able to take that mental game to the next level, it betters your game overall. It makes you a stronger pitcher or hitter. I think for me, the mental game is 80 percent of what I need. If you’re not that strong mentally, the game will get the best of you, and your ability to play at the highest level will be compromised.
The 2017 postseason didn’t end the way you and your teammates had hoped it would, and for you, it seemed to represent a bittersweet time. What did you take away from that October experience?
I was more of a spectator than I was used to being during that postseason. I didn’t pitch as much as I wanted to, but I learned how much fun the postseason can be, just from being around that atmosphere. When you win certain games, like when we came back in the Wild Card Game or in the Division Series against Cleveland or even the ALCS against Houston -- even though we came up a little short in the end -- you learn a lot about how to handle the swings in momentum. For me, I tried to take a lot of that in because I knew that I would have the opportunity to pitch in that atmosphere again. I wasn’t able to give my team what I needed to at that point, but I learned as much as I could from watching my teammates in those crucial moments.
How confident were you going into spring training last year that you could ultimately rebound and get back to your All-Star form?
I was very confident. I had been through similar situations, and I had been able to rebound from them. It was more magnified in 2017 because it was happening at the big league level. But I just put in a lot of work in the offseason, especially on the things I felt I needed to improve. I worked hard on my fastball command so that I could rely on the fastball more. I didn’t want to be as dependent on my breaking ball. I needed to have the confidence that I could pound the strike zone with my fastball. I also worked on my delivery. I worked on it constantly, and I felt good going into spring training. It was a little different when I got to Tampa because we had a new manager. I had to prove myself again, but that was a good thing.
How encouraging was Aaron Boone when you got to spring training?
Aaron was really important to me right away. Even before spring training, he and I were constantly communicating, and that was really important to me. From day one of spring training, we were on the same page. We both wanted to win, and he wanted me to be a big part of what we were doing. Things were smooth right away.
After a great spring, your struggles returned at the beginning of the regular season. How much did your performance last April shake your confidence?
Not at all. I got frustrated at times because I felt like my stuff was really good, but I was still getting hit hard. I wasn’t walking anyone, and my command was a lot better than it was in 2017. I think I was just a little too predictable with my pitches at the beginning of last season, and I was leaving some pitches over the plate. I went back to throwing too many breaking balls at the beginning of the regular season, and hitters were able to predict what was coming.
What went into you becoming less predictable?
(Pitching coach) Larry Rothschild approached me one day and suggested that I change my delivery a little bit so that I would be quicker to the plate. I told him that I had put a lot of work into my delivery in the offseason, and I felt good. But I was happy to try whatever he wanted me to do. I worked hard with (bullpen coach) Mike Harkey, and although I didn’t get results right away, I felt like I was clicking a little better as soon as we started working on those tweaks. My stuff was getting better, and from there, I was able to take off.
You certainly did. From May 12 through Aug. 28, you surrendered three runs in 39 appearances. When did you feel like you were back?
I remember having some conversations with my older brother, Anthony, from time to time. I told him a few weeks into that stretch that I thought I was about to go on a good run. He watches me pitch all the time, and he agreed with me. All of a sudden, I was putting up scoreless innings over and over, and the more you pitch like that, the easier it becomes to keep it going. My confidence just kept getting better. I felt great about myself, and I could just feel that it was all back.
How satisfying was it to have that success, especially since you had to rebound?
Well, I believe that in sports, adversity makes you a better player if you deal with it the right way. I talked to a lot of different people, and my ability was always there, so it was just a matter of believing in myself. When you put in the work and overcome struggles, it feels great.
How enjoyable was it to be part of the Yankees’ talented bullpen in 2018?
It was a fun time. Our team won 100 games, and the bullpen was a big reason why. I’ve seen the game evolve in the time I’ve been in the Majors, and the importance of having a strong bullpen has become very important to teams, especially our team. I’ve had the opportunity to play with the likes of Andrew Miller, Zack Britton, Aroldis Chapman, David Robertson, and, more recently, guys who have developed into great pitchers, such as Chad Green and Jonathan Holder. I’ve gotten a chance to play alongside great talent, and I even got to play with the best of the best in Mariano Rivera. I’ve been part of a special group, and I’ve developed friendships with so many great guys. We had a special group last season, and we all pitched really well. The game has changed in a lot of ways, and I think that some of the success that the middle relievers have had is a big reason for that.
Which teammate have you learned the most from?
Really, I’ve learned a lot from all of the veteran pitchers I’ve had around me. They have all had success, but they have all had times when they weren’t pitching well. Watching how my teammates rebounded from difficult times was the most important thing I’ve taken in.
What was last September like for you, when you were relied on to close out games in place of the injured Aroldis Chapman?
It was a great time. I’ve been able to close when they have needed me to for a few years. I take pride in being flexible and being able to pitch in different roles. When we lost Aroldis near the end of the regular season, we all needed to step up, and we all did what we had to do.
In your team’s victory in the 2018 Wild Card Game, the plan of attack was to turn the game over to you in the fourth or fifth, even if Luis Severino had a lead. How much did you relish the opportunity to pitch the crucial innings in the middle of that game?
As a reliever, you get handed the game when it’s on the line. When you come into the game to face guys in the middle of the lineup with men on base, you have to be the fireman. I’ve been in that situation before, but leading up to the Wild Card game, Aaron told me that if there was any situation early in the game, I was going to come in. So, mentally, I was really prepared. I was ready when my name was called.
How has the experience of pitching in the big leagues for five full seasons helped you?
As a pitcher, I feel like I’m a lot more mature now than I was when I first got up here. After you’ve been in the league for four or five years, you learn how to adapt and how to prepare. I watch a lot more video now, so I know hitters’ tendencies much more than I did early on. I have a game plan now when I take the mound.
What do you hope to accomplish in 2019?
I want to help this team win a championship. I feel like we are so close, and I’m going to do anything I can to help make that happen.
How much would that mean, especially since you got so close in each of the last two seasons?
We have a young core group, and obviously it’s not fun to get as far as we did in each of the last two seasons only to lose in the postseason. But we’ve learned from both of those experiences, and I think all of those playoff battles will make us a stronger team this year. It would mean a lot to win it all with this group. I’ve gotten a chance to watch some magnificent players come into their own, guys like Aaron Judge, Luis Severino, Gary Sánchez and Gleyber Torres, and I hope we can put it all together this season.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.