Not long ago, Dellin Betances was considered to be one of the two best pitching prospects in the Yankees’ system, and perhaps even one of the best in all of baseball. He earned a September call-up with the Yankees last season, making two appearances, including one start. Despite a decent ERA (3.70) and an OBA under .220 between Trenton and Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2011. Some of the more advanced statistical numbers should have shown warning signs ahead – warning signs that are now evident even to the casual fan that has seen Betances pitch.
After a lights-out 2010 campaign, Betances solidified himself as a top prospect in the Yankees organization. He appeared to continue that dominance throughout 21 starts at Trenton, but a deeper look into his numbers suggests he was not as great as he seemed. Opponents hit just .219 off him, and he struck out more than a hitter an inning. However, Betances also averaged over two and a half walks per start, and his WHIP wound up at 1.34. The lack of control may have been a concern, but Betances was still promoted in mid-August to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre. In four starts there, Betances struggled to say the least, going 0-3 with a 5.14 ERA. Opponents were limited to hitting just .208 against him, but again his WHIP was high, this time coming in at 1.47 as he walked almost four batters per start.
Despite his struggles in Scranton, Betances earned a September call-up for the Yankees to see what their star prospect could do. In his two appearances, Betances’s struggles with his control were more than noticeable. His big league debut was horrendous to say the least, walking four batters and throwing 20 of his 27 pitches for balls in just two-thirds of an inning. His second appearance, and first major league start, was a little better – Betances went two innings allowing a hit and two walks, but the control problems persisted. Many thought Betances would be able to challenge for a bullpen spot this season, but that wasn’t going to be in the cards after the control issues shown at the big league level.
As he entered 2012, Betances surely knew that he had to work to improve his control. At 6’8, 260 pounds, there is certainly a lot of moving parts contributing to his pitching motion that are harder to control, a problem which many taller pitchers have struggled with during their careers (see Brackman, Andrew). I think many expected there to be at least some improvement on the control front, but unfortunately, it just has not been there. Through nine starts for Scranton/Wilkes-Barre this season, Betances has been wild to say the least. After losing on Sunday, he is now 2-4 with a 5.24 ERA, and has allowed 39 hits in 44.2 innings pitched. But the real damning number is that Betances is now up to 38 walks – almost a walk per inning. His WHIP is now sitting at 1.72, and he leads the International League in walks.
Betances is working on some mechanical tweaks with pitching coach Scott Aldred, but is it enough to save his future as a starter? Right now, the Yankees have C.C. Sabathia, Phil Hughes, Ivan Nova, Michael Pineda, and David Phelps all under contract for next season. They have Manny Banuelos sitting in Triple-A putting the finishing touches on his arsenal, but he should be ready to enter the rotation next season. They have Adam Warren and D.J. Mitchell – older than a typical prospect, but a pair of very good starters for Triple-A. And that does not even encompass impending free agents Hiroki Kuroda and Andy Pettitte, or potential free agents Cole Hamels or Zack Greinke. So for the 24-year old Betances, the road to the Yankees’ rotation could become very difficult, to say the least. At this point, one has to wonder if the Yankees would be wise to consider a move to the bullpen for him to see how he sticks as a reliever. With his electric stuff, Betances would likely transition well to the bullpen. Either way, considering the potential logjam for a rotation spot and the control problems that have plagued him, the Yankees might be wise to make the shift to the bullpen happen now. And if they do make the shift, they would be wise to commit to it completely, not bounce Betances back and forth, a la Joba Chamberlain – we have already seen how that show plays out.