I don’t have to be talked into writing posts about Dellin Betances. If I just supplied 10 consecutive GIFs of his fastball followed by his breaking ball, we’d probably all walk away happy (don’t worry, there will be plenty of GIFs). It’s special when a pitcher comes along and dominates major league hitters with just two pitches. It’s something to be celebrated. Yes, Betances has had a tough spring so far compared to his 2014 performance (a four inning sample size will do that), but there’s no denying the leap he took last year in regard to control that elevated his game to an elite level.
Our 2015 projections have him regressing a bit in terms of that control, but that’s bound to happen when a player shows such vast improvement in one year over past chronic issues. However, this isn’t an article discussing his projections for this coming year, though they are stellar. Today, we’re going to go over Betances’ repertoire, then try to find contemporary comparisons for one of his pitches. That’s hard to do given the quality of the offerings he has and the numbers he puts up, but we’re going to try anyway. Why are Betances’ two pitches so successful, and who has a curveball that moves like his? Let’s find out.
To begin with a little fun, let’s go over Betances’ arsenal. As mentioned before, he’s a two pitch pitcher, throwing a four seam fastball and a knuckle curve that acts like a slider because of the horizontal break it often features. His fastball usually sits in the upper-90s, the knuckle curve in the low to mid-80’s. His fastball is a weapon not only because of how hard he throws it, but because he learned to spot it in 2014. Here’s a good example, to Corey Hart last April:
This is at the low end of the velocity range for his fastball, but it’s still an unhittable pitch. Hart knew the futility of his swing immediately, and he takes a few seconds afterward to stare vacantly into the New York night and ponder whether they will restock the big chew in the dugout during the 7th inning stretch. The fastball is great on its own. Most 95-98 MPH fastballs are. Now, about that knuckle curve — let’s take a look at the grip on it:
The story goes that Betances used to get broken nails when he threw curveballs, so his teammate Michael O’Brien showed him a new grip for the pitch in the 2012 Arizona Fall League. He started to be able to throw it for strikes, and now, a few years later, we’re here. He calls it a slurve, and it moves like one, but the grip is a knuckle curve (also known as a spiked curve). When Betances pairs his fastball with the knuckle curve effectively, we know what happens:
What first piqued my interest on this pitch was looking at Betances’ spin rates on his breaking ball, finding that they were about average with the curveballs for the rest of the league. What makes his two pitches so effective, then? To answer that, we need to talk about the mechanics of a knuckle curve. These types of curveballs are currently enjoying a renaissance, and it’s mostly because they pair so well with fastballs; knuckle curves are usually thrown harder than a regular curveball, and at a more similar release point to a fastball than a traditional curve.
That last point is the most important piece of information in all of this. A lot of pitchers who can throw really hard don’t succeed in the major leagues. A lot of pitchers who only have two pitches also don’t succeed, even in the bullpen. To make it with just two pitches, you need something a little special. To completely dominate with two pitches like Betances did in 2014, you need something extra special. This is that something:
One of these pitches is a 98 MPH fastball, and the other is a hanging 82 MPH knuckle curve. J.J. Hardy swung at one of them, the curve, and he missed even though it wasn’t a well-thrown pitch. Both pitches came from almost the identical arm speed and angle. Up until release, the delivery is indistinguishable between the fastball and breaking ball. We’ve seen plenty of pitchers tunneling before (get well soon, Yu Darvish), and this is a huge reason why Betances is so effective — as a hitter, when you have no way of reading body movement to tell what pitch is coming, you resort to guessing, reacting, or sitting on a pitch. None of those options work well against the raw stuff that Dillen Betances has. Brooks Baseball confirms the synchronized release points between the fastball and knuckle curve:
Betances doesn’t really need a third pitch. It would obviously be nice, but as it stands this combo is working fine. Perhaps the fact that he’s been in the Yankees ‘system for so long has allowed him to hone in on a repeatable, consistent delivery, and last year we finally saw the product of that work.
Now that we’ve covered the mechanics of what made Betances so effective in 2014, let’s compare his stuff to other pitchers in the league. Does his curveball rank among the offerings of elite pitchers? Is his great fastball and syncing of release points the sole driver of the curve’s success, or does it have a chance of standing alone by comparing favorably to other effective curveballs in movement and velocity? To find out, we’re going to borrow a page out of Jeff’s book. I’ve taken the movement profile of Betances’ knuckle curve (horizontal and vertical movement) and velocity, creating z-scores for each of those three categories with the rest of the pitcher’s curveballs in the league (minimum 200 pitches). I then combined those z-scores to get a comparison rating.
The idea here is to have the movement and velocity profile of Betances’ knuckle curve as the starting point at zero, and for the curveballs of other pitchers to arrange themselves in standard deviations away from that zero point. The closer a pitcher is to zero (Betances), the better match they are. Onto the data:
|Velocity (MPH)||Horizontal Mov.||Vertical Mov.||Comp|
Yoervis Medina, come on down! This is a good comp – the movement matches up extremely well, and though Medina throws his curve a little harder, it’s undeniably similar:
It shouldn’t surprise us that Medina’s is a knuckle curve as well. The comparison is also spot on simply based on their roles and previous struggles: both were mainly eighth inning guys with a history of control issues who took a step forward with their walk rate in 2014. Though Medina doesn’t have the huge fastball that Betances does (though his is pretty great too — it averaged 94.8 MPH in 2014), their profiles are strikingly similar.
The Yankees bullpen figures to be one of the best and hardest-throwing in the majors this year if everyone stays healthy. Betances is a massive part of that. Some may question whether his walk rate is bound to regress, and truth be told, it probably will. I know one thing for sure: when you have an arm like that, and disguise your pitches like he does, good results usually follow.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.