This is all the excuse I need:
— Matt Eddy (@MattEddyBA) January 30, 2015
I’ve developed a very minor obsession with Rafael Betancourt. If you’ve paid close attention over the years, you might’ve noticed, but I wouldn’t blame you for not paying close attention whenever I write about Rafael Betancourt. But here I am doing it again, because I don’t think I’ve talked about this for more than two years, and each time I do it, I have a little more data. Do you like fun facts? Betancourt comes with a couple awesome fun facts. They’re almost totally irrelevant, in the grand scheme of things, but then, what isn’t?
Fun fact No. 1: Betancourt has hit one batter. As a major leaguer, Betancourt has hit one batter, ever, and it happened in 2003, in his tenth-ever game. He plunked Marcus Thames, and to make matters worse, he plunked him in an 0-and-2 count. Since then, nothing. In the regular season, nothing. In the postseason, nothing. In spring training, I don’t know. I don’t think so. Betancourt did hit two batters in the minors, but both of those happened in 2001, in Double-A. He wasn’t Rafael Betancourt yet. It’s been a long time, obviously.
In 2003, after hitting Thames, Betancourt threw 443 more pitches. Since 2004, he’s thrown 9,620 pitches in the regular season. He’s thrown another 194 in the playoffs. Put the numbers together, and you have a streak of 10,257 consecutive pitches without a hit batter. A league-average pitcher, over that span, would’ve been expected to hit guys 24 times. Betancourt comes in 24 instances lower than that. Here are the lowest HBP rates since 2002, with a 2,000-pitch minimum. We don’t have data on FanGraphs going back any further.
Betancourt isn’t in first. Bailey hasn’t hit anyone. Takahashi hasn’t hit anyone. But, look at the pitch column — Betancourt has thrown several thousand more pitches than they have. If you bump the minimum to 5,000 pitches, Betancourt has a substantial lead over Wuertz. Koji Uehara hadn’t hit anyone through 2012. He was widely renowned for his unbelievable command. Still is! But he hit a guy in 2013. He hit another guy in 2014. Guys hit guys. Betancourt hasn’t, for over a decade.
You can probably guess the reasons. Or maybe you don’t have to, if you’ve seen me write about Betancourt before. But this gets into fun fact No. 2. From Baseball Savant, here’s Betancourt pitching to righties during the PITCHf/x era:
Betancourt hasn’t been afraid to use the inner half, but he’s almost never strayed from the zone. When he’s gone in against righties, he’s mostly gone in over the plate. Of Betancourt’s inside pitches to righties, 93% have been within one foot of the center of the plate. The league average is just under 79%. Betancourt goes in, but he doesn’t go far in.
And that’s the boring part. Betancourt against righties? Whatever. This is Betancourt against lefties:
Against righties, Betancourt hasn’t been afraid to use the inner part of the plate. Against lefties, he’s been absolutely terrified, like he goes to bed and has Barry Bonds nightmares. The heat map doesn’t show everything, but, basically, it does. Betancourt has lived outer half. He’s lived around that edge, on both sides of it. That distribution is extreme, and as it turns out, uniquely so.
I wanted to check on other rates of pitchers going inside, or not going inside, against opposite-handed hitters. So I went all the way back to 2008, and I set a minimum of just 200 pitches, to catch just about everybody. This table is stupid. I don’t know any other way to describe it.
During the PITCHf/x era, Betancourt has thrown just over 8% of his pitches to lefties inside. In second place: a rate almost double Betancourt’s rate. The gap between first and second place is bigger than the gap between second place and 70th place. Betancourt is at the extreme of the extremes, and he’s all alone, with no one even close. You’ll notice the table is full of righties pitching to lefties. For lefties pitching to righties, the lowest rate has been 20.9% (Eddie Guardado). In second place, 22.7% (Sean Burnett). So, no one there matches Betancourt’s extremity. It’s all him, and his big-league career might not yet be totally over.
There’s a thing about living out there on the edge: your locations become predictable. Against righties, Betancourt has yielded an awesomely low .243 wOBA. Lefties, though, have tagged him for a .314 wOBA, good for a split of 71 points. That’s seventh-biggest since 2002, for pitchers who’ve thrown at least 250 innings against righties and lefties alike. Betancourt’s split is a little bigger than Rafael Soriano‘s, and a little smaller than Justin Masterson’s. His split, perhaps, might be even worse if Betancourt had thrown more pitches inside. This might be how he’s optimal. But it isn’t Betancourt’s performance against lefties that’s been unparalleled; it’s simply been the pitching pattern. Betancourt has taken an unusual route to a reasonably usual destination.
Betancourt might not actually make it back to the major leagues. He’s almost 40, and he’s coming off an operation, and he’s a command guy who might no longer possess sufficient command to make it all work. Even if he does make it back, it’s likely to be as a pitcher of little consequence on a team of little consequence. But, you know that Giancarlo Stanton is a freak. You know that Aroldis Chapman is a freak. Rafael Betancourt, in a way, is some kind of freak. Not in his physical ability, but in how he channels it. No other pitcher lately has been quite like Rafael Betancourt. I think that’s reason enough to raise your awareness before he officially calls it a career.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.