Expect New York Yankees closer Dellin Betances to bounce back

Last year, Dellin Betances was one of baseball’s elite relievers, throwing 90 dominant innings out of the Yankees’€™ bullpen. He was a young bright spot on a team full of old disappointments, flashing the kind of stuff and command that gave the Yankees confidence to let David Robertson leave via free agency. With a 97-mph fastball and a nearly unhittable breaking ball coming from a 6-foot-8 guy, it was pretty easy to imagine Betances becoming the next great Yankee closer.

But right now, Betances is a mess. In his first three appearances of 2015, he’s walked six batters, only two fewer than his entire total from the second half of 2014. The control problems could be attributable to a larger problem, however, as his fastball is under 95 mph and his curveball is off last year’s mark by the same amount. He’s simply not throwing the same stuff now that he was a year ago, and he’s certainly not locating what he is throwing, giving hitters an easy plan when he’s on the mound: Don’t swing.

Among pitchers who have faced at least 10 batters this year, no pitcher has seen opponents swing less often than they have against Betances; they’ve gone after only 24 of his 81 pitches, a 29.6% swing rate. Opponents have recognized that Betances doesn’t know where the ball is going, and they’re letting him dig his own grave. So far, he’s done just that.

This isn’t just an April problem, either; Betances struggled to find the strike zone in spring training, walking six batters in just 8 1/3 innings during the month of March. Clearly, opponents noticed his Grapefruit League troubles, and they’ve now carried over to the start of the regular season. So, how concerned should the Yankees be about their young former flamethrower?

Maybe less than you’d think.

Certainly, it has not been easy to watch him struggle to find the strike zone and think that he’s on the verge of getting it all together, especially when you see his fastball sitting at 94 or 95 instead of 96 or 97. But while diminished stuff and command are often some of the leading indicators of a pitcher attempting to work through an injury, there are reasons to be less concerned about Betances’ current problems than you might be with a pitcher facing similar problems in a few months.

First, let’s start with the loss of velocity. Because the Yankees have seen CC Sabathia’s fastball and performance erode together, they certainly are aware of what a decline in fastball speed can mean for a power pitcher. However, velocity loss in April isn’t as big of a red flag as it is later in the season, and history tells us not to overreact as much if a pitcher is still working on finding his best stuff when the season begins.

For one thing, most pitchers’€™ velocity is down slightly in April — as it is at the beginning of every season — due to the effects of cooler temperatures. So Betances’ fastball being down two mph over his 2014 average isn’t really an appropriate comparison, because we should expect a pitcher’s velocity to be lower at the start of the year than it was over the course of the entire previous season. For instance, take a look at Betances’ average fastball velocity, by month, over the last year.

Month Fastball (mph)
April 2014 96.3
May 2014 97.4
June 2014 97.8
July 2014 98.0
August 2014 98.3
September 2014 98.1
April 2015 95.3

If your last memory of Betances was him sitting at 98 in September, then this version looks like Jamie Moyer by comparison, but notice the upward trend throughout the 2014 season. Compared to the same month a year ago, Betances is down only one tick on his fastball, and we’re comparing all of last April to just the first week this year. With a few more weeks of gradually warming weather, we should expect that gap to diminish even further.

Velocity loss in April can be a bad sign, but as Bill Petti showed at FanGraphs a couple of years ago, reduced fastball speed in the first month of the season means a lot less than it does later on in the year. In a follow-up piece entitled "Does an April Drop in Velocity Predict An Arm Injury?", Petti crunched the numbers and came to the following conclusion:

"So, yes, a pitcher who is throwing softer in April compared to the previous April does have an increased chance of experiencing an arm injury, but the overall rate of arm injury is quite low (11%). Compared to how well April decline predicts full season velocity loss (38% and an increased likelihood of over 4), velocity decline this early in the year is certainly no slam dunk indicator."

After the calendar flips to May, it’s a real worrisome sign if a pitcher is still throwing significantly reduced stuff than he was a year prior, but it’s just not that unusual for guys to break camp without their top-shelf fastball. Not every pitcher is ready to go at the start of the season, and for some, the first month of the year is essentially extended spring training. If Betances is still throwing 94 in a month, then the Yankees probably have a real problem. For now, though, there’s time to be patient; history suggests that the stuff will likely come back.

Of course, even if Betances starts throwing harder again, his real problem right now is that he can’t throw strikes. Only 42% of his pitches thus far have been in the strike zone, which only works if you’re getting hitters to chase out of the zone. Betances isn’t getting those out-of-zone swings, so instead, he’s just falling behind everybody. But if we look back at the list of guys who had similar problems throwing strikes last April, we see a bunch of names of guys who actually went on to have pretty good seasons in relief.

Perhaps the name that stands out as most similar, at least in terms of problems throwing strikes and not getting hitters to chase, is Fernando Rodney, who only threw 40% of his pitches in the zone a year ago and saw hitters chase only 23% of his pitches out of the strike zone in the first month of the season. Unsurprisingly, Rodney walked six batters and hit a guy in 9 1/3 innings last April, allowing opponents to reach base at a .432 clip against him. And then, from May 1 through the end of the year, 51% of Rodney’s pitches were in the zone, hitters chased 31% of his pitches out of the zone, and batters reached base against him at just a .306 mark.

This isn’t to say that Betances’ command problems are going to magically fix themselves, nor that there is no reason for the Yankees to be concerned about their young relief ace. Clearly, something isn’t right at the moment, and it’s no guarantee that he’ll get it fixed. It’s possible that these struggles are health-related, and as we see pitchers lining up by the droves to get their elbows operated on, it’s not hard to jump to the conclusion that maybe Betances is simply going to be the next pitcher to take a visit to Dr. James Andrews.

But it’s too soon to make that leap. Early-season velocity loss isn’t as big a deal as it is later in the year, and plenty of guys who couldn’t throw strikes last April figured it out the rest of the year. While Betances has looked awful on the mound so far, patience is probably justified here. Given just how good Betances was a year ago, a few bad innings after a rough spring training shouldn’t be enough to clear the bandwagon just yet.