Dellin Betances won’t be 24 until March, and yet it feels like he has been in the system forever. Part of the loaded 2006 Yankee draft class that included such notables as Ian Kennedy, Joba Chamberlain, Mark Melancon and David Robertson, Betances was a raw high school power pitcher with a seemingly limitless ceiling. He certainly looked the part after signing, tearing up the Gulf Coast League in his professional debut.
After getting sidetracked with elbow surgery during his second year in the minors, Betances has slowly but steadily moved his way up through the Yankee system, and made his major league debut last season. His progress has not gone unnoticed, being ranked consistently in the Yankees’ organizational top 5 by both Yankee bloggers and professional sources, and reaching #43 in Baseball America’s top 100 prospects prior to last year.
The high 2010 ranking was the result of a strong season between high-A and AA in which Betances seemed to tame his longstanding control problems (walked under 2.5 per 9 compared to over 5 per 9 in 2009), probably the major strike against him as a prospect. He did so without sacrificing his ability to strike batters out, posting a career-high strikeout rate of over 11 punchouts per 9 innings. 2011 was a different story for Betances, however. While his strikeout rate still remained impressively high (around 10 per 9), the control demons returned, and Betances began walking batters at the 5 per 9 clip again.
That the 6’8″ Betances has control problems is understandable, since tall pitchers tend to have difficulty repeating their mechanics. What was discouraging about his 2011 performance was that he had shown so much improvement in that area in 2010, so even though he was facing tougher competition in 2011, it was a definite regression.
While Betances appeared to turn the corner in 2010 and then regress in 2011, it is possible that he still remains the same pitcher that he always was. As we well know, control and command are two different animals (control indicates the ability to avoid walks while command is the ability to locate pitches where the pitcher intends). While Betances has shown an ability to display the former (in 2010), a lot of assessments have been critical of Betances’ command, even during his strong 2010.
For a pitcher with good velocity and a sharp curveball like Betances, he can often keep hitters off-balance even when his command is not especially great. This will work fine against overmatched minor league hitters, but as we saw when he moved up to AA and AAA, more experienced hitters were probably less likely to swing at offerings out of the zone. For Betances to take the next step and become the homegrown frontline starter that we have dreamed about for years, improving his command will continue to be the most important hurdle.
Over the next year or two, the Yankees will have to decide what Betances’ future holds. His velocity and 2-pitch mix could make him a useful asset out of the bullpen, but likely he holds more value if he is able to stick as a starter (especially with Robertson, Soriano, and Chamberlain likely in the bullpen for the next few seasons). While tall pitchers (anecdotally) often take longer to develop, 24 is getting to the high side of the range in which you would expect him to be able to make an improvement to his command. If he’s still walking 5 batters per 9 next year, the best way to utilize him at the major league level (and possibly maintain whatever trade value exists) would be a bullpen conversion.
Without some progress in control and command in 2012, Dellin’s dreams of being a starter for the Yankees may be dashed, as he’ll be competing for a future spot with Manny Banuelos (who had control problems of his own last year), other prospects such as Hector Noesi and Adam Warren, and the inevitable free agent acquisition if none of the above pan out. I’m hopeful that he can figure things out because the potential upside is tremendous, but there is a reasonable chance that if he hasn’t figured out how to command the ball by now, it may never happen.
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