Dellin Betances is New York Yankees’ Best Reliever, Should Remain in Middle Relief

Dellin Betances has emerged as the New York Yankees’ best relief pitcher, yet it’s just fine to keep him performing outside the ninth inning.

Because everything works out perfectly for the Bronx Bombers, the Evil Empire have enjoyed one of the game’s premier relief units the year after losing the best closer in the history of Major League Baseball. Despite the bullpen’s underwhelming 4.13 team ERA, its 10.74 K/9 ratio leads baseball, and its collective 2.6 fWAR trails only the Boston Red Sox and Oakland Athletics.

David Robertson and Adam Warren deserve some credit, but Betances’ meteoric ascension has especially lifted the team’s spirit in the post-Mariano Rivera era. The highly regarded 26-year-old, who had failed to stick in New York since debuting in 2011, has found his calling in the bullpen.

Through 32.2 scintillating innings, he has posted a 1.38 ERA, 0.73 WHIP and 56 strikeouts. Since May 7, he has allowed one run while brandishing an astonishing 26 strikeouts and zero walks through 15.1 innings. He has undergone a complete overhaul in relief, adapting an untouchable slider, a pitch he has mastered more effectively than any other reliever by a wide margin, according to FanGraphs.

Before comparing him to his teammates, consider that there’s a legitimate case to be made for Betances as the game’s top reliever through two months. He ranks first among relief pitchers with a 1.3 fWAR while his 0.86 FIP is second to Joakim Soria. Take a look at how his early contributions compare to the finest closers.

Betances: 32.2 IP, 1.38 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 0.98 FIP, 56 K, 9 BB  1.3 fWAR

Glen Perkins: 24.1 IP, 2.96 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 33 K, 3 BB, 1.26 FIP, 1.2 fWAR

Craig Kimbrel: 20.1 IP, 1.77 ERA, 1.03 WHIP 1.05 FIP, 37 K, 9 BB, 1.1 fWAR

Joakim Soria: 20 IP, 2.25 ERA, 0.70 WHIP, 0.82 FIP, 27 K, 3 BB, 1.1 fWAR

Koji Uehara: 23.2 IP, 0.76 ERA, 0.80 WHIP, 1.68 FIP, 34 K, 3 BB, 1.1 fWAR

It’s early in the game, but Betances is on pace to become an All-Star while making a major dent comparable to Mariano Rivera’s introduction into the spotlight.

 

Is Betances Better than the Best?

Betances is the Yankees’ Brooklyn Nine-Nine. There’s not enough evidence to label him the new gold standard, but the early results sure suggest it’s likely to assume the throne.

While Michael Schur’s new sitcom has a long way to go before matching his other brilliant comedy, Parks and Recreation, its sizzling first season helps us feel easier about Leslie Knope and Ron Swanson exiting the small screen next year now that we have Jake Peralta and Amy Santiago to keep us company.

We can’t deem Betances the new Rivera after two months of dominance, especially after Rivera set the reliever bar to an unreachable pinnacle after 19 unmatched years. Although he is remembered for his sophomore season, Rivera, just like Parks and Rec, labored through a rocky first season before finding its voice. During his rookie season, he recorded a 5.51 ERA and 1.70 K/BB rate, with a grand chunk of those struggles occurring in the rotation.

Transferring exclusively to the bullpen in 1996, he worked 107.2 innings in his second season, a measure unlikely to get replicated with the modern usage of relief pitchers. The future Hall of Famer ignited the Bronx Bombers from the get-go, yet Betances is on pace to produce even better results during his inaugural campaign. The young gun is on pace to hurl 93.2 innings, a number which could even increase considering his enhanced workload.

Prorating his current strikeout rate gives him 162 strikeouts, a solid output for a starter tossing 200 frames. That’s also more than Rivera’s career-high 130 punchouts accrued during his breakout 1996 season.

Rivera (1996): 107.2 IP, 2.09 ERA, 0.99 WHIP, 1.88 FIP,  130 K, 34 BB, 4.3 fWAR

Betances (2014 – Prorated to Full Season): 93.2 IP, 1.38 ERA, 0.87 WHIP, 0.98 FIP, 162 K, 26 BB  3.8 fWAR

Doing it for two months hardly guarantees sustained production over the next four months, yet alone the next 18 years, but it’s sure a promising start. Although it’s not fair to set his sights too far ahead to Rivera, the whispers of promoting him to the closer’s role are growing.

 

Is it Closing Time for Betances? 

Of course, simply relishing Betances’ breakout season isn’t a realistic option in New York, which never sleeps because Mike Francesca and other boisterous radio hosts won’t shut up. When David Robertson blew up on Sunday—allowing a homer and blowing a save on the first pitch before surrendering four more runs—the discussion inevitably turned to, “Why isn’t Betances the closer?”

Look, if we’re just asking who the team’s best reliever is right now, Betances wins. As explored earlier, few guys can best Betances. Secluding him from the final inning is not a case against him, but rather a ringing endorsement for him, as well as a vote of confidence for the incumbent.

MLB managers are trained to operate under the status quo bias when juggling closing duties. A middle reliever annihilating the competition isn’t enough to take the job from the competent closer. No, the ninth-inning savant must lose the privilege of notching saves.

Robertson has not pitched poorly enough to lose the gig. Sure, his ERA torpedoed to 4.50 after his dreadful outing to conclude the weekend, but Matt Daley and Matt Thornton allowed three of the five inherited runners to score. Maybe the strikeout magician would have escaped if he was afforded another batter.

Then again, maybe Robertson shouldn’t have been out there anyway. He labored through 27 pitches the previous day to record his 12th save of the season, of which he missed two weeks with a groin injury. Despite the bump in the road, Robertson is sporting a 2.85 FIP and 32 strikeouts through 18 innings.

Resisting change for the simplicity of stasis is irrational, but the entire closer job description is irrational. The role is almost exclusively awarded to a team’s premier relief ace, yet it’s hardly always the most important inning of a given game.

Is a manager really squeezing the most worth out of the top reliever by inserting him into a 5-2 game in the final inning with the opposing team trotting out the No. 6-8 hitters? By instead using the best option to slay the heart of the order in the 7th or 8th or hose out a fire during a mid-inning, bases-loaded crisis, the pitcher is employed in a higher leverage situation.

Right now, Joe Girardi can have his cake and eat it too. He can continue to unleash Betances for two innings whenever he pleases without worrying about the shackles heuristically attached to the closer.

Since he has another stud in Robertson operating the ninth, he’s justified with not limiting his new-found star to narrow circumstances. Betances has thrown the third-most innings among all relievers, a mark that would not last if he found himself limited to closing duties, which traditionally calls for no more than four outs.

As witnessed on Sunday, the occasional blow-up will ire the casual fan, but Robertson will regain his rhythm and the sea of complaints will subside. Francisco Rodriguez, who is 30th on the innings leaderboard, has tossed 27 innings, and that’s only because he has already been used in 27 games given the Milwaukee Brewers’ fast start.

Last season, the league’s top-10 save leaders averaged 62.7 innings pitched. The 10 middle relievers with the most holds collectively pitched an average of 70.2 innings. Shielding Betances, a former starter, from the closer’s role allows the Yankees to stretch him out, exerting his full value before Robertson seals the deal.

When Rivera retired last season, fans shouldn’t have worried about the final three outs, but rather the trickle-down effect his departure would cause for the big picture. For years, Robertson skillfully maneuvered through tight predicaments with the game hanging in the balance. Now it’s Betances’ turn to save the day, even if he doesn’t get awarded any saves for his effort.

Note: All advanced statistics are courtesy of FanGraphs.

6 Strange Stats From Opening Weeks of MLB Season

Numbers are usually our friends, but they have a mean streak in small doses. A limited sample size often betrays our perception of reality, which especially bears true in the early weeks of the 162-game MLB season.

Chris Colabello isn’t going to lead the American League in RBI, Dayan Viciedo won’t seize the AL batting title and Aaron Harang isn’t going to hold the National League’s best ERA. Those bizarre stats didn’t even make the cut, but it just shows what craziness lurks less than a month into the year.

This statistical variance occurs throughout the season, but these outliers currently stand all on their own, without previous months of data to prove their fickleness. In July, these odd stretches are mere blips on the radar. In overall, they stick out more than an honorable character on Game of Thrones.

Unfortunately, neither lasts too long, but these stats are interesting while they stick around.

Note: All advanced stats, updated as of Thursday, April 24, are courtesy of FanGraphs.

 

Jeff Samardzija: 1.53 ERA…. and Zero Wins

I present to you Exhibit 23,457 on why individual wins are a meaningless measure for starting pitchers.

Jeff Samardzjia has thrown at least seven innings in each of his first five starts. The righty has surrendered just six earned runs this season, not allowing more than two runs in a single start. Despite his superb start, he still has not notched a single victory.

The Chicago Cubs have scored a combined 12 runs through all of his starts, and even that number is misleading. Three of those scores came in the 11th inning against the St. Louis Cardinals, after Jose Veras blew a save (and Samardzija win) in the ninth. Although the offense finally showed up for him in his last outing against the Arizona Diamondbacks, poor pitching and defense allowed Arizona to register nine runs in the ninth to squander Chicago’s 5-2 edge.

Meanwhile, Jean Machi has already tallied four wins. Who’s Jean Machi, you ask? With four wins, he surely must be a burgeoning ace hungry to challenge Jose Fernandez as the game’s new premier hurler.

Nope, he’s a middle reliever who has pitched nine innings for the San Francisco Giants. He only needed to record one out in two of those victories. In conclusion, don’t judge a book by its cover, and never judge a pitcher by his win total.

 

Brett Lawrie: 18 RBI… While Hitting .165

RBI, although not as evil, are wins’ mischievous cousin on the hitting side. Batters can often enjoy spiked RBI totals due to the hard work of those ahead in the batting order. Constantly approaching the plate with runners in scoring position isn’t a skill, but rather the benefit of favorable circumstances.

How else can one explain Brett Lawrie’s head-scratching start? Somebody who remains loyal to the basic numbers will have a perplexing time summarizing his April. We can all agree his .165 batting average is dreadful. Surprisingly, 11 players currently hold worse averages, dubiously led by Curtis Granderson’s woeful .125 clip.

But despite his inability to hit the ball (and his .221 on-base percentage isn’t helping matters either), Lawrie has managed to drive in 18 runs. Only six players (Giancarlo Stanton, Colabello, Jose Abreu, Nelson Cruz, Albert Pujols and Mark Trumbo) have obtained higher tallies.

How is such a horrible hitter such a fruitful run-producer? The third baseman has swung for the fences all season and succeeded five times. Only one of those homers was a solo shot, with a two-run blast, two three-run flies and a grand slam thrown in the mix. That’s 13 RBI earned on five swings.

Brandon Belt has collected 13 RBI all season despite hitting .299 with seven homers. Chase Utley has a dozen RBI with a .384/.425/.644 slash line. Lawrie has had a poor offensive season, but he has enjoyed great timing.

 

Tim Hudson: No Walks

If opposing batters want to reach base against Tim Hudson, they’re going to have to take the bat off their shoulders and swing.

In his first season with the San Francisco Giants, the veteran has not walked a single batter through 30 innings pitched. Even Cliff Lee, the pinnacle of preciseness, has issued two free passes.

Hudson has always displayed sharp command, wielding a career 2.68 BB/9 ratio. But not throwing four balls outside the strike zone to a batter is hard to continually do through four starts.

Adam Wainwright enjoyed similar success last year, not allowing his first walk of the season until April 23. The St. Louis Cardinals’ ace went 35 innings before finally surrendering a base on balls to Bryce Harper.

Hudson has feasted on his new NL West rivals, posting a 2.40 ERA against the Arizona Diamondbacks (two starts), Colorado Rockies and San Diego Padres. His streak will be put to the test on Friday night against the Cleveland Indians, who have drawn the third-most walks entering Thursday.

 

Koji Uehara: Minus-.10 FIP

For those unfamiliar with the fielding independent pitching (FIP) metric, it is essentially an ERA meant to more accurately gauge a pitcher’s value by removing defensive factors. With that said, FIP is appraised similar to ERA. Gregg Holland led MLB with a 1.36 FIP last year, a marvelous showing to support his 1.21 ERA.

As of Thursday, April 24, Koji Uehara has pitched so well that he holds a FIP below zero.

To be perfectly honest, I didn’t realize that was possible until taking a gander at his minus-.10 FIP through eight innings. The metric favors pitchers with high strikeouts and low walks, and the Boston Red Sox closer has amassed 14 strikeouts to one walk while not allowing any earned runs.

The mark will eventually hover well below zero, but the 39-year-old is proving that his masterful 2013 was far from a fluke. Nobody should question his status as one of the game’s premier relievers.

 

Jean Segura: One Walk and a 73.2 Ground-Ball Rate

These numbers are less strange than worrisome, as Jean Segura has two truly ugly numbers attached to his early stat sheet.

A year after breaking out with a .294 average, 12 homers and 44 steals, the Milwaukee Brewers shortstop has struggled to conquer the dreaded sophomore slump. He’s batting a measly .247/.273/.341. While he’s swiped five bases, his four failed attempts offset any gains earned by claiming those extra bags.

There are two eye-popping numbers that explain his slow start. Through 90 plate appearances, the 24-year-old has drawn just one walk, earning him a microscopic 1.1 walk percentage. Never known for his patience, he sports baseball’s third-worst walk rate  a year after registering a 4.0 percentage. Who’s fared even worse? Steve Lombarozzi of the Baltimore Orioles has yet to earn a free pass in 67 plate appearances.

All of Segura’s swings cause the ball to go in play much more often, but most of those batted balls roll through the infield dirt. He has netted a league high 73.2 percent ground-ball rate, and clearly not enough are finding enough open space for the speedster to reach base. Segura is never going to morph into a patient, line-drive machine, but such extreme metrics will cause him to suffer all season if not corrected.

 

Mark Buehrle – 0.64 ERA

Sometimes trying to make sense of the senseless is a futile endeavor. There are no words to explain how Mark Buehrle holds an MLB-low 0.64 ERA.

This is the same 35-year-old with a career 3.81 ERA. The soft-tossing veteran is just expected to engulf innings with decent productivity, not dominate. Yet here we are.

His 6.11 K/9 rate is above his career 5.19 K/9 ratio, but right on par with last season’s 6.11 mark. Eleven of those punchouts, however, came in his first start of the season against the Tampa Bay Rays. After that, he has collected eight strikeouts and four walks through his ensuing three outings.

His .253 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) will rise, especially if his 29.3 percent line-drive rate remains so bloated. Pitching to contact with a fastball in the low-to-mid 80s will yield disastrous results along the way, so don’t be surprised when his pretty ERA is ruined by an seven-run slaughtering.

For now, let Buehrle enjoy his moment. Just don’t get caught off guard when it abruptly ends.

 

Is Andy Dalton Doomed to Become NFL’s Newest ‘Choker’ Quarterback?

Anyone with a working television, Twitter account and/or Internet access has likely already read or heard plenty about the monstrosity of a quarterback that is Andy Dalton.

After suffering a first-round loss to the San Diego Chargers–the third straight season the Cincinnati Bengals’ playoff hopes ended during the opening slate–Dalton became the fun whooping boy. The Red Riffle completed 29 of 51 passes for 334 yards, but coughed up three turnovers (two interceptions and one fumble) during Cincinnati’s 27-10 loss.

That now gives Dalton a 56.9 completion percentage and six interceptions in three playoff games, all loses. We all know how this works; this is when all the analysts call for him to quit his NFL career and join the circus as the wild red-haired quarterback who can’t win a playoff game.

Sure, Giovanni Bernard’s costly fumble just outside the end zone prevented the Bengals from taking a 14-7 lead before halftime, and A.J. Green dropped a deep ball that would have allowed them to at least decrease the deficit to one score. But they aren’t quarterbacks, so no worries. Mistakes happen. Nobody is perfect.

Quarterbacks, on the other hand, are expected to play perfectly every game, and would it hurt to cure a few major diseases in the process?

With the usual targets either watching from home (Tony Romo, Matt Ryan) or sitting on the winning side (Philip Rivers), Dalton conveniently takes their place in the never-ending “Quarterback X is a choker” narrative. ESPN Michael Kay wasted no time declaring on his radio show that “Dalton has turned into Tony Romo.”

(That should be considered a compliment as Romo is a terrific quarterback with a higher career quarterback rating than Tom Brady, but it was meant to mean Dalton unravels when the pressure mounts.)

Human troll and destroyer of intelligent discussions about sports Skip Bayless (the same man who once questioned if Andrew Luck possessed the same “it factor” as Tim Tebow… and I swear that wasn’t from The Onion) took the bait and attacked Dalton.

While head coach Marvin Lewis gave his quarterback a vote of confidence, the fact that Dalton’s status as the team’s starting signal-caller came into question is silly in its own right. Dalton has gradually improved in every season, compiling career highs with 4,296 passing yards, 33 passing touchdowns and 7.33 yards per attempt.

Of course, every talking head is now wondering whether Dalton “can win the big one.” Because he has not succeeded in the past, it becomes a foregone conclusion that his sullied fate is set in stone for eternity. Can Dalton play excellent football over a three- or four-year string? Of course he can. The question should be “Will Dalton ever win the big one?”

Or better yet, will the Cincinnati Bengals collect a Super Bowl championship with Dalton operating as the starting quarterback? Remember, football, team sport.

But I’ll take the bait and focus the conversation on the scrutinized quarterback.

How Does Dalton Compare to Other QBs?

The Dan Patrick Show’s Andrew “McLovin” Perloff was one of few people not willing to bury Dalton the Monday after the Bengals’ unceremonious playoff exit. 

It’s easy to succumb to the moment and lock yourself in a cell of shortsightedness, but one poor game should not define Dalton.

Instead, let’s delve into the big picture. This season, Dalton ranked seventh in passing yards, 12th in yards per attempt, third in passing touchdowns and 15th with a 88.8 quarterback rating. While his QB rating finished in the middle of the pack, it ranked higher than Brady, Cam Newton and Luck, the last of whom is now being celebrated as a hero for overcoming a 28-point deficit to keep the Indianapolis Colts alive.

To be fair, Dalton certainly has his flaws. Inconsistency plagued him throughout the year, and the turnover issues are nothing new after surrendering 20 picks during the season. Four of those came during the final game of the regular season, so he picked the worst possible time to endure a rough patch.

While he’s underwhelmed in all three postseason tries, we only know he has struggled in the postseason because he has played well enough to guide Cincinnati into extracurricular football. Brady and Aaron Rodgers are the only quarterbacks to play in each of the last three postseasons.

Nobody is making Dalton’s case for stardom, but the Bengals better be careful not to let the noise talk them into manufacturing a nonexistent problem at quarterback. Were Cincinnati to place him on the trading block, there’s around a dozen teams that should leap to the phone.

Dalton is no Rodgers or Brady, or even a Romo or Ryan, but he sits comfortably in the underappreciated tier of above-average players. One is Jay Cutler, who just received a massive contract extension.

Dalton’s Career Stats: 60.9 completion percentage, 6.97 YPA, 26 TDs (per season), 16 INTs (per season), 85.7 QB rating

Cutler:  61.0 completion percentage, 7.23 YPA, 23 TDs (per season), 17 INTs (per season), 84.6 QB rating

Then again, Dalton’s critics likely are not Cutler fans either. Cutler also has never won the big one, due mostly to his audacity to not play through an MCL sprain during the NFC Championship Game in 2011. The nerve on that guy. But would we hate a quarterback with those numbers if their team clawed through the playoff bracket and escaped with the Vince Lombardi trophy?

That guy exists. His name is Joe Flacco, and most pundits like him just fine.

Joe Flacco’s Career Stats: 60.2 completion percentage, 6.94 YPA, 20 TDs (per season), 13 INTs (per season), 83.7 QB rating

If not for Flacco going scorched earth on the NFL last January, Dalton compares favorable to his AFC North cohort. But we can’t just ignore that career-defining stretch, so Flacco is a playoff warrior! Nobody will deny his excellence during last season’s playoff run, but he faced none of the same backlash as Dalton even before last year because the Ravens won five playoff games in the four previous years under his watch.

By the way, he completed 44 percent of his passes for 437 passing yards and three interceptions during his first three playoff games. The following year, he stood on the winning side despite completing four passes for 34 yards against the New England Patriots? The only difference between his poor play and Dalton’s blunders? The Ravens saved his behind.

Were I to rank every quarterback, Dalton would find himself in the company of Cutler and Flacco outside the top 10 but firmly inside the top 20. They’re not All-Pros who can mitigate all other weaknesses, but Flacco showed in Baltimore that a guy of that caliber can win it all if surrounded by the right talent.

Although Dalton and Flacco are linked together by division, Dalton resembles another quarterback with championship much more closely. Can anybody think of an inconsistent, turnover-prone quarterback who completely flipped that reputation by heating up at the perfect time, twice?

Can Dalton Follow Eli Manning’s Path to Redemption?

Did you figure it out yet? Dammit, the subhead gave it away. Dalton has a lot of Eli Manning in him.

Remember when reading Kay’s comment above and immediately deciphering that he meant the Romo comparison as an insult. Well the Manning comp, while containing a positive point, actually is construed as a negative sentiment.

Like Manning, Dalton shares the ugly tendency to fall apart at the seams and throw away interceptions in bunches. Manning also exited his third year answering questions about his inability to win a playoff game. He torpedoed the New York Giants’ season during a disastrous rookie campaign before faltering in the first round during Years 2 and 3.

Manning’s First Two Playoff Games (2005-06): 26-45 (57.8 completion %), 274 passing yards, 2 TDs, 4 INTs (0-2)

During his fourth season, he re-wrote his legacy behind the protective blanket of a stout offensive line, a fierce rushing attack and a rabid pass rush. When Manning escaped a bear-hug that somehow did not end in a sack, closed his eyes and darted a ball that David Tyree trapped on the tip of his helmet, he promptly went from being an unpolished loose cannon to a calculated winner with ice in his veins.

He wasn’t that great during his first Super Bowl run, but Manning prevailed by avoiding interceptions after throwing 20 during the regular season. Even the most reckless quarterbacks can glue together three or four games without a pick, and even the most precise passers occasionally turn the ball over three times in a nightmare affair.

Take away the titles, and Dalton is a superior thrower on paper. Even after finishing 33rd in ESPN’s QBR behind the likes of Jason Campbell, Kellen Clemens and Matt Schaub, Manning is a made man due to eight playoff games where everything came together.

For a more extreme example of a quarterback who struggled early in his career to win a postseason game, Eli’s brother–you may know him as arguably the greatest quarterback of all time–lost his first three playoff contests. Peyton’s Colts did not crack the postseason win column until his sixth season in 2003.

If you still think Peyton’s imperfect playoff resume tarnishes his track record, you’re a lost cause beyond repair. Yet sadly, hoards of old men in suits labeled Peyton a choker who wasn’t good enough when it counted. Did I mention he threw 55 passing touchdowns this season?

If Flacco and Eli can catch fire and cement their legitimacy as franchise quarterbacks (whether warranted or not), who is to say Dalton cannot accomplish the same?

As evidenced by a dazzling three-game stretch during the season, Dalton is capable of rattling off that type of hot streak. From Weeks 6-8, Dalton combined for 1,034 passing yards, 11 touchdowns and two interceptions. Adding on a subdued, but effective 20-27, 212-yard performance to defeat the Patriots the previous week, Dalton propelled his squad to four straight victories.

If that happened during January, legends are woven over Dalton’s greatness. Granted, tougher competition than the Bills, Lions and Jets beckons during the postseason, but it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Good Andy Dalton to show up one of these winters.

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