It seems like a lifetime ago that the Mets gifted fans with the signing of Dellin Betances on Christmas Eve 2019. In a mostly-underwhelming offseason, this was seen by many as the cornerstone signing that was meant to improve the team’s subpar bullpen, so long as the right-hander stayed healthy.
Unfortunately for all parties, Betances was unable to recapture that old glory that made him such a dominant force with the Yankees. In his first year in Flushing, he meandered through a lost season that saw him endure a long stint on the injured list. The terms of his original agreement with the club called for a $2.2 million base salary in year one—this was prior to the pandemic—and a $5.3 million signing bonus. As part of the contract, Betances was given a player option for 2021 at $6.8 million, or a $3 million buyout. Picking up the option was a safe bet for Betances, given his recent injury history, his subpar season, and the state of the free agent market for relief pitchers following a year in which MLB owners claimed large financial losses.
It’s hard to fault the Mets for being high on Betances, despite his injuries. After debuting with the crosstown Yankees in 2011, he pitched through two mediocre stints with the club in 2011 and 2013 before bursting onto the scene in 2014 with a memorable rookie campaign that saw him put up a 1.40 ERA, 1.64 FIP, a 0.78 WHIP, and a 3.7 bWAR in 90 innings. Those numbers helped him earn his first All Star game nod and a third place finish in the American League Rookie of the Year voting.
He would go on to make the All Star game in each of his first four full seasons from 2014 to 2017, and he finished 14th in Cy Young voting in his sophomore season while posting a career-best 3.9 bWAR. Over his first five seasons, he compiled a 2.22 ERA, a 2.26 FIP, a 1.02 WHIP, and an 11.8 bWAR. In that span, he posted an incredible 40.3% strikeout rate, with 607 punch outs in 373.1 innings pitched, while opposing batters managed a meager .526 OPS against him. His four-seam fastball, which he used almost 48% of the time, averaged just over 98 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, while also generating a strike 31.68% of the time and a swing-and-miss 13.61% of the time.
Betances’ days as a stalwart of the Yankees’ pen ended in 2019, when a shoulder impingement and a bone spur found behind his right shoulder kept him out almost the entire year. He made his debut on September 15, struck out two batters, and tore his Achillies while celebrating, ending his season and his tenure in The Bronx. Thus, he found his way to Flushing, and his journey with the Mets began in earnest.
Betances showed glimpses of the pitcher he once was in 2020, but overall the imposing right-hander was far from a reliable option out of the pen. His fastball velocity dipped to 93.76 mph, according to Brooks Baseball, while only resulting in a strike 18.33% of the time and a swing-and-miss 4.17% of the time. On the year, he walked more batters (12) than he struck out (11) over his 12.1 innings of work, which was a concerning result. With his velocity mostly shot, he was unable to recapture that formidable presence on the mound that made him a feared reliever.
Betances actually got off to a solid enough start, putting up two scoreless innings over three outings to begin the year, but it all came crashing down on July 31 in Atlanta against the Braves. Called upon to protect a 10-6 lead in the bottom of the eighth, the righty was rocked for four earned runs on two hits and two walks while recording just one out. He then rebounded with six straight scoreless outings, logging one inning in each of those stints while allowing three hits, walking two, and striking out four. He allowed two earned runs in two-thirds of an inning against the Marlins in a game the Mets would go on to win 5-3 on August 19, and followed with a scoreless inning in Game 1 of a doubleheader against the Yankees on August 28.
His most memorable outing, for all the wrong reasons, came the next day at Yankee Stadium against his old club. The Mets were deadlocked in a 1-1 game after Wilson Ramos connected on an eighth inning solo homer. The Mets entrusted Betances to get them into extra innings, but he promptly walked Clint Frazier, struck out Brett Gardner, and allowed a one-out single to Jordy Mercer to put runners on the corners. With the immortal Erik Kratz at the plate, Betances unleashed a wild pitch that scored Frazier and sent the Mets home with the loss.
This was the last the club would see of the 32-year-old for about a month, as he landed on the injured list with right lat tightness soon thereafter. Inexplicably, he was brought back in a meaningless final weekend with the team already eliminated from playoff contention and playing out the string, and, even more inexplicably, he was trotted out there twice against the Nationals. In his first appearance, he worked around two walks to pitch a scoreless inning. He was not so lucky on the season’s final game, getting tattooed for three runs on two hits and three walks while retiring just one Washington batter. This inflated his final ERA to 7.71 on the season. He ended the year a 4.91 FIP, a 2.06 WHIP, and a career-worst -0.2 bWAR in 11.2 innings.
Betances rediscovering his velocity and becoming a fearsome relief pitcher would go a long way towards helping the Mets out in 2021. With Seth Lugo likely out until mid-May or so, the bullpen is essentially closer Edwin Diaz, setup man Trevor May, and a whole bunch of question marks behind them. Betances will not be able to regain his old glory in the low-90s, and the early signs from spring have not been encouraging. His first outing was a disaster, as he allowed four earned runs on two hits and two walks. He has recovered in his last two outings, allowing one unearned run on March 8 and no runs on March 12, and to date he has walked three to only one strikeout. While in-game results during the spring aren’t concerning on the surface, his fastball velocity still sits in the 89-93 mph range, which is not a good sign.
The right-hander is well aware that last year was a far cry from what fans expected. In his first spring presser, he made it known that he hopes to win the fans over this year. Betances, who will turn 33 years old on March 23, is a guy who can still be a dominating force in the bullpen if he can improve the velocity on his fastball and if he can stay healthy. Whether he is physically capable of doing either at this point in his career remains to be seen, but the Mets will hold their breath and hope that the reliever isn’t quite done yet.