PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. -- As a native New Yorker, and Yankees defector, Dellin Betances should have found a welcome landing spot in Flushing last season.
But his pitch velocity abandoned him along the way, a disturbing trend that flashed warning lights during spring training. And the four-month pandemic disruption was followed by a lat-muscle issue Betances hid from the Mets before eventually going on the injured list.
By season’s end, Betances was unrecognizable, with a 7.71 ERA and an 8.5 K/9 ratio that was half his typical production in pinstripes. Mercifully, Citi Field was empty last summer. This year, however, Betances believes that he’s finally prepared for a better homecoming, thanks to a regular (no rehab) offseason that included an emphasis on his biomechanics.
"I definitely have something to prove," Betances said Wednesday. "I want to win the fan base over. I was able to do that with the Yankees, but I haven’t done it here. Nothing yet with the Mets."
Considering the expectations for this team, now would be a good time for Betances to re-establish his NYC street cred.
"You’ve got to respect that coming from him," manager Luis Rojas said. "He’s a guy that’s pitched in New York for years. He wants to come back and prove who he is."
Betances was such a non-factor in 2020, after signing a one-year, $10.5-million deal with the Mets, that he’s been easy to overlook when analyzing the supposed strengths of this bullpen. After Betances exercised his $6-million player option to return, Sandy Alderson’s first move as president, even before hiring a GM, was signing a reliable set-up man in Trevor May.
That was hardly a vote of confidence in Betances’ ability to bounce back from an unsettling series of injuries that prompted his exit from the Yankees and then followed him across the RFK Bridge. The 2018 Betances, before the shoulder issues and Achilles tear, was among the most feared relievers in the game, thanks to a 98-mph fastball and knee-buckling breaking pitches.
But those superpowers vanished shortly after joining the Mets as Betances became very hittable. In 2018, Betances generated swings-and-misses on 32.3% of his four-seam fastballs, according to Baseball Savant, along with 37.4 on sliders and 47.0 on the curve. In 2020, those numbers plummeted to 13.2, 23.1 and 30.3, respectively.
Upon further reflection, Betances thinks he knows why. And, more importantly, he sees himself progressing toward a solution as spring training gets underway.
"I think for me last year, my pitches were doing stuff that I wasn't accustomed to," Betances said. "Everything was just going side to side. That didn't help me at all."
Bottom line, Betances wasn’t really sure where the ball was going, as his fastball was cutting, or having a sideways break that he couldn’t manipulate. He’s tried to eliminate that glitch this offseason, as well as prevent his body from breaking down again, the only consistent thing about the reliever over a demoralizing two-year span. To remedy those issues, Betances concentrated on his biomechanics this winter at Rockland Peak Performance, which is based in New Jersey, and he’s optimistic that will be a game-changer for him.
"They did a full assessment on my body and stuff that they thought led to my injuries," Betances said. "We put a whole program together to work on certain things to put myself in the best position going forward."
The velocity, however, remains very much in question. During that 2018 season, Betances’ fastball averaged 97.7 mph, according to Baseball Savant. Two years later, coming off the shoulder problems and Achilles repair, it was 93.6 with the Mets. The latter number was alarming enough that the velo question haunted him throughout the abbreviated 2020 season.
And until we all get a look at the radar gun again, it isn’t going away. Not even in Betances’ mind, as he was honest Wednesday when I asked him if he expected his velocity to climb back to the high 90s again.
"It's tough to say," Betances said. "Let's see where it goes. But even if the velocity is not there, if I can get some of that [fastball] ride, play that off my breaking ball, I feel like I can definitely do a great job."
Betances also has spent more time consulting the data-driven tools like Rapsodo to re-calibrate his pitches, something that he never had the chance to do with regularity before the flurry of injuries derailed his career. As much as Betances wants to get back to his former self, he’s now visualizing that success in a Mets’ uniform, on the other side of town, after being delayed from reaching that goal last season.
"I think he’s in a good place right now," Rojas said. "I think we’re going to see the good version of Betances, the one we all know, in this camp."