PORT ST. LUCIE, Fla. — Aside from the blue-and-orange uniform, Dellin Betances looked the same to us when he first climbed the mound Saturday to face the Nationals at Clover Park.
He’s still stands an intimidating 6-8, still features the same slingshot delivery. Still has trouble holding runners. There was one thing missing, though.
About 7-8 mph on his fastball.
Granted, this was his Grapefruit League debut for the Mets after missing all but two outs of the 2019 season due to shoulder, lat muscle and Achilles tendon injuries. It wasn’t realistic to expect a finished product right away.
But if Opening Day truly is the goal with him, as both Betances and manager Luis Rojas repeated after the Mets’ 5-0 loss to Washington, they have less than three weeks to find those missing 7-8 mph on the four-seamer.
“Obviously I’m not where I need to be just yet,” said Betances, who in one-third of an inning walked two, whiffed one and allowed a two-run single to Ryan Zimmerman.
Of the 24 pitches Betances threw during Saturday’s outing, 16 were fastballs and 10 touched his max of 90 mph. Considering this was his first time facing a team in another jersey since Sept. 15 in Toronto — his final appearance for the Yankees — this figured to be something to build on.
And even that day against the Blue Jays, when Betances ultimately injured his Achilles hopping off the mound, he threw only eight pitches. Five of those were four-seam fastballs, with a velocity that hovered at a steady 94 mph.
In other words, Betances hasn’t been firing his top-shelf nasty heat since 2018, when he was lighting up the gun at 97.8 mph (hat tip to Fangraphs). His max that season, according to Brooks Baseball, was 99.06 mph.
So who, exactly, is this version of Betances? The 2019 version that came off the shelf for a one-day cameo after a six-month stay on the injured list? Or the 2018 Dellin who had 15.5 strikeouts per nine innings over 66 appearances?
The Mets believe they paid $10.5 million for the second guy, but it’s unclear when that Betances will show up. The assumption remains that he will. Betances explained again Saturday how he’s usually a slow starter in spring training and this year even more so based on missing nearly all of last season. The lack of velocity is not something he’s worried about. He’s had to turn up the speedometer like this before.
“Yeah, there were a few years that I did,” Betances said. “There’s some years that I started out hotter.”
As for Saturday’s overall performance, Betances appeared rusty, which was anticipated for someone coming off such an extended layoff. His first two pitches were strikes to Trea Turner, but he walked both him and Victor Robles on a combined 14 pitches. Turner laid off three consecutive curves that swerved out of the strike zone as Betances threw seven straight balls during one stretch.
“I hadn’t been out there for a while,” he said. “I felt really good with Turner, but he didn’t swing at some close pitches there. Once he got to first, I felt like I was trying to hold him on, but he’s hard to hold on. I think I got out of whack. I was a little quick there. After that I kind of gathered myself, but I already had thrown a lot of pitches by that point.”
Betances recovered against former Yankees’ teammate Starlin Castro. He jumped ahead 0-and-2 with a pair of breaking pitches, but lost the strike zone momentarily and Castro flicked away two sub-par fastballs before swinging through a well-executed curve for the strikeout.
That was encouraging — until the Nationals exploited a classic Betances weakness with a double-steal on an 0-and-1 heater to Zimmerman. Betances then tried to put Zimmerman away with the curve, but he hung the pitch and it wound up getting chopped up the middle for a two-run single that finished his outing.
This was not dominant Dellin by any stretch. But you do have to concede that this is spring training and it’s not like the season starts tomorrow. Good thing, too. Because Betances is going to need every minute of his time down here to get up to speed and there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready for March 26 at Citi Field, when facing the Nationals will count.
“Our plan is to have him Opening Day,” Rojas said.
But can he expect a pitcher to regain all that missing mph by then?
“You know, I’m not completely sure,” Rojas said. “The guys are different. The important thing about each guy is knowing themselves — knowing their body, knowing their arm, and how they progress in a time like this in spring training.”
Betances admits to knowing one thing. He’s not himself yet. Not the pitcher he wants to be, the one that dominated in the Bronx for most of eight seasons.
“I’ve just gotta trust that everything is going to be there,” he said.
The Mets have to hope their faith, as well as their investment in him, is rewarded before too long.