Relieving Rivera

Dellin Betances is putting together one of “those” seasons. It’s the kind of year that can catapult a player from relative obscurity to greatness and Yankees fans have seen it before.

A relief pitcher for the New York Yankees, Betances, 26, began his pro career as a starter in the minor leagues. Bouts of wildness, however, resulted in a move to the bullpen last year and he has thrived in his new role, striking out an unheard-of 15.9 batters per nine innings pitched thus far during his first full MLB season.

Eighteen years ago, another Yankee starting pitching prospect made the switch to reliever and never looked back. In 1996, Mariano Rivera, who was 26 years old and in his first full year as a reliever, posted one of the all-time great seasons as a set-up man to closer, John Wetteland. Following that incredible year, the Yankees let Wetteland go via free agency and handed the end-of-game duties to Rivera. The rest was history; he retired following the 2013 season, widely considered to be the greatest relief pitcher ever.

Though the 2014 MLB season is merely a quarter of the way through, the numbers Betances has put up are so dominant, they cannot be overlooked. The following table compares Rivera’s brilliant breakthrough season with the projected stats derived from Betances’s current pace this year:

Player Year Age IP H BB K/9 IP BAA WHIP ERA ERA+
Betances 2014 26 89.3 49 36 15.9 .155 0.940 1.61 232
Rivera 1996 26 109.6 73 34 10.7 .182 0.994 2.09 240

Though it seems unlikely that any pitcher, let alone a guy who was far from assured of making the roster out of spring training, could sustain such a level of dominance, the stat lines above are eerily similar to one another. And like Betances this year, very few people around baseball thought Rivera was capable of accomplishing such things in 1996.

It is worth noting that Betances did have great success during his first season as a reliever last year. Pitching for the Yankees’ AAA affiliate in Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Betances held opponents to a .171 batting average against and struck out nearly 12 hitters per nine innings.

The Yankees won the lottery when they moved Rivera to the pen in the mid-1990s and it appears they may have caught lightning in a bottle once again with a similar move. While he certainly has a long way to go to match Rivera’s iconic career (652 more saves, namely), Betances sure is off to a good start.

(photo by Eric Enfermero)

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