Saying goodbye to the poor man's Mariano Rivera

Doug Pensinger

Next year, the baseball landscape will be a little different. It'll be a reliever short, to be specific. The 2013 season started with a fascinating closer doing his thing, but the 2014 season will go on without him. This reliever did the same thing, over and over and over again, never wavering, never mixing up his attack. And yet it worked. Every year, the same approach worked, and he racked up saves well past the age when most pitchers are effective.

I'll miss Rafael Betancourt.

Betancourt tore his UCL this week, and his career is most certainly in jeopardy. Based on that description up there, though, you were probably thinking of Mariano Rivera. But I'm over that guy, mostly because this is what I see when I close my eyes at night. No thanks.

No, Betancourt is the one-approach reliever for the people who don't like to go for the obvious choice. The people who look for things "a little under the radar."

Alright, baseball hipsters. The term I'm looking for is "baseball hipster," even though people agreed two years ago that using "hipster" pejoratively was passé. Which means that if you use it now, you're bucking the trend and doing something unpopu …

Oh, no.

Whatever. Betancourt was Rivera for the people who was paying attention. Because you might not have heard about this, but Mariano Rivera has one pitch. It's a cutter. And he cuts and cuts and cuts and cuts until hitters look like idiots. It's a monosyllabic approach, and it's unlike anything else in the bullpen universe.

Betancourt's not that different, though. He doesn't throw just one pitch. He throws a four-seamer, a cutter, a slider, and a rare change. He focuses on the hard stuff, throwing it almost two-thirds of the time. But that's not why he's analogous to Rivera. The best way to describe why Betancourt is different is with a table from Baseball-Reference.com:

Year Tm Hit by pitch Batters faced
2003 CLE 1 154
2004 CLE 0 286
2005 CLE 0 272
2006 CLE 0 231
2007 CLE 0 289
2008 CLE 0 309
2009 TOT 0 227
2010 COL 0 248
2011 COL 0 237
2012 COL 0 236
2013 COL 0 123
11 Yrs 1 2612

When Rafael Betancourt was a rookie, he hit a batter. It happened in the 10th game of his career, in 2003. The batter was Marcus Thames, and he didn't have to leave the game. Blood didn't spurt from his arteries, and Thames didn't end up working as an administrative assistant the following season. He took his base and eventually scored. There was no reason for Betancourt to be scarred by that experience.

Since then, Betancourt has faced over 2,500 batters without hitting anyone. If you're wondering if that's a historical anomaly, it most certainly is. Most of the people who come close have funny names like Chubby, Wilcy, Monk, and Bill. Because they're old. The only active player who comes close to the low HBP total with as many batters faced is Matt Harrison, and he's hit eight batters in his career.

And if you're looking for the reason why Rivera and Betancourt are analogous at all, here's a plot from TexasLeaguers.com that shows every pitch Betancourt threw from 2008 until now.

Betancourt_lefties_medium

That's from the catcher's perspective. His plot against righties isn't quite as dramatic, but it still shows a pitcher who lives on the outside.

If I can take five seconds to find that out, you know that teams and advance scouts knew this. They didn't just know this. They preached it. They had Powerpoint displays about it. They pounded it into their hitters' heads. If you're a left-handed hitter, dive over the plate. Don't worry about the inside half. Dive, dive, dive. Look at this plot. Look where he throws the ball. Expect the ball to go there. Look for it there.

And Betancourt would throw the ball on the outside edge, right were the hitters were looking for it. The hitters would take it. Or swing at it. Whatever they did, it was usually the wrong choice. The pitch would be too far off the outside to handle. Or it would swirl around the outside corner for a called strike. Time and time again, the pitch would be exactly what the hitter wasn't expecting.

Betancourt was a case study. He was doing something that most pitchers wouldn't even think of doing, and he was succeeding. Outside outside outside outside outside. Hitters knew it was coming. They still couldn't do much.

Rivera was cutter cutter cutter cutter cutter. Hitters knew it was coming. Didn't matter.

Both of them were freaks. They honed experimental methods of pitching that succeeded, and how. The old joke is that engineers should make the entire airplane out of the same material as the indestructible black box. Rivera makes you wonder why they can't make the entire reliever out of the cutter. Betancourt makes you wonder why they can't make the entire reliever out of the outside half of the plate. It's a simple question, even though the answer is much, much, much more complicated than you would expect.

It's never okay to lose a player to an injury, and it's a shame that we won't get to study Betancourt more. If there's an heir to the one-pitch or one-approach pitcher in baseball, it's Kenley Jansen, whose magic fastball continues to befuddle hitters. But if he can do it for another 10 years, then he'll join the pantheon.

It's going to be a drag to lose the one-pitch stylings of Mariano Rivera. But don't forget about Rafael Betancourt. Almost no one in the history of the game has lived on one side of the plate and lived to tell about it. Maybe pitchers will study him and his approach, hoping to exploit an underrated weakness in the modern hitter. It's probably happening already.

Looking at you, Rays.

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