BY BOB KLAPISCH
Yankees catcher John Ryan Murphy, left, talks to relief pitcher Dellin Betances in the dugout after Betances allowed a fifth-inning, two-run, home run to Mets’ Juan Lagares.
TAMPA, Fla. — Dellin Betances had that million-miles-away look in his eyes that told you plenty about his state of mind. Actually, the pitching line and radar gun supplied all the data — a third of an inning against the Mets, a home run by Juan Lagares and a fastball that never made it over 90 mph. No wonder the presumed Yankees’ closer seemed lost.
“I’m obviously frustrated,” Betances said, and he wasn’t just talking about a forgettable performance in the Yankees’ 7-2 loss Wednesday. He meant the spring in general: One of the American League’s most dominant relievers has a 6.75 ERA in March with radar-gun readings that suggest something is indeed wrong.
Betances, who faced only two batters, was clocked at 89-90 mph, a notable drop-off from the 94-mph fastball he was throwing Tuesday night against the Tigers. Joe Girardi pointed out, “[Betances] was throwing back-to-back [games],” which would account for the diminished speeds, but overall, the right-hander hasn’t come close to last year’s average of 96.7.
Girardi said there’s no crisis here, although he admitted, “If this were the last day of spring training you’d be worried.” It’s the closest the manager has come to addressing the organization’s anxiety over what was considered a sure thing — Betances’ blow-away arsenal.
Instead, the right-hander has lost miles off his fastball, and the curveballs he threw to the Mets were missing their sharp snap. Betances didn’t hide from either uncomfortable truth.
“It’s been four outings [this spring] and each and every time I’ve given up a run,” Betances said. It’s like waking up in an alternative universe. Not only did he average 13.5 strikeouts per nine innings last year, but the right-hander allowed one HR to every 84 batters he faced.
On Wednesday, however, Betances was taken deep by Lagares, the first batter he faced, in a matter of four pitches. With a 1-1 count, Betances threw a 90-mph fastball that was fouled off, followed by a hanging, 77-mph curveball that Lagares crushed over the left field wall.
“It was like a floating device that didn’t do anything,” Betances said, referring to the curve. Question is, is he hurt? And if not, can he be fixed in time for opening day?
The only consolation is that the Yankees have, in Andrew Miller, a layer of insurance for Betances’ regression. There’s no such safety net for Masahiro Tanaka, who struck out seven in 4ª innings, but was, at times, uncharacteristically dead-armed.
Tanaka’s fastball didn’t top 89 mph until the third inning, and even then he hit that mark only twice. Overall, the Japanese right-hander seemed content to work off his slider and splitter, admitting he’s distancing himself from his four-seam fastball.
Instead, Tanaka wants to develop his sinker, which leads to an obvious curiosity: Is he protecting the partial ligament tear in his elbow?
Pitching coach Larry Rothschild admitted, “I think [Tanaka] has paced himself a little bit as far as really turning the ball loose” this spring.
Tanaka has an explanation for that — his four-seamer was hit hard last year, accounting for seven of the 15 HRs he surrendered.
Well, yes and no. Opponents did rack up a .337 average against Tanaka’s four-seamer as well as a .633 slugging percentage. But those numbers were skewed by his decline in June, when he first started experiencing elbow pain, and don’t reflect just how deadly he was in April and May.
That’s when Tanaka was pure poison to hitters, throwing the four-seamer up in the zone at 94-95 mph, then burying them with the two-strike splitter. After watching Tanaka fanning 10 against Baltimore on April 9, Buck Showalter said, “That [splitter] is almost unfair, I’ve got guys coming back to the dugout saying they couldn’t pick up the spin.”
Remember, though, the splitter’s effectiveness is fueled by the fastballs that precede it. Tanaka’s strength was going up and down in the zone, changing a hitter’s eye level several times in the same at-bat. If he’s intending to emphasize the sinking two-seamer — in effect, giving up on the upper region above the belt — the obvious question, again, is: why?
No one thinks Tanaka is hurt; there’s no evidence of an injury so far. And he certainly has the acumen and control to win without extreme heat. In fact, Tanaka’s command is good enough to prevail on splitters and sliders alone. But, clearly, pivoting away from the fastball means he’s worried about something, and that’s what the Yankees are paying attention to.
It goes without saying that Tanaka is the franchise’s building block. Without him, major league executives believe the Yankees would be headed for disaster, possibly even 90 losses. Tanaka insists he’s put aside any fear of blowing out his ulnar collateral ligament (UCL), but the softer stuff against the Mets says maybe not.
Tanaka had already been treated brusquely by the Mets, allowing a leadoff double to Lagares and John Mayberry’s home run in the fourth. By the fifth inning, Tanaka finally experimented with his four-seamer, challenging No. 9 hitter Matt Reynolds in a three-pitch at-bat that featured only fastballs.
The first was clocked at 93 mph, taken for a strike. The second came in at 91, swung on and missed. At 0-2, Tanaka went for the kill. Rothschild would later say, “I think [Tanaka] felt like he wanted to air it out.”
Tanaka found another 93-mph fastball, but couldn’t throw it by Reynolds, a 24-year-old second baseman who batted .333 at Class-AAA last year. Reynolds wasn’t just ready for Tanaka’s heat, he smoked a line drive up the left-center gap.
That was Tanaka’s last pitch — a deflating end to another inconclusive day at Steinbrenner Field. If you’re having trouble sorting through data, take comfort. You’re not alone.