Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Is Betancourt Broken?

This is the first time I've used any Pitch f/x tools in depth, so this article is a bit of an experiment. If you happen to notice any flaws in my use of these stats or if something is not explained well enough, feel free to leave a comment. I'd like to use more of this type of analysis in the future, but for now there might be a few speed bumps.

Rafael Betancourt took the phrase “lights out” to a new level last season. The Tribe’s bullpen ace put together a career year setting up closer Joe Borowski through the regular season and into the playoffs. Cleveland rewarded Betancourt with a two year extension (plus a club option) worth $5.4 million guaranteed over the winter.

Betancourt has struggled for much of 2008 though, underperforming in almost every category compared to his career numbers. Betancourt may have greatly raised expectations for 2008 given his outstanding 2007 campaign, but to expect those types of numbers a second consecutive year is unrealistic. Betancourt’s 1.47 ERA, .76 WHIP, and ridiculous 8.89 K/BB ratio was the pitching equivalent of Hafner’s 179 OPS+ season and would be extremely difficult to match.

What Cleveland did expect from Betancourt was a productive, reliable reliever for the 8th inning, but unfortunately Raffy has been unable to deliver. Betancourt has yet to throw at least nine innings in a month with an ERA under 5.00. He has yet to go on an extended scoreless streak and has followed a rough pattern of no more than three or four scoreless innings with a couple flawed outings for most of the season.

Despite a 6.00 ERA and 1.48 WHIP that has shown little sign of improving, Manager Eric Wedge has consistently gone with Betancourt in the late innings of the game. Betancourt has made the majority of his appearances in the 8th and 9th innings and in high leverage situations. Opponents have posted a 1.071, .922, and .716 OPS against Betancourt in the 7th through 9th innings, respectively.

Has Betancourt fallen so far that he can no longer make a positive contribution to the bullpen? There’s not much to counter Raffy’s inconsistency this season, but what has caused such a steep decline? To find out, I wanted to look at Betancourt’s previous performance, pitch selection, velocity, location, and delivery.

Stat Comparison

Below are Betancourt’s stats for the last three seasons:

2006 56.2 3.81 1.11 4.36 7.62 1.75 1.11 25.1 71.4
2007 79.1 1.47 0.76 8.89 9.08 1.02 0.45 19.7 86.4
2008 42.0 6.00 1.48 3.00 9.00 3.00 1.71 20.8 65.0
Career 350.1 3.19 1.11 4.33 8.10 2.11 0.92 21.1 75.6

The first items that jump out to me are Betancourt’s BB/9 rate and his LOB%. These two items seem to be driving each other up, since the more batters he issues free passes to, the longer the inning and the more scoring opportunities the other team will get. Even in an average 2006 season, Betancourt stranded over 70% of all baserunners with that number spiking at 86.4% in 2007.

A lack of control seems to be driving up the walk rate, but Betancourt is still missing bats at the same rate as last season, which is kind of odd. I would have expected Betancourt to issue fewer strikeouts if his control was suffering. Betancourt’s combination of peripherals basically comes from a surplus of opportunities. An increased number of walks (3.00/9 IP) and hits (.288 AVG against compared to .188 last year) issued makes the average appearance longer, thus providing more opportunities to strike people out, albeit in a less efficient manner.

Betancourt’s strikeout rate is somewhat misleading, but the other peripherals are more accurate in terms of his actual performance.

Betancourt is also giving up about the same number of line drives (balls in play more likely to fall for a hit) as in 2007, but this could be deflated by a lack of opportunities, i.e. the batter is walked rather than hitting a ball into play. The balls that do get hit seem to be leaving the yard at a much higher rate than normal though (1.71 HR/9 compared to 0.92 career).

Pitch Selection and Velocity

Here is a table showing the percentage of time a pitch was used with the average velocity in parentheses. The pitch selection data was taken from Betancourt’s Fan Graphs page.

Year Fastball Slider Change Total Pitches
2006 85.9% (92.3) 4.0% (82.2) 4.4% (84.1) 903
2007 85.8% (91.4 mph) 10.1% (81.8) 4.1% (82.9) 1161
2008 76.1% (91.4) 13.1% (80.9) 10.8% (83.1) 747
Career 83.6% (91.8) 7.0% (81.6) 5.2% (83.4) 3845

I included data for the past three seasons, but Betancourt only used a curveball in 2006 5.7% of the time, so I excluded it from the table. The percentages will not add up to 100% because there was a small percentage from each year that could not be classified as any one pitch.

Betancourt’s average velocity has changed very little between 2007 and 2008. I was surprised to see no change in his fastball velocity, but he did lose about one MPH from his slider. Another surprise was the degree to which he lessened the use of his fastball. In terms of velocity, the fastball doesn’t seem to be any less effective, yet it has given way to a 6.7% increase in changeups thrown and a 3.0% increase in sliders.

According to a recent brief from,

Betancourt has battled some back issues and tweaked his mechanical delivery a bit. The change in command has included Betancourt not relying completely on his fastball, which has historically been both his predominant and dominant pitch.

This is the first I’ve heard of Raffy’s back problems and mechanical changes, so I’m not sure if they occurred mid-season or in Spring Training. It seems that this reduction in the use of his fastball and reliance on secondary pitches were prompted by these injuries and on advice from the coaching staff.

One thing that I’m not sure of is how much last season’s work load is affecting Betancourt this season. Betancourt threw a career high 89.1 innings, including the playoffs, in 2007 and may be suffering from some wear and tear. This may be related to the back issues he has experienced, thus the need to alter his delivery.

Delivery and Location

I used a set of Pitch f/x data from 2007 and 2008 to try and identify any changes in Betancourt’s pitch location and delivery. All the Pitch f/x data and graphs below were compiled by Josh Kalk and can be found online at The Hardball Times and his blog.

Plot of Release Points for 2007

Plot of Release Points for 2008

The two release point tables basically show what their name implies; the point at which the ball leaves Betancourt’s hand during his delivery. This shows Betancourt’s arm slot, or the range in which his arm passes during a pitch, and any inconsistencies or trends that appear between the two seasons. Since the data shown is only a sample of Betancourt’s total pitches thrown it’s best to think of the data as an average representation.

Using the graphs, I made a rough measurement of Betancourt’s arm slot range and broke it down by pitch type (some pitchers vary their arm angle depending on the pitch). I focused on the difference in the arm slot between the two seasons to see how much Betancourt may have altered his mechanics. Note that the scale used is in feet, so even a small change could have a noticeable impact on how a pitch crosses the plate.

Arm Slot Ranges for 2007

Pitch Avg. Horizontal Release Point Range Horizontal Range Difference Avg. Vertical Release Point Range Vertical Range Difference
Fastball -3 : -1.25 ft. 1.75 ft. 5.8 : 6.5 ft. 0.7 ft.
Slider -2.75 : -1.5 ft. 1.25 ft. 5.8 : 6.6 ft. 0.8 ft.

Arm Slot Ranges for 2008

Pitch Avg. Horizontal Release Point Range Horizontal Range Difference Avg. Vertical Release Point Range Vertical Range Difference
Fastball -2.7 : -1.5 ft. 1.2 ft. 5.8 : 6.8 ft. 1.0 ft.
Slider -2.6 : -1.6 ft. 1.0 ft. 6.0 : 6.8 ft. 0.8 ft.
Changeup -2.7 : -1.7 ft. 1.0 ft. 6.1 : 6.8 ft. 0.7 ft.

In 2007, the overall arm slot range for the horizontal axis was 1.75 ft (21 in) and a vertical axis of .7 ft (8.4 in) for his fastball. Similar numbers appear for the slider with a 1.25 ft (15 in) vertical axis and a 0.8 ft (9.6 in) horizontal axis. I keep referring back to 2007 because whatever Betancourt was doing back then was extremely effective.

In 2008, Betancourt is using a wider horizontal range to deliver his slider, but has not altered the vertical range. The biggest change is in his fastball delivery, showing a .55 ft (6.6 in) difference in the horizontal range and a .3 ft (3.6 in) difference in the vertical range between 2007 and 2008. This is actually a very small difference in deliver considering the precision of the data and the amount of times the pitcher has to repeat the motion.

Given how large Betancourt’s normal arm slot is (21 in by 8.4 in for the 2007 fastball), a small change like this may have pushed him just over the edge and affected his pitch location. This is just a theory though, since a difference of 6.6 in and 3.6 in just seems so small when compared to how big the overall range is. Another theory is that the small change in his release point is simply result of intentional mechanical changes and is not a detrimental effect from a tired arm or other ailment. As far as I can tell, it does not appear that Betancourt is suffering from any major inconsistencies due to a change in his release point.

Vertical versus Horizontal Pitch Movement for 2007

Vertical versus Horizontal Pitch Movement for 2008

The two graphs above show the final location of Betancourt’s pitches as they cross home plate. Home plate is represented by point zero on the horizontal axis. A pitch located on the negative horizontal axis would be inside to a right-handed batter and off the plate to a left-handed batter.

Difference in Average Movement for 2007

Pitch Difference in Avg. Horizontal Movement Difference in Avg. Vertical Movement
Fastball 10 in. 14.5 in.
Slider 12.5 in. 12.5 in.

Difference in Average Movement for 2008

Pitch Difference in Avg. Horizontal Movement Difference in Avg. Vertical Movement
Fastball 11 in. 10 in.
Slider 8.5 in. 8.8 in.

First, Betancourt’s fastball has lost a full 4.5 in of vertical movement between 2007 and 2008. Considering how small the difference between a homerun and a groundout can be for a batter, I think this is a significant factor. While the fastball still runs in to rightys, it tends to run flatter on the vertical axis than it used to. This lack of vertical movement could make it easier to make contact with the ball and send it farther.

Second, Betancourt’s slider has seen a drastic drop-off in overall movement. The slider has a difference of 4 in on the horizontal and 3.7 in on the vertical axes between 2007 and 2008.

Just looking at the graphs shows a lot less movement on the slider. This could result in more hanging sliders that don't drop off or sliders that are less effective in fooling the batter and setting up the fastball properly. Considering Betancourt has actually increased the use of his slider by 3% and reduced the use of his fastball by 9.7%, this seems like a really bad combination. Unfortunately, there isn’t a comparison for the changeup because it wasn’t recorded by Pitch f/x in 2007 for some reason.

I think Betancourt is struggling to integrate the new mechanics and secondary pitches into his routine. The significant reduction in using his fastball combined with a seemingly steep learning curve in mastering the slider appear to be the biggest culprits in Raffy’s poor season. There is a good chance that Betancourt will eventually become more comfortable with these changes and revert back to form in the near future.

1 comment:

Steve said...

I wonder if his pitch selection has anything to do with Victor Martinez being out? Maybe Shoppach is calling for more changeups?