As a whole, major league relievers are striking out 22.2 percent of hitters. Besides old friends such as Aroldis Chapman and Craig Kimbrel, there’s a new crop of dominant relievers who are eating up hitters. Wade Davis and Dellin Betances are two such arms. These two are doing their part in raising the major league strikeout rate.
At 44.7 percent, Betances and Davis are tied for the major league lead in strikeout rate, just a hair ahead of Kimbrel at 44.6 percent. Both Betances and Davis have ERAs under 2.00 with peripherals that are even better. Betances has a 1.16 xFIP, which is the best in the major leagues. The similarities don’t end there.
Both are converted starters. Betances made the switch to the bullpen in 2013, and enjoyed a cup of coffee in the big leagues that year. Davis started for the Tampa Bay Rays up until 2011. After he was swapped to the Kansas City Royals in the James Shields–Wil Myers deal, the Royals gave him a shot at starting. That was largely unsuccessful, so they sent him back to the bullpen this year after Luke Hochevar was lost for the season.
Working out of the bullpen, Davis is seeing his fastball velocity climb back up to the mid 90s. At 95.6 miles per hour, Betances has a tick more on his heater, and the Yankees have utilized him in multi-inning stints. While the two pitchers each have 17 appearances, Betances has thrown 24.1 innings to Davis’ 18.1. Davis has ditched his changeup, which he struggled with in the starting rotation, giving the two hurlers similar repertoires. Both pitchers rely on a fastball, cutter and knuckle curve. Currently, hitters are connecting on just 70.5 percent of their swings on pitches in the strike zone when Davis is on the mound, the best mark in the major leagues.
Going forward, ZiPS is projecting some pretty heavy regression for the New York Yankees 6’8 right-hander. It projects -0.7 fWAR the rest of the way, though some of that projection is based on Betances making 10 starts, which very well could happen given the state of their rotation. It’s not outlandish to expect significant regression given that Betances is overachieving his minor league numbers by a wide margin. However, the Steamer projection, which is based solely on future relief appearances appears more realistic. While it predicts regression, it still sees 0.3 fWAR the rest of the way. In any case, Betances is an impressive physical specimen with stuff that can be almost unhittable coming out of the bullpen. He’s probably not the next Kimbrel or Chapman, but he should be an important part of a Yankees’ relief corps that currently has the highest strikeout rate in the American League at 27.5 percent.
If the Royals keep Davis in the pen, his extra fastball velocity makes him a dominant reliever. The whiff rate on his fastball doubles when he comes out of the pen as opposed to the rotation. Combine that with the aforementioned knuckle curve, and you have all the tools needed for an excellent high-leverage arm. The Royals pen is full of flamethrowers, and they currently have the lowest FIP in the AL at 2.74 percent.
Besides Davis and Betances, several other relievers are establishing themselves as dominant arms. Andrew Miller of the Boston Red Sox is coming strong off a foot injury and posting an FIP and xFIP both below 2.00. Will Smith of the Milwaukee Brewers is flourishing in what is his first full season as a reliever. Hector Rondon was a former Rule 5 draft pick by the Chicago Cubs and is now serving as their closer after picking up some extra fastball velocity.
Relief pitchers continue to throw harder and strike out more hitters. Average fastball velocity for relief pitchers has climbed a full mile per hour since the start of the Pitch f/x era. When power arms like Davis and Betances are being sent to the bullpen, it’s not hard to see why.
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