The 1996 New York Yankees rode the back of a 26-year-old relief pitcher all the way to an American League East title and World Series championship. Nearly two decades later, history could be repeating itself in the Bronx with the emergence of Dellin Betances as Mariano Rivera 2.0.
Rivera's 1996 season was the most unique and dominant campaign in a 19-year career of complete and total domination. Now, as the present-day Yankees summon Betances out of the bullpen for multiple-inning excellence, it's impossible not to put Betances' season in perspective and recognize the similar paths taken to stardom.
After two innings of shutout ball against the first-place Toronto Blue Jays Tuesday, Betances' season numbers are almost impossible to believe. With a fastball that can come close to triple digits on the radar gun and a sharp, biting knuckle curveball, opposing hitters often look lost at the plate when Joe Girardi summons the weapon out of the bullpen.
Through 40.2 innings, Betances has struck out a whopping 68 batters and walked only 10. For every nine innings pitched, the relief monster has fanned 15.05 batters. Over the course of baseball history, only four relief pitchers—Craig Kimbrel, Aroldis Chapman, Eric Gagne and Billy Wagner—have posted a 14.0 SO/9 with an ERA under 1.60, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required).
Although Rivera isn't one of those names, his ability to dominate as a multiple-inning weapon for the 1996 Yankees is what makes this comparison so staggering. As a former starter, Rivera gave manager Joe Torre the ability to use him for more than an inning, rescuing an average rotation along the way.
When Rivera garnered Cy Young and MVP votes, a 5.0 WAR and the future closing gig in New York, it was hard to imagine any reliever ever topping that season at Yankee Stadium. Now, as a similar story plays out, a case can be made that Betances is having a better season than Rivera circa 1996.
As the numbers show, the current 26-year-old Yankees star has pitched to a better ERA, FIP (fielding independent pitching), WHIP, SO/BB and SO/9 than Rivera did for the eventual World Series winners. While the 2014 season hasn't even reached its midway point, the numbers—all in Betances' favor—are startling.
|Deja Vu All Over Again|
|Mariano Rivera, 1996||2.09||1.88||0.994||3.82||10.87|
|Dellin Betances, 2014||1.55||0.87||0.721||6.80||15.05|
Girardi, Rivera's catcher in 1996 and Betances' manager now, recently gave credence to the comparison, per Greg Logan of Newsday.
"You can look at the numbers and they're probably fairly comparable," Girardi said. "That year, [Rivera] was a guy we would use for multiple innings. He was extremely effective, just like Dellin has been. So I can understand the comparisons. Obviously, they're different pitchers. I think you could call both power pitchers, but Dellin has the curveball as well."
Beyond the numbers and usage, the link between baseball background and apprenticeship is hard to ignore.
Betances, much like Rivera, was developed and nurtured to be a high-end starting pitcher. Yet, after posting a 6.44 ERA over 26 minor league starts in 2012, the Yankees made a decision to curtail his role to reliever. In 1994, Triple-A starter Mariano Rivera posted a 5.81 ERA, likely a big reason for a future conversion to the bullpen.
Furthermore, despite profiling as the best arms in their respective bullpens, the title of "closer" both eluded Rivera then and eludes Betances now. With a veteran arm such as John Wetteland anchoring the ninth inning then, Rivera eased into his role. Similarly, despite the Wetteland-like Houdini acts that David Robertson provides, Betances isn't close to overtaking him for the closing role.
In the face of a mediocre roster and the presence of only one high-end starter (Andy Pettitte), the 1996 Yankees stayed in the AL East race and captured the division with 92 wins. While that season represented the start of a dynasty, few would have called that team anything close to dominant.
The same can be said for the current Yankees. Outside of Masahiro Tanaka's brilliance and Betances' gifted right arm, New York is likely a flawed, losing team. Heading into play on June 18, none of that matters, in large part because of Betances.
Before scoffing at the notion of evoking Rivera's name in the same sentence as a young, hot-shot reliever, consider this side-by-side comparison through a nearly identical juncture of in respective breakout seasons.
|Early Season Excellence: Betances vs. Rivera Through June 17|
|Mariano Rivera, 1996||46.2||27||1.54||8||51/15|
|Dellin Betances, 2014||40.2||19||1.55||7||68/10|
Time will tell if Betances goes on to have even 10 percent of the career that Rivera did, but it would be a foolish to ignore what's happening in the Yankees bullpen right now. Less than a year after Mariano Rivera retired, the Yankees have replaced him with a pitcher who is dominating like he did at the exact same age.