A better closer than he, they or you ever thought.
After being acquired to set up for Huston Street in the later months of the 2009 season, Rafael Betancourt has been a wonderful staple in the Rockies' bullpen. Incredibly consistent performance, strong presence on the mound, age not yet a concern... it may be fair to say that despite the typical bullpen ups and downs, the only thing that's truly frustrated Rockies fans about this pitcher is his... "deliberate" pitching pace (something that's never bothered me personally, what works, works). Through his first two years in Colorado, we've seen him reliably back up Street in the 8th inning setup role, and coming into 2011, Betancourt was slotted there once again immediately, despite concerns about Street after an injury-plagued 2010.
The Rockies had acquired Matt Lindstrom from the Astros, not (just) with the intent to satisfy the organization's Matt quota, but to be the primary buffer in case Street had to leave the ninth inning role due to injury or ineffectiveness. A former closer himself, the team felt Lindstrom profiled better for the role than Betancourt, who had also not been given a significant chance to close during the 2010 season. Everyone felt Betancourt fit for the eighth, and that is where he would stay, whether a closer was needed or not. And yet, come the merciful end of 2011, it was Betancourt who found himself closing for the Rockies for the final six odd weeks of the season. Why?
The easy answer to this question is that Betancourt forced the issue. After an extraordinary 2010 season that saw him put up the best K/BB ratio in team history, expectations were high. Early on in 2011, he met them for for the most part. After an excellent April and an average May, Betancourt struggled the most during the period of June not long before the All-Star Break. Hits increased, walks increased, strikeouts declined. By this point, the disappointment relating to the grand downfall of the team since its first two weeks of play was largely focused on other places, including an inconsistent and homer prone Street at closer, making the wall seem less noticeable. By the time it had come time to start throwing around the idea of looking elsewhere for a closer, Betancourt had exploded through that barrier past Lindstrom and successful rookie roleplayer Rex Brothers into first in line for the 9th.
And did he ever respond.
From the All-Star Break through the end of the season, Betancourt walked exactly one batter. ONE BATTER, over 27 innings, that included six weeks in the closer's role where he didn't walk a single batter to end the season. Coincidentally, the pitcher recorded the exact same inning count as he did in 2010 (62 and a third), and that stretch of extreme control led him to cap out at 8 walks for the season, once again matching his incredible 2010 total. His strikeout rate did decline from its 2010 peak, but remained well over a batter an inning at 10.51/9. The 2011 season also saw significant improvement in his home run and ground ball rates. Betancourt's 2011 may not have been quite as flashy as his 2010, but it was a darn good season of relief pitching, especially in that second half and as a closer.
Grade: B+ - Last week when I wrote Rex Brothers' review, I sang his praises for the most part, arguing that despite not getting regular opportunities to pitch in high leverage situations due to the already deep bullpen, his debut season was mostly a resounding success and an easy choice for me as the Rockies' 2011 Rookie of the Year. And yet, I couldn't advocate just handing him the closer's role out of the gate because of the continued presence of Betancourt. Rafael will turn 37 this year; Brothers is only 24, but with no immediate signs of Betancourt slowing down (no joke intended), I have no problem with either of these two beginning 2012 as our closer.