It came as little surprise to anyone, really, when the Colorado Rockies designated for assignment -- and subsequently released -- veteran right-hander Rafael Betancourt late last month.
Betancourt's fastball velocity was down (though it had been that way for a couple years), his pitches were flat and his command was waning. As a result, the 40-year-old reliever ended his final season with the Rockies with a career-worst ERA and his highest walk rate of any healthy season since 2008.
Despite all that, Betancourt battled until the very end, and perhaps even got a bit of a raw deal in what was a disappointing -- and equally depressing -- 2015 campaign. His 3.34 FIP and 9.2 SO/9 both outperformed projections and pointed to a bit of bad luck. But anyone who watched the one-time dominant setup man and closer pitch this season knows any conversation about fortune starts and ends there.
Betancourt's downfall was almost all about the loss of ability to put pitches exactly where he wanted them.
The charts above (courtesy of Brooks Baseball) from Betancourt's last healthy season show just how much the crafty righty lived off the outside corner. He was also able to keep the ball down, consistently putting pitches in places where batters couldn't square him up all that often while often simultaneously getting -- let's be honest -- generous strike calls from umpires.
The combination of Tommy John surgery and age affected Betancourt's ability to continue doing what made him so successful for so many years:
Looking at those graphs, there's not a huge variance in where Betancourt's pitches ended up this year as opposed to 2012. But with the minimal movement and average velocity on his fastball, even a slight miss can yield an entirely different result off the bat. That's what we've seen for most of 2015 -- at least, outside of April, when Betancourt resembled his old and amazingly effective self en route to a 1.86 ERA and 11 strikeouts in 9⅔ innings.
It's that brand of effectiveness for which Betancourt will -- and should -- mostly be remembered. Other than perhaps Mariano Rivera, I can't think of any reliever in recent memory who was as virtually unhittable as Betancourt despite the fact that hitters always knew what was coming. Fastball away. Fastball away. Slider. Fastball away. It was like clockwork.
Betancourt lived just off the outer edge of the plate so much and so well, in fact, that he somewhat infamously hit only one batter in his entire career. That came in his rookie season, when 36 batters into 2003 he plunked then-Texas Rangers outfielder Marcus Thames.
Betancourt did not hit a single one of the next 2,751 batters he faced.
Hitting just one batter in his career is a fun stat, but it wouldn't be quite as meaningful as it is if Betancourt were simply a middle-of-the-road pitcher. But he wasn't. In parts of 12 seasons, the native of Venezuela posted a 3.36 ERA (76 ERA-) and 3.05 FIP (72 FIP-). That puts him in the top 25 of all relievers who have pitched at least 200 innings over the last 13 seasons. As a testament to his supreme command, Betancourt ranks 11th during that same timeframe in strikeout-to-walk ratio.
When narrowing down to just the Rockies, Betancourt's performance holds an even higher historical significance. Where he ranks among relievers who have thrown at least 100 innings for Colorado since its inception:
K/BB: 5.63 (1st)
K%: 28.2 (1st)
BB%: 5.0 (t-1st)
FIP-: 66 (1st)
fWAR: 6.8 (2nd)
You get the picture. Betancourt is probably the most dominant and efficient reliever in Rockies history. Maybe that's not saying a lot considering the pitching staffs the franchise has had over the years, but Betancourt is no slouch when compared to the other relievers in the league during his career, either.
It doesn't hurt that Betancourt is a nice guy and was a tremendous teammate. He also gets points on his side for helping the Rockies reach the 2009 postseason after coming to the club in one of the most lopsided trades in club history (sorry, Connor Graham).
And, don't forget about this (via The Big Lead):
Taking live video in the locker room after a sporting event is never a good idea. On last night's Rockies' postgame show, a camera caught a glimpse of pitcher Rafael Betancourt‘s [REDACTED] in the background of a live interview.
In case you're wondering what the [REDACTED] is referencing, here's a hint:
We wish the best of luck to Betancourt in all of his future endeavors. If the Rockies ever decide to host a Colorado baseball legends type of event (there's an idea for you, marketing/promotions people!), Raffy definitely deserves to be there. That's how good -- and important -- he was for the Rox.