By John Perrotto
Dellin Betances grew up as a big New York Yankees fan, but even he didn't dream of someday playing in his hometown and wearing the pinstripes.
Betances was more of a realist than most kids. Furthermore, despite being athletically gifted, he didn't possess the cockiness of most young jocks. Thus, he thought being a professional baseball player was more fantasy than reality when he would attend games at Yankee Stadium.
"I was probably age 15, age 16 when I first thought that playing in the big leagues was even possible," Betances said. "I started getting letters from different universities recruiting me to play baseball and then I started getting letters from MLB teams about the draft. That's when I thought I had a chance for some good things."
Betances has made it to the major leagues as a relief pitcher with the Yankees. Plenty of good things are happening in his rookie season.
Setting up closer David Robertson, the 26-year-old Betances is 4-0 with one save and a 1.54 ERA in 42 appearances. He has 88 strikeouts in 58.1 innings --- 13.66 per nine innings --- while allowing just 24 hits and 17 walks, and holding opponents to a .132 batting average.
The right-hander has been so impressive that he was voted onto the American League All-Star team in the player's vote. He and injured starter Masahiro Tanaka became the first Yankees rookie pitchers to be selected to the All-Star Game since Spec Shea in 1947.
The results of the voting left Betances stunned, as he assumed he would hang out in New York during the four-day All-Star break. The 6-foot-8, 260-pounder was nearly reduced to tears when Yankees manager Joe Girardi informed him that he was headed to Minneapolis.
"I was emotional," Betances said. "It's been hard work. It's been a long journey from all the years in the minor leagues, all the ups and downs, just to have such a good first half and for the players to vote for me, I was truly humbled. It was a crazy feeling."
Betances' developmental path from being the Yankees' eighth-round draft pick in 2006 from Grand Street Campus High School in Brooklyn to dominant major league reliever was far from linear. He was considered a potential No. 1 starter until he reached Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre late in the 2011 season and went 0-3 with a 5.14 ERA in four starts.
The initial struggles in the International League were thought to be nothing more than a hiccup. However, Betances then went 3-5 with a 6.39 ERA and 69 walks in 74 2/3 innings over 16 starts to begin the 2012 season and was demoted to Double-A Trenton. When Betances returned to Scranton/Wilkes-Barre at the beginning of last season and went 2-2 with a 6.00 ERA in six starts while issuing 16 walks in 24 innings, it appeared his days as a prospect were over.
The Yankees, though, weren't ready to completely give up on a pitcher with as much raw talent as Betances, so they decided to make a last-ditch attempt to revive his career by moving him to the bullpen. Everything turned around for Betances as he had a 2.08 ERA in 38 relief appearances, allowing 42 hits and 28 walks in 65 innings with 93 strikeouts. He was also able to work more on streamlining his pitching mechanics in side sessions rather than saving all his pitches for games as he was not logging as many innings pitching in relief.
A little more than a year after the conversion, Betances was lining up with the rest of the AL All-Star team along the first base line at Target Field.
"I didn't know what to expect when they first told me I was going to pitch in relief," Betances said. "I had an open mind about it but my biggest concern was how my fast my arm would recover after each outing. It turned out that I'm blessed to be able to bounce back quickly and now I really like relieving a lot.
"I just have so much more confidence now and I believe I can do the job. My delivery is more consistent, too. I'm throwing more strikes, which allows me to be more aggressive, and I try to use that to my advantage."
Betances is a bright guy who had a scholarship to play collegiately at Vanderbilt until the Yankees persuaded him to play professional baseball with a $1 million signing bonus. Sometimes his intelligence would work against him as a starter, because he would tend to over-analyze his outings in the four days between outings. Relievers, though, don't have nearly as much time to dwell on their bad games because they often pitch on consecutive days, and sometimes as many as three or four days in a row.
"It makes things a lot better just knowing you have a chance to pitch each and every day," Betances said. "No matter what happens --- good day or bad day --- you have a chance to come back and refresh you mind the next day. That's the cool thing about being in the bullpen."
Betances has made such rapid progress as a reliever that he gives the Yankees a solid fallback plan in the event Robertson leaves as a free agent at the end of the season. Though it seems likely New York will retain Robertson, a scout from a National League team believes Betances would be a dominant closer with his fastball that averages 96 mph, according to FanGraphs.com, and a wipe-out slider.
"He'd be lights out," the scout said. "He's a huge guy and that's intimidating in itself. Now that he's concentrating on just throwing two pitches, he's unhittable. And he absolutely deserved to be in the All-Star Game. He's been as good as any reliever in the game this season, even if he doesn't get a lot of headlines because he's not the closer."
Betances isn't counting how many times he makes the headlines in the New York tabloids. He is just happy to playing a significant role for the team he grew up rooting for on the Lower East Side of Manhattan.
"I'm proud to wear the uniform," Betances said. "It's a real honor to wear the pinstripes. I'm enjoying each and every day. I'm blessed to be a Yankee. I truly am."
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, USA Today Sports Weekly, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.