Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports
Rafael Betancourt saved a grand total of 17 games with the Indians, but he was just as, or even more, valuable than the closers who came into games after him.
Rafael Jose Betancourt
Relief Pitcher, 2003-2009
Height: 6'2" Weight: 220 lbs
Throws: Right Bats: Right
How Acquired: Minor League Free Agent, January 20, 2003
Rafael Betancourt was born in Cumena, Venezuela, and signed a professional contract with the Boston Red Sox at the age of 18 as a middle infielder. He went immediately to the US, playing for Boston's Gulf Coast League club in 1994. But he didn't hit, and stayed in the GCL in 1995. He was promoted to the Midwest League in 1996, but didn't hit there either (.167/.228/.250). At this point he was going into his Age 22 season, and seemed likely to get released soon, when he turned to pitching; Boston farm director Bob Schaefer made the suggestion, and Betancourt became a relief pitcher:
The move to the mound ended saving his career, but there were several major hurdles that stood in his way still. After making it to AA Trenton in 1999, the Red Sox released him. Betancourt then went to Japan, signing with the Yokohama BayStars in the Japanese Central League. He returned to the US after the season (which was a success), and re-signed with Boston. It looked like his career was back on track, but a devastating elbow injury ended his 2001 season in July. He had surgery to repair a stress fracture in his throwing elbow, and was released again by Boston after the season. He went home to Venezuela to rehab his elbow:
After sitting out the entire 2002 season, the Indians took a flyer on him, signing him to a minor-league contract in January 2003 after a tryout. After dominating batters in Akron, he moved up briefly to Buffalo, and then got the call to the big leagues when the Indians were having problems with both injuries and effectiveness in the bullpen. He made his major-league debut on July 13, 2003, giving up a run in 1.1 innings against Chicago. That would be the last earned run he'd give up until August 3rd (8 appearances). By the end of the season, he was pitching the seventh and eighth innings in close games, and even picked up a saved along the way. He ended the season with 2.13 ERA, and allowed an amazing 6.4 hits per 9 innings.
He was a key reliever in 2004 again, though his ERA jumped up to 3.92. In 2005, while setting up for Bob Wickman, Betancourt, struck out 9.7 batters per 9 innings while walking only 2.3 per 9. That combination of strikeouts and walks made Betancourt one of the most valuable relievers in the majors even though he only saved one game. Betancourt was suspended that season for 10 games after testing positive for a banned substance, which he blamed on an OTC medication purchased in Venezuela.
By the end of 2006, Bob Wickman was gone, and the Indians that winter signed Joe Borowski to save games. Borowski would more or less get the save, but it was Betancourt that was the key to the Indians' division title. As a reliever, Betancourt had a WAR of 4.1, an astounding total; for comparison's sake, Betancourt's 2007 equaled or bettered all of Mariano Rivera's seasons except one (1996). Betancourt's 4.2 wins is double that of Vinnie Pestano's 2012 campaign, which was outstanding in itself. Betancourt would throw 79.1 innings, make 68 appearances, struck out 80, walk only 9, and allow just 51 hits. He and Rafael Perez were the main pitchers used when the Indians took a lead into the late innings, and the two combined for 6.4 WAR, which surpassed any starting pitcher in the American League that season. Had Betancourt and not Borowski been the closer, there's no doubt in my mind that he would have gotten Cy Young or MVP votes.
So how did Betancourt pitch? He, like most relievers started in the stretch, with the ball at his waist. He would at times twitch his left leg before lifting it completely, which would garner complaints from opposing batters. He would keep the ball in his glove until his left leg was at its highest, then bring the ball back behind his ear and throw the ball over the top. He had two pitches, a fastball and a slider, but he would only throw the slider occasionally; it was his fastball that used not only to get ahead of the batter, but to put him away. He had impeccable control of the fastball, and more often than not would try to hit the outside corner of the plate. Betancourt has hit only one batter in his major-league career (617.2 innings so far), and that happened in his rookie campaign; that tells you of both his control and his love of the outside corner of the plate. Even when batters knew it was coming, it was hard to pick up because of the delivery, and rarely did the pitch get much of the plate. Betancourt also was (and still is) known for the inordinate amount of time taken between pitches; in 2007 umpire Joe West placed him on the clock for spending too much time in the set position before delivering a pitch.
Betancourt was on the mound when the Indians clinched the AL Central in 2007, and pitched in most of the Indians' playoff games that fall. He was perfect in six outings until coming in to the seventh inning of Game 7 in Boston. After a Casey Blake error allowed Jacoby Ellsbury to reach base, he gave up a two-run homer to Dustin Pedroia, which extended the Boston lead to 5-2. He would give up five more runs in the eighth as the Red Sox put the game completely out of reach.
The following season, Betancourt had one of his worst years of his career. Most likely it was a side effect of all the innings he had thrown in 2007, and he would return to form in 2009. But by this time the Indians had fallen completely out of contention, and they were trading away most of their core players. On July 23rd he was traded to Colorado for minor-league prospect Connor Graham.
Betancourt re-signed with the Rockies after the 2009, and has since them signed an extension that will keep him in Colorado through 2014. Last season he finally got his first chance at closing, saving 31 games for Colorado. I think he's still one of the best relievers in the game today, and certainly one of the most unheralded.
|2002||Did not play in major leagues (Did Not Play)|
|CLE (7 yrs)||3.25||371||105||17||410.0||359||148||42||108||409||1||135||7.9||0.9||2.4||9.0||3.79|
AL Adjusted Pitching Runs: 6th, 2007-27
AL Adjusted Pitching Wins: 6th, 2007-2.7
AL WPA: 2nd, 2007-5.4
Cleveland Indians Career Leader
- 8th Appearance (371)
- t-38th Saves (17)
- 50th Strikeouts (409)
- 15th Games Finished (105)
- t-24th Adjusted Pitching Runs (52)
- 246th Adjusted Pitching Wins (5.1)
- t-14th WPA (7.5)
Cleveland Indians Season Leader
- t-22nd Appearance (69, 2008)
- t-30th Appearance (68, 2004, 2007)
- t-8th WPA (5.4, 2007)