MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Betances on track to become Rivera's heir

Both Yankees were proven setup men thrust into closer's role at similar age

Betances on track to become Rivera's heir

NEW YORK -- There's only one Mariano Rivera, the Yankees closer who saved a record 652 regular-season games and 42 more in the postseason over the course of 19 seasons. But Dellin Betances has a chance to reach that level.

"He has a great opportunity that he just has to capitalize [on]," Rivera said Sunday. "And he has the determination to get it done."

Just like the great Rivera. The parallels between the two strong right-handers in the nascent stages of their careers are too similar to ignore.

The Yankees unveiled a plaque in honor of Rivera, the last player to wear Jackie Robinson's famous and retired No. 42, on Sunday at Yankee Stadium prior to their 12-3 loss to the Rays. That plaque ultimately will be placed on display with all the others in Monument Park.

Mo gets Monument Park plaque

On Saturday, the Yanks also honored the 20th anniversary of the 1996 team that defeated the Braves in a six-game World Series, beginning a stretch of five championships and seven American League pennant winners in 14 seasons.

Rivera was the setup man behind World Series Most Valuable Player closer John Wettleland in 1996, and he was the closer on the rest of those teams. Wetteland left for the Rangers as a free agent after saving all four Yankees wins in the '96 World Series, thus opening the door for Rivera.

Mo's moment: Yankees honor iconic closer

Betances -- after several years of bridging the gap to David Robertson, Andrew Miller and Aroldis Chapman -- has now been thrust into the closer role with the recent trades of the latter two dominant left-handers. The opportunity is certainly there now for Betances.

Here are the other parallels: Rivera was 27 when he took over, and Betances is now 28. Rivera struck out 130 batters in his first full season in 1996, the year he was setting up for Wetteland. Betances eclipsed that mark with 135 whiffs during his 2014 rookie season setting up for Robertson.

So what are the differences?

Rivera is likely headed to the National Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in the Class of 2019, having relied heavily on that one pitch, a nasty 95-mph cutter. Betances throws a four-seam fastball and mixes in a spiked curveball. At 6-foot-8, the current closer has an unfathomable 14.4 strikeouts per nine-inning ratio. That, of course, is only over the course of his first four full seasons. Rivera was never even close to that, striking out 8.2 per nine innings in his career.

Rivera's WHIP of 1.000 is the best of any reliever (minimum 1,000 innings pitched). But Betances' career WHIP is 0.962, a tad better than the 1.027 mark Rivera recorded in his first four full seasons in a relief role.

Now Betances has to seize the opportunity Rivera is talking about.

"He's been a setup man for a couple of years and has the ability to be the closer," Rivera said. "I mean, between he and I, we are two different pitchers. I didn't throw a breaking pitch or changeup or 100 mph like he does. But at the same time, we all want the same thing, and that's winning.

"I've talked to him a few times. I watch the games and if I see something wrong, I will let him know. But he has a tremendous opportunity. He has to make sure he takes advantage of it."

Rivera did just that, but he was surrounded throughout his career by great players, pitching for a team that went to the postseason 17 times in his 19 seasons. Betances takes over as closer for a team that's in serious transition and hasn't won a postseason game since 2012. Rivera took over as the man finishing games for a team that won three World Series in its next four seasons.

Rivera's heartfelt speech

"The closer thing for me was different because I did it after my first year," Rivera said. "I wasn't looking to be the closer. I was just happy to do the job I was doing, especially after the World Series. But [Betances] has to do it in the middle of the year.

"I think that's easier, because during the season, you're going to go right into it. But again, that's something he has to take advantage of."

Of course, there's no way to know how it all will play out for Betances. Rivera remained healthy throughout his career, though he tore the meniscus and ACL in his right knee shagging fly balls during batting practice at Kansas City after making only nine appearances in 2012. That was the year he originally intended to be his final season. Instead, Rivera returned in '13 to save 44 games, going out on his own terms at the top of his game.

A 43, Rivera never lost his vaunted control of the strike zone or his velocity. What was the secret of that longevity?

"It was no secret. First of all, the Lord gave me that great pitch," said Rivera, speaking about his trademark cutter. "No one taught me that pitch but him. And then, obviously, you have to take care of yourself. You have to be in condition, you have to be right, you have to rest. You have to do all the things you have to do to compete at the level that you want to compete."

The comparisons are all there. Now it's up to Betances to remain healthy and do the rest.

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.