Rockies hope Bettis can develop into rotation mainstay
Rookie, who faced Braves in debut, is working on command of 96-mph fastball
PITTSBURGH -- The Rockies aren't exactly easing right-hander Chad Bettis into Major League play and responsibility.
In his big league debut on Thursday, Bettis faced one of baseball's hottest teams, the Braves. His next start will be on a big stage against the Mets at Citi Field on Tuesday, after Tyler Chatwood was scratched with left hamstring tightness. Bettis was originally slated to start Wednesday.
"I like challenges," said Bettis, 24, the Rockies' second-round Draft pick in 2010 out of Texas Tech. "It's who I've always been. I feel like this is a huge learning experience for me, facing the Braves and then going up to New York. I can learn a lot from these two starts and apply it to my third one."
The Rockies are making sure to give him every chance to prove he is the fifth starter they've been seeking.
They tried out veterans Jon Garland, Jeff Francis and Roy Oswalt. Only Oswalt remains on the Major League roster, and he is out indefinitely with a left hamstring strain. Callups Drew Pomeranz and Collin McHugh pitched themselves out of their opportunities.
Bettis could become a significant Rockies pitching figure should he succeed.
The club is moving toward young power pitchers, having put right-hander Juan Nicasio on the fast track a couple of years ago and making Tyler Chatwood, an acquisition from the Angels before last season, a key rotation figure. Nicasio hasn't shown the consistency the Rockies believe he will. But guys who throw in the mid 90s and faster, like Bettis, are clearly in favor these days.
In addition, the development program could use the boost that would come from Bettis performing well. There hasn't been a drafted collegiate pitcher succeed over a period of time since Francis debuted in 2004; by 2007, he was starting Game 1 of the World Series. The only other collegiate Draft pick who shows up in significant career statistical categories is Jason Jennings, No. 1 in 1999.
Bettis is the only former collegiate pitcher in the rotation and one of just four on the roster. Relievers Rex Brothers, Adam Ottavino and Josh Outman are the others, and Ottavino and Outman came from other organizations.
But Bettis, with a 96-mph fastball and a changeup that has worked at the Minor League level, has offered plenty of evidence that he could go a long way toward reversing the trend.
Before last season, there was talk that the Rockies could move Bettis to the Majors as a reliever, with an eye toward making him the future closer. After all, he earned 17 saves over his last two seasons at Texas Tech, as he went back and forth between starting and relief roles. But Bettis suffered a shoulder strain last spring that simply refused to heal, and he missed the entire season.
Bettis returned healthy this spring, but any plan to make him a reliever was scrapped. The Rockies determined that Bettis needed to go to Double-A Tulsa and pitch, and throwing a high volume of pitches every fifth game, plus working on his craft between starts, was the best way. Bettis went 3-4 with a 3.71 ERA in 12 starts. His stint included lost time because of an oblique injury. Bettis struck out 68 and walked just 13, with 1.5 groundballs for each fly ball.
Rockies assistant pitching coach Bo McLaughlin, who was the Minor League pitching coordinator and worked with Bettis in 2010 and '11, said Bettis' versatility in college worked in his favor.
"He would start on weekends, then pitch [relief] in between starts, and he developed a little faster because of that reason," McLaughlin said. "A lot of the younger guys take longer to go from a seven-day rotation to a five-man rotation, so he adapted a lot sooner to the professional game."
The test for Bettis will be how he completes his development.
Bettis has an effective slider and changeup -- although McLaughlin said the Rockies want more speed difference between the fastball and change -- but doesn't always put his 96-mph fastball where he wants it.
In the first inning of his debut, Bettis walked Braves leadoff man Jason Heyward. He wanted his 1-1 fastball to the next hitter, Justin Upton, to back him off the plate. Instead, it stayed on the inner half -- right where Upton loves it. Just like that, Bettis trailed, 2-0, as Upton mashed a homer to center.
"The stuff is intact; the pitches we don't worry about," said Bill Geivett, the Rockies' senior vice president of Major League operations. "The command of them is what he needs to show to be effective."
Bettis gave up five runs, five hits and five walks in five innings of the Rockies' 11-2 loss to the Braves. He battled nerves in the early going and his command was on and off. But other than a hanging curveball to Heyward later in his outing -- which Heyward knocked over the right-field wall -- Bettis' aggressiveness helped him limit the damage.
"Pretty hard," he said when asked how difficult it is to not evaluate based on the numbers. "But what it comes down to is two mistake pitches. If I make better-quality pitches to Upton and Heyward, it could've been a different outcome to the game."
While at Tulsa, he listened as Oswalt, who went to Tulsa after signing with the team in May, discussed with the younger pitchers the value of not being tied to conventional pitching plans. Bettis was already experimenting with different ways to attack hitters.
"You have to come to the field every day willing to learn something. If you can't will yourself to learn something, it's a really bad day. Just sitting down here the last couple days talking to Roy, talking to Chatty about pitch sequence and stuff like that, you learn a lot quickly."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his blog, Hardball in the Rockies, and follow him on Twitter @harding_at_mlb. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.