Wednesday afternoon, Rockies reliever Rafael Betancourt worked the ninth inning of a game against the Dodgers. Betancourt is presently the Rockies' closer, and he wound up with both a blown save and a win. For our purposes, though, what we care about is that he faced seven batters, and didn't hit any of them.
Okay, so in isolation, that's hardly remarkable. In the same game, Dodgers reliever Jamey Wright faced seven batters, and didn't hit any of them. Drew Pomeranz faced 28 batters, and didn't hit any of them. Clayton Kershaw faced 30 batters, and didn't hit any of them. Hit-by-pitches are fairly common, but they're not so common that you look for them in every game. If a pitcher goes a game without hitting a batter, you don't come away talking about how he didn't hit a batter.
But with Betancourt, context matters. He was a big-league rookie in 2003 with the Indians, and in his tenth game, on August 3, he hit Marcus Thames in an 0-and-2 count. There's no publicly-available video as far as I can tell. And really, why would there be? So I'm left to guess. Maybe a slider got away from him. Maybe he tried to tie up Thames inside and just missed. Maybe Thames was hanging over the plate.
Whatever the case, on August 3, 2003, Rafael Betancourt hit his first batter in the major leagues. That's also the last batter he's hit in the major leagues. After Thames, Ramon Nivar drilled a first-pitch triple to chase Betancourt from the mound. That was the first batter after Thames that Betancourt didn't hit. Wednesday afternoon, Jerry Hairston Jr. was the 2,262nd batter after Thames that Betancourt didn't hit.
And that's excluding the playoffs. I don't know why it's customary to exclude the playoffs, but Betancourt has faced another 49 batters in the postseason without hitting any of them.
It won't surprise you to learn that this is the longest active hit-batter-less streak in baseball. The second-longest active streak belongs to Rangers reliever Mike Adams, and his streak is very long, but it's also about half as long as Betancourt's. It's been a very long time for Rafael Betancourt.
Just for the sake of adding a little color, Jay Sborz is a right-handed pitcher. On June 22, 2010, he made his major-league debut for the Tigers, and that's still the only big-league appearance of his career. He faced seven Mets in the bottom of the third inning, in relief of Justin Verlander. He hit the first two of them. It took five pitches for Jay Sborz to hit more batters than Rafael Betancourt has in his entire major-league career.
Betancourt's on a hell of a run. And I guess one could've seen something like this coming - in the minors, he only ever hit two guys, both in 2001. He faced 872 batters. Yet still, his minor-league hit-batter rate is more than five times higher than his major-league hit-batter rate.
If you want to get an idea of how Betancourt has managed to keep from hitting a batter for so long, here are his pitch locations against left-handed batters since 2008. The image comes from Texas Leaguers.
It's laughable. He pitches over the outer half, and ... that's it. Just for the sake of comparison, let's look at another righty reliever. This is going to be free association. Uh, Jamey Wright? Sure, let's look at Jamey Wright.
That's more like it. That's more normal. We expect right-handed pitchers to work left-handed batters outside. We don't expect them to be quite as fanatical about it as Rafael Betancourt. This is the furthest inside he's pitched a lefty since the start of 2011. Read that again. This is the furthest inside Rafael Betancourt has pitched a lefty since the start of 2011:
It's so not inside it's practically a strike. The batter swung. The most inside.
Of course, Betancourt isn't like that with righties. I'll let the location chart do the talking, before I resume talking:
You see more pitches over the inner half. Not a whole lot of them, but more of them. Betancourt isn't a complete stranger to the inner half against right-handed batters. He's kind of a familiar-looking stranger, or an acquaintance. A guy the inner half has seen a few times at the neighborhood bar.
Here's the furthest inside Betancourt has pitched a righty since the start of 2011:
The batter's Willie Bloomquist, and he flinches and turns out of the way. In that respect, this was a close call for Betancourt's streak. But it wasn't that close of a call, and this might've been the closest call. The camera's at an angle. Straight on, we'd probably see that the ball missed Bloomquist by a number of inches.
Not too many people really care about the hit-by-pitch statistic. It's completely ignored when talking about a hitter's strikeout-to-walk ratio, and it's completely ignored when talking about a pitcher's strikeout-to-walk ratio. A hit-by-pitch is essentially a one-pitch walk. It should count for something, and when it's ignored, you can end up with misleading ratios. That's not an issue with Rafael Betancourt. Whether you count hit-by-pitches or ignore hit-by-pitches, the numbers don't change, because he's got one hit-by-pitch. He's got zero hit-by-pitches since hitting Marcus Thames in August 2003. Rafael Betancourt's streak isn't the most incredible streak in baseball, but it's very quietly among them.