Excited and relieved. Those were the first two words Alec Bettinger used to describe his reaction when the Milwaukee Brewers added him to its 40-man roster Nov. 20.
He also threw in the word anxious, but then backed off in search of a better adjective that captured his mood.
“Maybe shocked is the word,” Bettinger said.
All those feelings made sense.
The Brewers’ decision underscored how much they think of the Hylton High School graduate. Instead of possibly losing him to another team in the Rule 5 Draft, they protected him with the only other option available: placement on the 40-man roster.
The move earned him an invitation to big-league spring training and keeps him on track toward becoming a potential major-league starter for the only professional baseball organization he’s known.
Bettinger said he had no idea the Brewers might add him to the 40-man until his agent Tom Hagan let him know it was a possibility a few days before the deadline. The news surprised him.
Bettinger had performed well for Milwaukee since the organization selected him in the 10th round out of the University of Virginia in 2017. But well enough for the Brewers to factor him into their future plans even though he had yet to pitch above Double-A?
The answer was clearly yes for Bettinger and fellow right-hander Dylan File, who the Brewers also protected.
“These are two pitchers who are ready to pitch in the big leagues,” said Brewers president of baseball operations David Stearns. “They both have poise. They both can command the baseball. They can change speeds. To varying degrees they can change eye level. As we look forward to 2021, we see both of these pitchers as at least having the potential to help us at the big-league level.”
In preparation for spring training opening Feb. 17, Bettinger left Sunday for the Brewers’ camp in Arizona. Like all players reporting to spring training, Bettinger took a COVID-19 test upon arrival Monday in Arizona and then quarantined while waiting for the results.
Despite the challenges still facing baseball as it prepares for the 2021 season, Bettinger is comfortable with the health and safety protocols in place in response to the coronavirus.
“I think the league is doing what’s best for us and everyone involved,” Bettinger said.
Bettinger arrived at this point of his baseball career through persistence and adaptation.
Teaming with future big-leaguer Andre Scrubb as Hylton's starting pitchers, Bettinger showed promise early on. As a senior, he helped the Bulldogs reach the state quarterfinals senior season after winning five games and recording a team-high 74 strikeouts.
At Virginia, Bettinger filled in where needed as he alternated between starter and reliever. Bettinger entered his junior season hoping for selection in the 2016 MLB Draft. When that failed to happen, Bettinger remained his unflappable self and planned for another shot in 2017.
The Brewers kept tabs on Bettinger. But their interest rose after his final college season when he went 8-0 with a 2.43 ERA in 63 innings as a long reliever for the Cavaliers. Bettinger tied for sixth in the ACC in wins (8), third in opponent batting (.170) and fifth in ERA (2.43) in 2017. Five of his wins came in ACC play.
Bettinger had no idea what to expect going into the 2017 draft until the Brewers and the Angels reached out to him the eighth round with the same news. Both teams planned on selecting him in the 10th round if he was available.
When the 10th round came, Milwaukee, picking before Los Angeles, kept its word. As a senior, with no negotiating leverage, Bettinger signed for $10,000, a considerable drop from the slotted amount of $135,000. But Bettinger wasn’t concerned about his bonus. He only wanted a chance to compete at the next level.
“At the time, I had no thoughts on the team that drafted me,” Bettinger said. “I was just happy my name was called.”
In his first two seasons, Bettinger went 8-13 with ERA’s of 4.97, 3.73 and 6.91 at three different levels.
But in 2019, Bettinger, aided by the use of analytics, showed marked improvement. He led Double-A Biloxi in innings pitched (146.1) and strikeouts (157), increased his strikeout rate to 9.68 per nine innings and lowered his walk rate to 2.16. He was 5-7 overall with a 3.44 ERA in a Southern League-leading 26 starts. He finished second in the Southern League in innings pitched and strikeouts as well.
“I was thrown into the fire,” Bettinger said. “I did not expect Double A right away. I hoped to end there. People perform their best when they are thrown into a situation where you can’t think. You have to perform. That helped me get to this point.”
He entered 2020 as Milwaukee’s 20th ranked best prospect by Baseball America and was in line to start the season at Triple-A San Antonio before the pandemic cancelled the minor-league season.
Bettinger returned to Norfolk where he worked out with former UVA teammate Connor Jones and played in some informal games at nearby Memorial Stadium. The Brewers added Bettinger to their 60-man player pool in August, where he gained valuable experience facing big-league hitters at Milwaukee's alternate training site in Appleton. WI.
With a fastball that averages 89 to 93 miles per hour, Bettinger is not an overpowering pitcher. But he consistently strikes batters out with the way he uses his fastball as well as other pitches.
He possesses an effective curveball, his signature pitch from high school, while developing a slider that is harder and sharper than it was at Virginia. After never needing it in college, Bettinger has worked on a changeup, which Baseball America said is his best secondary pitch “with good sink and fade when it's on.”
Bettinger, ranked again as Milwaukee’s No. 20 prospect by Baseball America, is expected to begin the season in Triple-A, but could easily receive a major-league promotion with consistently good outings.
"Ultimately, we see [Bettinger and File] as starting pitchers,” Stearns said. "They've been built up at that level of pitching over their careers. But it's important for us, especially for pitchers, when we put you on the 40-man roster, you have to be able to pitch at the major-league level."
As he processes his future, Bettinger keeps everything in perspective without getting too far ahead of himself. While Milwaukee sees promise, Bettinger knows there is still work to do.
“Nothing is guaranteed,” Bettinger said. “It does provide an opportunity. But that’s all it does.”