Yankees are keeping their eyes on promising young starter

jhony brito, yankees
Mar 19, 2022; Sarasota, Florida, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Jhony Brito (36) throws a pitch during the fifth inning against the Baltimore Orioles during spring training at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Pitchers and catchers have reported, and among that group will be some guys recently added to the 40-Man Roster this past winter. The Yankees traded a lot of their top pitching prospects in the past trade deadline, however, they still have some interesting names in the system. One of those talented young arms is RHP Jhony Brito, who possesses a diverse arsenal and strong command that has allowed him to flourish in the upper levels of MiLB. Despite lower strikeout rates, Brito posted a 2.96 ERA and 3.91 FIP across 23 starts at Double-A and Triple-A.

In a recent Fireside Yankees episode with Chris Kirschner of The Athletic, he revealed that Jhony Brito piqued Matt Blake’s interest.

“There are guys in Triple-A ready, Jhony Brito, Matt Blake mentioned Brito being someone that he was really intrigued with when he was at Carlos Rodón’s press conference”

– Chris Kirschner

The Yankees clearly have him on their radar, and there’s plenty of reason to be excited about what Brito could potentially be for this ball club in 2023.

Pitching to Contact

Jhony Brito’s best pitches are his sinking fastball and changeup, which allowed him to generate a GB% of 54.4% at Triple-A. Initially, a 10.1% K-BB% seems indicative of a poor season, but Brito had a 3.31 ERA in his time with the Scranton Railriders. His FIP and xFIP were both north of 4, anticipating regression next year. I believe Brito does need to improve his K-BB%, as while in Double-A, it was more than fine (16.2%), his walks increased and strikeouts decreased when he was promoted. That being said, he was able to suppress the BABIP of his opponents with a .272 BABIP across both levels of MiLB, explaining why he overperformed his peripherals.

Certain pitchers excel at maintaining low BABIPs, and while many will point to new shift rules hurting contact-centric arms, it’s important to note that shift restrictions existed in Double-A, where he had a .288 BABIP allowed, which had a league BABIP of .311. That ability to suppress BABIP is again due to a high groundball rate and low line drive rate allowed, which leads to plenty of batted balls with rather poor hit probabilities.

The Yankees love generating groundballs, ranking top 10 in GB% allowed and having some key names like Clay Holmes, Jonathan Loaisiga, and Wandy Peralta, who are groundball experts. The rotation seems to prioritize strikeouts a lot more, but Brito most likely isn’t a regular everyday SP for the Yankees in 2023. His immediate impact would be in generating soft contact and commanding the strike zone well, as it seems the inability to generate a lot of strikeouts will limit his ceiling going forward.

Contact-oriented arms typically don’t go out and win Cy Youngs, but based on his K-BB% and GB%, we can look at which arms profile similarly to Brito and find some comparisons at the MLB level. At a 12.6% K-BB% and 51.7% GB%, we set the ranges at a GB% between 50-55% and K-BB% between 12-15%. Minimum 100 IP, we found three guys who compared with Brito:

Marcus Stroman3.503.7614.6%51.7%3.58
Martin Perez2.893.2712.2%51.4%4.13
Justin Steele3.183.2014.8%51.2%3.70
(Projected ERA is from ZiPS)

We see three starters last year who fit the criteria previously mentioned, and all three of them had strong 2023 campaigns. It’s safe to say that in terms of K-BB% and GB%, Perez is the starter who mirrors Brito the most, especially considering both heavily utilize their sinker and changeup to get whiffs or soft contact. While Perez is the starter in this group with the worst projected ERA, he’s still proven to be a solid starter for the backend of any rotation for a decade. His league-adjusted ERA (also known as ERA-) isn’t extremely stable, and that’s because relying on BABIP can lead to some high peaks and steep valleys, if luck sides with you or not.

While Brito may be an expert at generating soft contact, if he wants to push himself into a rotation spot down the road and stick, he’ll have to figure out how to generate more swings and misses.

How Could the Yankees Help Brito’s Arsenal?

Jhony Brito already has a sinker that sits in the mid-90s and touches 97, and the changeup is a pitch that can get whiffs and soft contact as well, with a .209 xwOBA allowed on it last year. The issue is that he doesn’t boast a strong breaking ball that can consistently get whiffs, which is why he ran reverse splits in 2022. Not having a reliable offering with glove-side movement limits his ability to get strikeouts against righties, but there could be some hope here. His slider doesn’t get much sweep, being a gyro slider that relies more on vertical drop, but it’s severely lacking in velocity.

At 82.5 MPH, it looks a lot more like a curveball than a slider, and pitches that prioritize drop over sweep typically perform better against opposite-handed hitting. His curveball generates nearly 8″ of horizontal sweep at 79.8 MPH, but it seems that he just doesn’t have the right type of breaking pitch. His changeup clocks in at ~87 MPH and his fastball at ~95, so why is he having issues with breaking ball velocity? A curveball sitting in the high 70s and low 80s is fine, but a gyro slider with that little velocity isn’t going to cut it.

(Source: Driveline Baseball)

As we see here, the pitches that grade highest in Stuff+ at the same movement profiles are on the higher velocity graph for breaking pitches. Despite the fact that we pay more attention to velocity on a fastball, it doesn’t make it not important on a breaking ball. Brito having either a true hard gyro slider or a sweeper would go a long way in getting more strikeouts and, specifically in performing better against right-handed hitters.

This organization is great at developing pitching, and Jhony Brito was working in the Dominican Winter League as well, so we know he’s been throwing in game situations prior to pitchers and catchers reporting. Whether he’s developed his slider or not will remain to be seen, but it would definitely be a massive adjustment that could help Brito stick at the Big Leagues instead of being just a spot starter in his career. The Yankees are nursing injuries in the rotation, and while Domingo German and Clarke Schmidt are the likely fillers, the Yankees will need all the depth they can get.

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