Yankees’ dark horse pitcher gearing up for huge audition

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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

The Yankees have had a slew of injuries, and Jhony Brito now steps up to try to take advantage of this opportunity. While the Yankees envisioned that Brito would make some appearances in 2023, they never imagined it would come so early on. It’s not as if he doesn’t deserve the opportunity, Brito is coming off of a 2022 campaign where he posted a 2.96 ERA across the Double-A and Triple-A levels. However, this is his biggest test. He’ll be tasked with taking the mound in a rubber game against the San Francisco Giants as the Yankees hope to grab their first series win of the season.

With the likes of Carlos Rodón returning shortly, Clarke Schmidt struggling to handle a larger workload, and question marks in the rotation, Brito has a prime opportunity to clutch onto a rotation spot. It’s going to take more than one good start, but Brito’s in a position to impress the organization mightily in his first MLB start.

Displaying Impressive Arsenal in Spring Training

Jhony Brito was averaging 95.6 MPH on his sinker, up from 94.5 MPH in 2022, and that improved the shape on said sinker dramatically. Being known as a command-first guy with middling stuff, Brito’s sinker stands out with a 107.0 Stuff+ on the pitch and 17.7 inches of horizontal break during Spring Training. While he could reduce his mileage in starts where he’ll be asked to throw more and deeper into games, it should be noted that he sat at 96.5 MPH on his sinker in his outing against the Blue Jays where he tossed 5.1 innings of perfect baseball. ‘

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Feb 26, 2023; Dunedin, Florida, USA; New York Yankees pitcher Jhony Brito (76) throws a pitch in the first inning against the Toronto Blue Jays at TD Ballpark. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

The improved velocity on his sinker and four-seam fastball also allows for his secondary offerings to play better off of his fastballs. Brito’s best pitch is his changeup, which generates soft contact alongside swings and misses, and the Yankees could see the effectiveness of that pitch improve as his fastballs improve. His changeup grades out poorly in Stuff+ (91.7), but changeups tend to perform poorly in the model and take a larger sample size to stabilize than fastballs do. He’s also improved the velocity of his curveball, adding 2.2 MPH to it and generating a Called Strike + Whiff% of 58.8% in Spring Training.

While result-oriented metrics are largely irrelevant to regular-season success, we can draw meaningful conclusions from these gains in velocity. Velocity and Stuff+ can stabilize rather quickly, and Brito’s displayed that he has more life in his arm than initially perceived. His overall Stuff+ of just 97.4 seems underwhelming, but when you realize that his most frequently used pitch was his changeup, you begin to understand why he has “below-average” stuff. We know his changeup is a plus pitch, and we can see that his four-seam fastball is his only below-average offering in Stuff+, which would indicate that he has above-average pitches to work with here.

On top of the improved shapes to some of his pitches, we also see elite-level command, and while we had too small of a sample size to utilize Location+, he did finish with a 111.1. Among pitchers with at least 100 pitches thrown in Spring Training, Brito finished 5th in Location+ and 14th in Pitching+, indicating that his command is his best skill. Brito’s walked under 6% of batters faced at the MiLB level since 2021, and while we again can’t use Location+ as a metric to draw conclusions on with such a small sample size, it does track with what we’ve seen in the past.

Brito seemingly has the previous success at the MiLB level, the strong Spring Training, and the pitches to succeed at the MLB level, but can we trust a rookie to get the job done in the regular season?

The Last Rookie to Make the Opening Day Rotation

While the Yankees haven’t seen Jordan Montgomery on the mound for them since July 2022, many fans remember his 2017 rookie campaign. He’s the last rookie starter to break camp with the team in the rotation, and while his spot was a lot more permanent than Brito’s, they profile as extremely similar prospects coming up through the system. Montgomery was a year younger in his MLB debut at 24, but if we look at their previous two seasons at the Minor League level prior to their debuts, we see plenty of similarities

PlayerERAK-BB%BABIPWHIP
J. Brito3.2616.2%.2851.13
J. Montgomery2.5316.4%.2991.17

Montgomery has a clear edge in run prevention, though it’s possible that Brito played in higher-scoring run environments, but when we evaluate the “under-the-hood” metrics, we see similar strikeout to walk rates, similar WHIPs, and Brito edging Montgomery out in BABIP suppression. These are extremely similar pitchers who relied on their ability to control the strike zone and generate soft contact, except Brito likely flashes better stuff than Montgomery did at the time. The Yankees have an excellent defensive lineup, and that lineup can play to Brito’s strength of generating groundballs.

We mentioned earlier how the Stuff+ on his sinker was strong, and his 54.4% groundball rate at Triple-A last season is extremely encouraging for suppressing BABIP. He’ll be able to trust his defense to get him outs, and if he needs to get the occasional swing-and-miss, he certainly can. Jordan Montgomery finished his 2017 season with a 3.88 ERA and 4.07 FIP in 29 starts, and while I don’t anticipate Brito making 29 starts unless he really impresses early on, I definitely can see a 3.88 ERA and 4.07 FIP for Brito or even better.

Mar 5, 2020; Lakeland, Florida, USA; New York Yankees starting pitcher Jordan Montgomery (47) walks back to the dugout after being removed from the game in the fourth inning against the New York Yankees at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

If Brito is able to maintain a groundball rate of at least 45% and a K-BB% of 16%, he’s pretty likely to have a lot of MLB success. Among starters who tossed at least 100 innings in 2022, 22 of them finished with a K-BB% of at least 16% and a GB% of at least 45%, and of those 22 starters, only two of them finished with an ERA above 4.00, Frankie Montas and Alex Wood. Among this group are guys like Sandy Alcantara, Clayton Kershaw, Max Fried, and Zac Gallen, but we obviously know Brito isn’t pitching at the level of these Cy Young-caliber arms.

What you’re looking at for a good but realistic outcome would be a Jordan Montgomery or Alex Cobb type, as both keep remarkably low walk rates coupled with excellent groundball rates. The Yankees could see Brito evolve into that level of a starter if the command is truly there, though that’s risky business. Stuff-first pitchers can miss their spots and still get whiffs, command-first arms have to hit their spots or else they get punished pretty quickly, and while Brito again does have plus-pitches, he doesn’t have elite-level stuff.

It’s going to rely on a lot of poise and feel, but if Brito is able to command the strike zone today and in his next starts, he could find a permanent spot in this rotation. He’s battling German and Schmidt, who are talented pitchers in their own right, but certainly aren’t unbeatable. With some free agents hitting the market after 2023 in the rotation on top of that, this debut is huge for Brito’s long-term future in pinstripes. A strong 2023 even in a reduced role, could earn him a rotation spot in 2023, and Brito aims to become one of the few mainstays in the Yankees’ rotation that Brian Cashman drafted/signed himself.

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Oct 19, 2022; Houston, Texas, USA; New York Yankees general manager Brian Cashman looks on during batting practice before game one of the ALCS for the 2022 MLB Playoffs against the Houston Astros at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a whole new philosophy for these Yankees as they hand the ball and bat to rookies and in-house talent to see what they’ve got. It’s a nice change of pace from the reluctance in the past to trust the talent they’ve raved so much about, but the Yankees are trying new things. Jhony Brito hopes to have a big start for the Yankees today, as he’s got plenty he can prove in a small amount of time, not just to Aaron Boone or the organization but to a fanbase anxious to see this next wave of young talent.

It’s going to take some hard sinkers, well-executed changeups, and some solid breaking pitches to get Brito through a tough assignment against a left-handed lineup, but there’s no reason to believe he’s not capable of rising to the occasion. It’s his MLB debut, and expectations should be tempered, but Jhony Brito has a real chance to set the bar high and put the Yankees in a good spot with their rotation depth.