With all the news surrounding the Yankees‘ heavy pursuit of Josh Hader, it makes one ask what Cashman envisions for this bullpen come 2020. It seems as if his vision for the bullpen is a literal demolition crew that can dismantle opponents’ for as many innings as called upon. I personally refer to it as “The Pinstripe Pen of Doom” and I believe that the Yankees bullpen in 2020 can AND will be better than it was in 2019. Even with the loss of Dellin Betances, and even if the Yankees don’t end up acquiring Hader, this bullpen is full of dynamite from top to bottom. I previously did an article on one of the most overlooked arms across the league, Tommy Kahnle, but for this piece, I’d like to discuss the most consistent arm in the pen — Zack Britton.
Yankees: Britton’s Peripherals
When the Yankees acquired Zack Britton, he was coming off an injury that saw him lose a fair bit of his “oomph” — he tore his Achilles prior to the 2018 season, and ultimately led to him being shipped out of Baltimore for Dillon Tate, Josh Rogers, and Cody Carroll. While at the time, there were questions about his health and declining peripherals (FIP sat at 3.40 the season prior and a FIP of 4.44 with BAL in 2018 before being traded, compared to never having one over 3.30 the four seasons before that) there was a strong agreement that the Yankees had taken advantage of Buck Showalter’s floundering Orioles team, and that the Yankees saw them smashing the panic button — and took advantage of that.
Zack with a “K” as he is now referred to, went on to perform much better with the Yankees to finish off the 2018 season, and his 2019 season was another step toward that once elite arm that was shown from 2014-2016. His time with the Yankees in 2018 saw him post a 4.08 FIP (4.44 FIP with BAL), a 4.0 BB/9 (5.7 with BAL), and also a WHIP of 1.16 (1.34 with BAL). For Britton, and the Yankees, that was exactly what they were both hoping for. Zack needed a fresh start and likely needed more time to rehab that torn Achilles, but when he was thrown into pitching for Baltimore, across those 15.0 IP, as mentioned he struggled. He was unable to find his rhythm and got hit around far more than he had any of the year before. It was as if he had been figured out, and that his once lethal 98 MPH sinker was a now, very hittable pitch.
For sinkerball pitchers, like Britton, Corey Kluber, Lance Lynn, and many others, it is crucial that the ball gets just enough drop on it to where it is able to drop out of the strike zone and fool hitters into swinging at pitches out of the zone. Britton, from 2015-2016 especially, excelled at doing this as it led to a cumulative 37.9% O-Swing % (Outside the Zone Swing %) and a 42.6% O-Contact % (Outside the Zone Contact %) across those two years. The following year he posted a 31.8% O-Swing % and in 2018 it dipped below 30% (29.1%). As for the O-Contact % it skyrocketed to 57.1% in ’17 and dropped back down to 48.8% the following season. Now, below is a table of his %’s from the 2019 season, and forewarning — they may not look nearly as great as his previous years, and at first glance, they appear to be as bad as his 2018 season: (info via Fangraphs).
|Hard Hit %||Soft Hit %||O-Swing %||O-Contact %||Z-Swing %||Groundball %|
Now looking at Britton’s numbers from 2019, compared specifically to 2018, his O-Swing % was back above 30%, and his O-Contact % also jumped up from 48.8% to 61.8%. However, using that and adding in the Groundball %, it shows that Britton evolved and transformed himself into one of the best GB pitchers in the league. His 77.2% Groundball % was the highest of his career, and the 59.4% Z-Swing% was the lowest of his career. What that says to me is that whenever he hit the zone, opposing hitters would either not swing at the pitch because they anticipated it to be out of the zone, or that opposing hitters just couldn’t figure out what the pitch was coming out of his glove. One of the most difficult — if not THE most difficult — thing in baseball is to be able to guess the pitch, sit on it, and square it up. For opposing hitters that faced Britton in 2019, despite their higher swing % and contact %, they were far more likely to swing at stuff out of the zone, than in it. For Britton, that means that his slider and sinker were doing their jobs and that he was able to have players lunging or swinging at pitches out of the zone far more often, thus leading to more groundballs.
The Ability to Adapt and Overcome
For Zack Britton, who was once elite, with swing and miss rates that were amongst the top in all of baseball — his 2016 season specifically was one of the greatest seasons by a Closer ever — he has now changed himself to induce softer contact and induce far more ground balls than he had in years past. While Britton won’t light up the stat sheet with strikeouts, what he does exceptionally well is limit damage and not allow runners to cross the plate. His LoB % (Left on Base %) was 86.8%, which was good for the second-highest over the course of his entire career, only behind that incredible 2016 season where he had a 89.7% LoB %. To me that says that while he may be allowing people to get on base a bit more, ultimately, he doesn’t let them score.
Any relief pitcher knows that their job isn’t to strike out batters in a flurry and that it isn’t their job to post a K/9 in the double digits, but instead to limit damage and keep the games close. Britton did just that. For Britton, I expect that he will be the 6th/7th inning guy coming into 2020, and should be used accordingly. I don’t think he possesses that same ability or talent he had a few years ago, but I do think that he will be an extremely valuable player going forward. In Medium Leverage Situations specifically — which would be, using the Leverage Index provided by Fangraphs, .85-2.0 in terms of Leverage Index rating (anything above 1.0 is above average) — Britton shined. Across 25.1 IP in Medium Leverage Situations, he posted a 3.14 FIP, a 12.25 GB/FB ratio to pair with an 81.7% GB Rate, and only allowed 26.7% of the balls to be justified as Hard Hit balls. What that equated to was an opponent OPS of .396. That number alone is staggering, and assuming Boone and the rest of the Yankees staff use him during those situations, which was statistically by far his best situational usage, he will be a massive weapon out of the pen.
Look for Britton to continue to take steps forward this upcoming season, and while the discrepancy between his ERA and FIP (1.91 to 3.74) may seem a bit alarming, there should be no signs for worry going forward. Zack with a “K” should be firing on all cylinders, and don’t be surprised if the ERA and FIP are closer together this next year, at hopefully around 2.50 each.