Zack Britton, as you have likely seen by now, will have surgery today and miss the start of the season. It is the first major blow to the Yankees in 2021 in terms of injury, even if it could have been much worse. (When you hear elbow, you immediately think Tommy John.) Still, it’s not what you want.
Anyway, this will have a number of impacts on the Yankees and I have some thoughts about all of that. Let’s get to them.
1. Missing Britton’s Performance: The Yanks will miss Britton. He is sometimes frustrating due to his high walk rates (13% in 2019, 9% in 2020), but the man has been an integral piece of the Yankee bullpen since he joined the team at the 2018 deadline. Britton owns a 2.14 ERA (3.62 FIP) with a 76.3% ground ball rate in 105 innings pitched in pinstripes, with an average exit velocity of just 87 miles-per-hour. This combination means he gives up almost no home runs (0.43 per 9 innings pitched) and limits the damage opposing batters can do against him: they hit just .182, with a .226 BABIP. That is elite performance. Britton has been all you could have asked for and more.
All of this is to say that Britton is a key cog in the dominant Yankee bullpen machine. He also brings a unique look, throwing 85% sinkers – the next closest Yankee regular over this stretch is Jordan Montgomery at 15% – and just 0.5% straight fastballs, the lowest on the team. While he still brings the heat and is by no means a junkballer, Britton is a new, different look every time he comes out of the pen. It will not be easy to replace his performance.
Now, the good news is that he will only be out a couple of months, barring no setbacks. It’s not clear when he will return – estimates vary, and the team didn’t say – but the New York Post says he will be shut down six to eight weeks. That puts us at a June return if all goes well. The good news is that this is a straightforward surgery. Gio Urshela just had it in December, after all, and he is fine now.
Still, the Yanks can and should play it safe. Britton just recently recovered from COVID and these are the best months to miss, if you have to miss any at all. It sucks, and the bullpen will suffer, but the Yankees can weather his absence for two-and-half months. The most important thing will be getting him back to full health and strength before the stretch run and postseason. That is really what’s most important here.
2. Filling His Role: This all significantly changes the makeup of the bullpen, doesn’t it? It also makes the late-offseason additions of Justin Wilson and Darren O’Day seem that much smarter. Pitching depth: folks, you can never have too much of it. Anyway, there is a new bullpen competition at the end of the ‘pen now. What was once a one-slot competition is now a two-slot competition. Derek covered this all the other day, so check out his in-depth breakdown for more on this race.
Who wins the slot is very much up for debate and ultimately of very little consequence. The Yankees very obviously operate the Scranton (or Alternate Site) Shuttle throughout the season. That’s how this works. The last man in the pen is expendable, throwing several innings at a time in low-leverage situations, and then gets sent down so someone else can fill that slot while they recover. That last slot will likely be filled by someone like Nick Nelson or Brooks Kriske or an NRI like Adam Warren or Addison Russ. Like Derek, I like Nelson best – while the Yanks seem to trust Kriske’s stuff – but who knows what they do. And ultimately it doesn’t matter. They’ll just keep rotating this slot anyway.
The more interesting question is what happens with the new opening. As you have seen by now, Lucas Luetge is the new talk of the town. He’s been a MiLB journeyman the last few years, but caught the eye of Yankees Assistant GM Michael Fishman. According to Joel Sherman, Fishman pursued him each of the last two years. The Yanks were enticed by his MiLB spin rates, which Fishman said are “swing-and-miss pitches.” We can see Spring Training Statcast data now, and it backs this observation up. Here are his spin rates so far, with last year’s MLB average in parentheses:
- Fastball: 2,770 RPM (2,306)
- Curveball: 2,866 RPM (2,532)
- Slider: 2,801 RPM (2,441)
That is no joke. His Grapefruit League stats are backing it up, too, though I won’t list those here. (As the old adage goes, Spring Training stats are fake unless they show that your team is going to win the World Series or have a breakout star. I try to avoid this.) He’s doing what he can to make the team, though. That’s for sure.
The more interesting thing to me is that the Yankees have had their eye on Luetge for a while due to his under-the-hood performance indicators. Now, he’s in camp, having success, his spin rates are off the charts good, and there is an additional open slot on the roster now. That is a good combination for Luetge and my guess is that he breaks camp with the team. Spin rates and Grapefruit League stats only tell you so much. How he performs in the Bronx will be a different story altogether, but we’ll probably get to find out.
3. Loaisiga Stepping Up: Alright, so this was inevitable. You knew I wasn’t going to write a whole post on the bullpen without bringing up Jonathan Loaisiga. It just wasn’t possible. My darling – a case study in “spin rates are not everything” to be fair – is once again going to take on a more important role due to injury. When one guy goes down in the bullpen, everyone else shoots up in importance.
Now, he’ll still rank behind Chapman, O’Day, Green, and Wilson, but Loaisiga is probably 5th on the bullpen depth chart now. Given the way that the Yankees manage the pen, it’s a safe bet he’ll see some medium-to-high leverage innings on a consistent basis. He had an up-and-down 2020, with a rough postseason, but the biggest issue with Loaisiga (aside from health) is command. He made big strides in this regard last year, cutting his walk rate from a sky-high 11 percent to an above-average 7 percent. Obviously, 2020 is a tough one to evaluate given the samples…but that gives me hope.
As the resident Loaisiga Believer, I have full confidence in him. I really do believe that consistent one-inning bursts are the best way to unlock his potential in the pen. It will hopefully help him be more aggressive with his fastball up in the zone and help him strategically unleash his curve. Our man Loaisiga stepping up in the first few months of the season would go a long way toward filling the Zack Britton sized hole in the pen.
4. The Bullpen Could Be Deeper: Finally, this did not have to be so. I am still frustrated that the Yankees salary dumped Adam Ottavino. I know that he was not great in 2020 and was unusable in both the 2019 and 2020 postseasons, but come on. They could have the same bullpen they have right now while banking on the ever-talented Adam Ottavino to rediscover his 2019 wizardry. (It’s not like 2019 was a total aberration, either.) There is no need to beat a dead horse here, really, but it is worth bringing up.
Maybe Ottavino truly is cooked and he is not the same guy the Yankees signed in 2018. That is certainly possible, and the Yankees would know better than me. But it certainly feels like they cut down on elite bullpen depth and talent simply to save some cash. They could have added both O’Day and Wilson while also keeping Ottavino. The team made a choice not to do so. That is annoying, and Britton’s injury shows why.