It’s not difficult to see that building an overpowering bullpen is a key priority for the Yankee front office. It’s been going on for years and they’re very good at it. Nevertheless, the decision to re-sign Zack Britton to a Jake Arrieta-style contract in January (the contract can range from 2/$26m, 3/$39 or 4/$53 depending on various options) was met with some skepticism.
That skepticism was not unfounded: Britton was injured in both 2017 and 2018, including a complete tear of his Achilles. That’s scary, and on top of it, there were some red flags in his profile. The days of his unbelievable two-year stretch in 2015 and 2016 looked to be long behind him.
The Yankees, though, clearly did not share this view. They traded for him at the deadline and gave him a nice contract after the year. Britton has so far rewarded the Yanks and has been a key part of the 2019 bullpen’s success.
Next week will mark one calendar year since Britton returned from the Achilles injury, so it seems like an appropriate time to take a deep dive into his profile. Let’s take a look.
To start, let’s look at a basic overview of Britton’s long-term profile since he became a full-time reliever in 2014, looking at a few basic categories: innings pitched, ERA, FIP, K and BB rates, and soft/hard contact rates. That isn’t a tell-all, but it’s a good profile of a pitcher.
|IP||ERA||FIP||K%||BB%||Soft Contact%||Hard Contact%|
First of all: holy smokes, 2015 and 2016. The guy was just so, so good back then. But anyway, a few things immediately stand out.
To begin with, Britton really hasn’t been the Britton we saw in 2016. That’s not entirely surprising. He’s battled through some serious injuries, of course, but even beyond that, it’s nearly impossible to maintain production at that level. You just can’t expect a guy to be that good. It’s not fair.
More importantly, there are a few actual bad signs in there. Namely, his strikeout rate and walk rates both took a turn for the worse (fairly significantly in both cases) and his contact profile also got worse. He induced less soft contact and more hard contact. That’s not ideal by any means.
With that being said, though, Britton was rehabbing from a major injury last year and really looked like he was getting more comfortable as the year went on. (Plus, the actual results on the field were quite good.)
I think we’re seeing more of that this year: his strikeout percentage has improved 4 percentage points, settling back near 25%, and his walk rate is down 2 percentage points, near 10%. It does seem like Britton is missing more bats. That’s good, because there had been some worrying underlying data there. Hopefully, this a trend that can continue.
It’s worth pointing out that Britton’s contact profile remains fairly consistent from last season, but he’s still been effective. Given his trademark sinker (more on that in a moment), we can live with this. I actually think that we should be very encouraged by what we’ve seen from Britton so far.
Ground Ball Machine
You can’t talk about Britton without mentioning that the dude is just ridiculous at inducing ground balls. Possibly the best ever, at least in the modern game. Don’t believe me? Here is a list of Britton’s ground ball percentage from 2014-2019 with his league ranking in parentheses, as usual:
- 2014: 75.3% (1st, minimum 60 innings pitched)
- 2015: 79.1% (1st)
- 2016: 80% (1st)
- 2017: 72.6% (2nd)
- 2018: 73% (1st, minimum 40 IP)
- 2019: 74.6% (1st, minimum 20 IP)
That is: ridiculous. Britton’s sinker has certainly maintained its bite even through the injuries. When he’s on the mound, batters just pound the ball into the ground. There’s almost nothing you can do about it as a hitter. It’s just inevitable.
To really bring this into context, 257 pitchers have logged at least 300 innings since 2014 (I kept this threshold low to include relievers, who are significantly more likely to be one-pitch specialists and therefore more likely to be ground ball machines). These are the best 5 pitchers, among that group, at inducing ground balls over that period:
- Britton: 76.2%
- Brad Zeigler: 67.3%
- Sam Dyson: 64.0%
- Jared Hughes: 62.5%
- Dallas Keuchel: 60%
That sure is a significant drop-off. 9 whole percentage points, in fact, between Britton and the next closest. A 16 percentage point drop between Britton and number 5 in this list, Dallas Keuchel. One thing is clear: his ground ball skill is an elite ability. Not just elite, really. That undersells it. Britton is in a league of his own when it comes to getting grounders. Nobody else is even close.
Honestly, the fact that he’s never lost this skill is really encouraging to me. In the midst of the Launch Angle Revolution, getting batters to pound the ball into the ground is a real accomplishment, and it bodes well for his long-term success in the homer-happy AL East. Yankee Stadium in particular.
Illustrating that point is the fact that Britton just doesn’t allow home runs: including last night, Britton has only surrendered 7 home runs in the last four years. That’s it. His elite ground ball rate is why. The guy just never gets hit when that devastating sinker is in the bottom of the zone.
(As an aside, Vlad’s 3-run bomb off Britton was truly special, and Yankee fans looking to broaden their baseball horizons should really check out Friend of the Blog Drew Fairservice’s Newsletter on Vlad, called Vlad Religion. Last night’s had some nice notes about his home run.)
Finally, let’s take a look at Britton’s velocity over time. Unsurprisingly, Britton lost some velocity after his injuries. Here’s his average sinker velocity from 2014-2019, with his max velocity in parentheses:
- 2014: 96.21 (99.31)
- 2015: 97.02 (100.11)
- 2016: 97.44 (99.95)
- 2017: 96.36 (98.79)
- 2018: 95.02 (97.73)
- 2019: 95.15 (97.36)
He’s down about 2 miles-per-hour across the board there (even more so for his curve). Now, a 95 mph per sinker (topping out at 97) is still filthy, and harder than most guys can throw. It’s more than enough to be effective. It is just a step down from the otherworldly sinker he had a few years ago, which is still mind-boggling to me. Seriously, Britton was insane.
In any case, there is actually a positive trend here if you look close enough. Take a look at how Britton’s velocity and max velocity have looked month-by-month in 2019:
- March: 94.83 (96.02)
- April: 94.72 (96.49)
- May: 95.52 (97.36)
- June: 95.82 (96.79)
Trending up, which is nice. That’s consistent with his year-over-year data, too. Hopefully that continues throughout the summer. He might not *need* to throw any harder, but it sure wouldn’t hurt. It’s a bit too early to draw any conclusions from this, but I thought it was interesting. Something To Watch, for now.
To sum up, here’s what we see here. Despite a few worrying trends after returning from his injuries and joining New York last year, Britton has shown improvement in key areas, particularly his strikeout and walk rates. He has maintained his trademark ability to induce ground balls (in fact, it hasn’t gone away at all, and he remains the best in the league at it) and there may even be some signs that his velocity is increasing. That is all good. Very good.
Overall, I think at this point the Yankees should be very pleased with Zack Britton (about five minutes before writing this sentence, by the way, Britton surrendered that 3-run home run to Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who is officially A Problem). There were reasons to question his signing back in January, but if the early returns are any indication, the Yanks secured themselves a real weapon in their bullpen for the next several seasons.