By some metrics, Zack Britton was the Yankees’ most valuable reliever in 2019 after returning to the club in free agency. The veteran reliever underwent a minor transformation in his pitching style (as well as the spelling of his first name) and appears to have been better for it.
Re-upping in the Bronx
The Yankees kept Britton on a 2-4 year contract (more on that in What’s Next) with a $13 million AAV. They chose the former Orioles closer over homegrown favorite David Robertson and other relievers despite a rocky, at times, two-month stint in New York. Considering he was a reliever on the wrong side of 30 with an Achilles tear in the rearview mirror, Britton wasn’t the safest choice, but he ultimately proved the right one.
The sinkerballer finished just one point of ERA behind Adam Ottavino for the team lead, closing the season with a 1.91 ERA that far outpaced his 3.74 FIP. However, with a league-leading 77.2 percent groundball rate, he’s the type of pitcher than can consistently outperform that FIP, even if his 86.8 percent strand rate was slightly unsustainable.
While Aaron Boone was flexible with the roles for Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green and Ottavino, he left Britton mostly untouched as the eighth inning man ahead of Aroldis Chapman. He was his normal self in the first half — 2.43 ERA with a poor K-BB ratio buoyed by the aforementioned ton of groundballs — and navigated his way through a few blown saves for a fine start to the year.
Neither righties nor lefties hit him particularly well (.576 and .462 OPS, respectively) and all three home runs he allowed were off the bats of right-handed hitters. He was also demonstrably better at home for whatever reason, allowing just a .047 ISO in the Bronx.
Britton, though, didn’t settle for having a merely good season. With a key change in his repertoire, he turned in his best season since he was the best reliever in baseball in the mid-2010s.
Britton has generally run absurd rates of sinkers as a reliever. From 2014 through 2018, he threw the pitch more than 90 percent of the time. And it worked! The bowling-ball pitch with mid-90s velocity is devastating to hitters of all kinds and has made Britton an elite pitcher.
However, he hasn’t always been able to corral the pitch. Outside of 2014-16, his pre-Achilles injury days, he’s had walk problems with BB rates above nine percent. That got worse in 2019 with a 13.1 percent rate as he would have bouts with his command every other month.
To balance out his sinker, Britton turned to his slider more often as the season went on. (Brooks Baseball deems it a curveball, Statcast calls it a slider. It’s a good pitch regardless). It was a small change at first, but it turned into a big one; Batters went just 1-for-30 against his offspeed offering with a 61 percent whiff rate. In a small sample, he dominated.
(For more on the pitch, check out my in-depth article from September.)
As you can see in the chart below, he leaned on the offspeed pitch more than ever in 2019 and October especially.
Britton went from throwing it just 6.8 percent of the time in June to 19.7 percent in August to above 27 percent in both September and October. Hitters remained focused on his sinker, the right approach, and he made them pay with his new look.
Britton made seven appearances across the ALDS and ALCS, pitching in all but one game in each series. He only allowed one run — coming on a solo homer with a three-run lead in Game 3 of the ALDS. Over eight innings, he gave up just two hits but walked six and struck out six.
By the end of the ALCS, the southpaw was exhausted. He showed it by loading the bases in his Game 6 appearance without striking out anyone. “I think everyone was running on fumes there at the end,” he told Marc Carig, a rebuke to the Bombers’ reliever-heavy approach born out of necessity for the 2019 postseason run.
Britton has at least one year left on his 2-4 year deal signed last offseason. After the 2020 season, the Yankees will have to decide whether to pick up his 2022 option (worth $14 million) or give Britton the chance to opt-out immediately. Barring injury or a major regression in performance, expect the Yankees to pick up his option.
With Chapman back, Britton should settle in as the eighth-inning guy for another season. He just threw his most innings in three years at age-31 and has had issues with control ever since his Achilles injury. Can he maintain a sub-2.00 ERA? Maybe not, but his changes in 2019 portend well for 2020.