Sinkerball extraordinaire Zack Britton was excellent in relief in 2020. Whether or not it’s his last season in pinstripes going forward is up in the air, though the Yankees would be much better with him than without him.
Still dominant, even without the strikeouts
Another season, another sub-2 ERA. A shortened year, sure, but a 1.89 ERA is nothing to sneeze at across 19 innings. Dating back to last season, the lefty has a 1.90 ERA in just over 80 frames, which is 10th-best in MLB. He’s not a FIP darling because of low strikeout totals, but it’s pretty safe to say that you can throw FIP out the window in Britton’s case. A 71.7 percent ground ball rate and no homers allowed made it pretty easy to forget about a below average 21.1 percent strikeout percentage.
League-wide strikeout rate was 23.4 percent in the regular season and even higher among relievers (24.1 percent). Britton used to be able to rack up Ks like that in Baltimore, particularly from 2014 through 2016 (27.1 percent). There are a number of possibilities for a lower strikeout rate, including age, injuries, and velocity decline. He still throws his sinker exceptionally hard (94.8 MPH), but that’s down from 96.9 MPH in 2016.
Although his sinker velo has dipped, he’s added drop to the pitch (intentionally or unintentionally). I guess the tradeoff has resulted in maintaining ridiculous groundball rates while losing whiffs.
It also helps that the grounders against Britton weren’t hit particularly hard this year. Overall, the 32 year-old lefty was in the 80th percentile in hard hit percentage and 87th percentile in expected batting average. That’ll do no matter how few opponents go down on strikes. And by the way, all of that isn’t to say that Britton can’t miss bats if he needs to. More on that in the next section. It’s just that the sinker is still absurdly effective and has allowed Britton to remain as one of the league’s best relievers.
Sticking with the slider
Last year, Steven wrote about how Britton’s slider became a weapon. Britton found his initial success as a reliever by spamming his sinker, which is still a great pitch in its own right, but the slider has unquestionably helped. It remained a key part of his arsenal this season.
Ever since late last summer, Britton’s roughly an 80/20 sinker/slider pitcher. And my goodness were those 20 percent magnificent in this short season. Some numbers:
|Pitch Type||%RHB / %LHB||AVG||SLG||xBA||xSLG||Whiff%|
|Sinker||84.1 / 66.1||.207||.276||.229||.322||21.1|
|Slider||15.9 / 33.9||.000||.000||.017||.036||64.3|
He was a bit more heavy with the slider against lefties, but it was still more than useful against right-handers.
Now, you might be wondering why he doesn’t throw it more often. I’ll counter with: does he really need to? His sinker is still excellent. No need to fix what isn’t already broken, even if he isn’t the high strikeout guy he once was. The slider certainly helps, but it’s not something he needs to throw, say, 30-40 percent of the time.
By early next week, we’ll know if Britton will be a free agent or not. The Yankees must decide to exercise or decline his 2022 (yes, 2022) option three days after the World Series ends. And if the team declines, Britton can then opt out of his contract and become a free agent immediately. He can also choose to stay through 2021.
Hopefully, Britton is back next season. Remember, this is a crew that won’t have Tommy Kahnle again next season and has uncertainty around Adam Ottavino’s viability. Losing Britton in addition to Kahnle would be pretty rough. With that in mind, the Yankees may not even risk putting the ball in Britton’s court.