Zack Britton remains a stable force [2020 Season Review]

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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 / %LHBAVGSLGxBAxSLGWhiff%
Sinker84.1 / 66.1.207.276.229.32221.1
Slider15.9 / 33.9.000.000.017.03664.3

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.

What’s next?

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.

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11 Comments

  1. MikeD

    Britton came up as a starting pitcher, converting to a reliever at the start of 2014. In his seven seasons as a reliever, he has a career ERA of 1.83, and an ERA+ of 231. He’s been crazy good. I mean crazy great over 369 games.

    I’ve previously compared Britton to Mariano. No, he’s not as great as Rivera, no one is, but there’s a similarity in both have a pitch that generates very weak contact. Mo’s cutter and Britton’s sinker. Neither pitch generates the high K rates of relievers, but in many ways both are way more effective. FIP doesn’t love them as much because FIP doesn’t appreciate weak contact or grounders, so it undervalues both, as does WAR. My point is like Mo, I believe Britton’s sinker will age well. He likely is still pitching effectively three or four years on. The Yankees may want to think about giving Britton a three-year deal but at a lower AAV.

  2. Terry Sciarrino

    I am always touched by how some fans are SO concerned about poor Hal’s money!

    • Fans are not concerned about Hal’s money. They are responding to his statement that the Yankees will keep payroll below the luxury tax threshold next season. IF this in fact happens, how would you adjust the roster?

      • chip56

        Correct. I don’t care about Hal’s money but Hal cares about Hal’s money and fantasizing about a world in which he doesn’t is silly.

  3. No way in H-E-Double Hockey Sticks should the Yankees walk away from this guy. Pick up that option NOW and lock him in to the bullpen for the next two seasons. If this postseason has shown anything, it’s that you need a DEEP and dominant bullpen to win in this era in the postseason. TB is only in this thing right now because of the number of arms they have in the bullpen that are shutdown. Britton is an elite reliever, and you will not be guaranteed to replace his production in key spots with internal options. If anything, the Yankees should be looking to ADD to the bullpen, not subtract.

    We’ve seen this story before – you CANNOT go into a playoff with 2 or 3 viable, trust-worthy arms to get key outs. You could argue that the reason why the Yankees lost to TB is because our depth relievers (Loaisiga, Holder, Ottavino) were not nearly as effective as TB’s (Thompson, Yarbrough, Drake). Thinning out the back end of the bullpen has a ripple effect that damages the whole bullpen strategy.

  4. chip56

    Yankees should walk away from Britton.

    In an offseason where the team is going to be squeezed for funds, paying Britton $13m this year (and $14m the next) is a luxury they cannot afford.

    This organization is supposed to be deep with high end arms, use them as relievers or explore the trade market.

    Britton should be allowed to walk and Ottavino should be traded for whatever salary relief the Yankees can get for him.

    • Iron Mike

      I am glad you’re not the GM because these are two terrible suggestions. Otto has zero trade value and a huge contract and is a great comeback candidate. Britton is their best reliever

      • I agree, the Yanks should exercise Britton’s option. I would also see if another team (like the Mets) would trade for Ottavino — his $9M could be used to address the team’s most pressing need, another starting pitcher. But we’d need to get a quality player in return, like Dominic Smith.

        • S

          lol, cmon. Ottavino is gonna be 35, owed 9 million, and had a 5.89 ERA this year. He has negative trade value

      • chip56

        Otto was trash last year. He’s not a great comeback candidate because the 3 batter minimum kills him as a guy who can’t pitch to left handed batters. He needs to be gone.

      • chip56

        Also, Britton was their best reliever in large part because of how bad their relievers were last year.

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