Zach Britton, erstwhile closer for the Baltimore Orioles, is now officially a Yankee. He came at the price of three prospect arms - Dillon Tate, Cody Carroll, and Josh Rogers. Brett covered the deal yesterday, concluding that the Yankees did well to acquire Britton at the cost that they did. In this article, I’ll take a deeper dive into Britton’s numbers to see if they support Brett’s conclusion.
First, a quick review of Britton’s career. While Britton is currently regarded as one of the best relievers in the game, his journey to this point has been far from smooth. Like many relievers, Britton was a failed starter. Though touted as a prospect, Britton failed to live up to expectations, failing to post an ERA under 4.61 in any of his three seasons as a starter.
In 2014, the Orioles converted Britton into a full-time reliever, and his career took off. That year, he posted a 1.65 ERA and a 3.13 FIP in 76.1 innings, saving 37 games. For an encore, Britton improved his K/9 by more than three whole points and lowered his FIP to 2.01 in 2015.
However, Britton’s most impressive season came in 2016, when he recorded an ERA of 0.54 over 67.0 innings. Though that 2016 campaign ended on a sour note, when Britton was left on the bench in favor of Ubaldo Jimenez in the Wild Card game against the Blue Jays, it was still the pinnacle of an incredible three-year run.
Compared to 2014-2016, the last two years have not been as kind to Britton. In 2017, he endured multiple stints on the disabled list with forearm problems, missing nearly half of the season. While Britton’s results were still solid when he did pitch (2.89 ERA), his strikeout and walk rates worsened dramatically.
As if that wasn’t worrying enough, Britton suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon in the 2017-18 offseason. So far this season, Britton has at least been able to pitch, but his numbers are a far cry from his prime (3.45 ERA, 4.43 FIP). It’s safe to say that Britton has seen better days.
Can Britton recapture his past form? The numbers aren’t exactly encouraging. Chief among the red flags is the decline of Britton’s velocity, particularly his signature sinker.
What fueled Britton’s emergence as a relief weapon was his devastating sinker. Though Britton always had a sinker even as a mediocre starting pitcher, his transition to the bullpen prompted him to throw it in the mid-to-late 90s instead of 91-93. The added velocity allowed Britton to use the pitch to generate both grounders and whiffs, a terrifying combo.
However, Britton’s sinker is losing its zip. Between 2016 and 2017, it’s average velocity went from 97.4 to 96.3 MPH, dropping by more than a full point. The likely culprit for this decrease in zip is Britton’s aforementioned forearm troubles in 2017. Concurrently, Britton’s K/9 fell from 9.94 in 2016 to 6.99 in 2017.
This year, Britton’s sinker is averaging 94.6 MPH, which is the slowest it’s been since 2014. This is especially worrying when one considers the ruptured Achilles’ tendon which Britton suffered prior to the season. While his K/9 has actually seen a slight uptick (7.47), it’s still nowhere near where it used to be. There is a real chance that Britton’s velocity is gone, and with it the strikeout abilities which he previously had.
However, all is not lost with Britton and his sinker. Even with a slower sinker, Britton is still able to generate ground balls at an elite clip, as evidenced by his 64.1% ground ball rate in 2018 so far. While that mark, too, pales in comparison to Britton’s 2016 peak (80.0%), it’s still a very high mark relative to the rest of the league.
Britton’s profile as an extreme ground ball pitcher has also allowed him to keep the ball in the park much more effectively than his peers. That also still holds true in 2018, even with his diminished velocity. Britton’s HR/9 this year is a minuscule 0.57, which is even more impressive when you consider both the park and the division which he plays in.
In sum, Britton is neither at his prime nor completely washed up. His velocity may be gone forever, and with it his previous high strikeout rates. However, his ground ball-generating and homer-suppressing skills are still intact. It remains to be seen how well the overall package still works, which is why I’m reluctant to endorse this trade as strongly as Brett did. Britton isn’t without merit, but he comes with real risk - which is why he came at the price that he did. It was a smart deal, but it’s in no way the no-brainer that Britton’s name value makes it feel like.
All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.com.