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Zach Britton’s strange, evolving, and promising 2018

The newest member of the Yankees bullpen has had a year worth examining.

Kansas City Royals v New York Yankees Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Zach Britton made his name by having one of the single greatest seasons by a relief pitcher in history. His 2016 saw him post an unthinkable 13 ERA-, and earned him a fourth place finish in the in Cy Young voting. Although not quite as good as the previous year, he followed it up with a strong 2017, albeit one where he suffered a forearm strain. After undergoing Achilles surgery earlier in 2018, he’s found himself working his way back to prominence, and the Yankees are betting on him finding his form down the stretch.

Is there anything we can glean from Britton’s limited 2018 action? There are some real concerns to be had, but there are also some spots for hope. The first red flag when looking at Britton’s season is the velocity drop. He’s always relied on a sinking fastball, and one of the things that made him so noteworthy in his 2016 campaign was just how hard he threw it.

Averaging 96.3 mph two years ago, and 96.1 mph last season, more than one major leaguer remarked that Britton’s sinker was like trying to hit a bowling ball. This Hardball Times piece does a good job of explaining why sinkers get pounded into the ground so much, but Britton’s added velocity meant hitters had almost no time to recognize the spin of a sinker and adjust for the drop over, say, a traditional four-seam.

This year, though, Britton’s at just 94 mph on his sinker. A drop like that is significant, especially when it’s a pitch he throws more than 90% of the time. For context, Jake Arrieta lost about a mile and a half off his fastball over two seasons, and it was enough to make a lot of teams run for cover during his 2018 free agency. Maybe you could argue that the velocity will return as Britton continues to shake off rust, but his pitch speed didn’t drop off noticeably last year when he actually injured his pitching arm.

Britton’s most recent body of work gives a lot of hope for the Yankees; it was probably the biggest factor in acquiring him. He hasn’t given up a run in a month, and is pushing a 70% groundball rate in his subsequent shutout appearances. That’s critical for a pitcher who doesn’t strike out many batters, and shows that despite the velocity drop, his sinker may still be effective.

There’s also a mental adjustment Britton will have to make. Pitching as a very traditional closer for the worst team in baseball meant that he didn’t have many chances to enter a game, and Buck Showalter is famously inflexible in regards to his bullpen use. To his credit, Britton’s shown he’s eager to pitch in any role available:

The Yankees have an obvious history of success with relievers, and that culture, in combination with another stretch run with a playoff contender, might bring out the best in Britton. The last time Baltimore was in playoff contention was Britton’s golden 2016, and he posted a 0.32 ERA and .415 OPS against in the second half of the season, in anticipation of what ended up being a laughable Wild Card loss.

With the Yankees, Britton’s going to be given the chance to continue his recent stretch of success, and is with perhaps the best organization in baseball for re-discovering strengths in the bullpen. If he can get his pitch velocity back up, he becomes as dangerous a weapon in relief as any of the Yankees.