The Yankees’ first big move this season was trading for Zach Britton. They were obviously going to be a win-now team at the deadline, and they kicked off a series of acquisitions designed to boost their 2018 playoff odds by bringing in the left-handed relief ace. Britton was supposed to add another scary element to an already terrifying bullpen.
That did not materialize immediately. Britton was on the shelf for the first several weeks of the season, and he didn’t look like himself in his first few appearances with the Orioles. He was pitching somewhat better in the days leading up to his move to New York, but upon arriving in the Bronx, Britton continued to struggle.
Over his first month in pinstripes, Britton tossed 13 innings with a 4.85 ERA. He struck out 10 and walked six, yielding a pair home runs. Small sample results, but bad results nonetheless. I noted on August 21st that his velocity was down, and the shape of his sinker was off, contributing to a lack of deception and control. Without his best sinker, Britton looked like a shell of himself.
Things have turned around. Britton struggled in his most recent outing, yielding an unearned run to the Red Sox, but he’s still been much improved over recent weeks. Since I wrote that post back in August, Britton has tossed 13.2 more innings. He’s struck out 12 and walked five with a 0.66 ERA. Again, these are very small samples, but more important than the results are the underlying changes Britton has undergone. He now looks more like the pitcher he was during his dominant 2016 campaign than at any other point this season.
As of last month, Britton’s sinker, his dominant pitch, did not have the same shape as it did during Britton’s peak. Not only had he lost a couple mph of velocity, but he was getting less sink and less horizontal movement on the pitch. The lessened speed and movement on the pitch seemed to impact Britton’s deception; he’s always relied on getting hitters to chase, but opposing batters were laying off his sinkers in the dirt more than ever earlier this year.
That’s changed. His velocity hasn’t increased, as Britton is still sitting at about 95 mph on his sinker. Yet every other significant indicator regarding his money pitch has moved in a positive direction, leading to better deception and more whiffs.
According to Brooks Baseball, in 2016, Britton’s sinker averaged just over seven inches of horizontal movement, and less than four inches of vertical movement. In plain terms, that meant that his sinker flew in on the hands of lefties and away from the flailing bats of righties, while also darting below the zone in the blink of an eye.
As noted before, Britton had lost some sink earlier in the year. However, check out this chart tracking Britton’s vertical movement game-by-game across the season:
As the season has progressed, Britton’s sinker has been sinking more and more. Over the past month, the pitch has averaged three inches of vertical movement, right in line with his incredible 2016.
He’s also getting much more horizontal movement. Britton has averaged over seven inches of horizontal movement on his sinker in September, again right in line with where the pitch was in 2016. Britton doesn’t throw as hard as he used to, and he likely never will again. Yet in every other way, his sinker resembles how it did in his prime.
With his sinker now flying the way it used to, Britton is back to his deceptive ways. Over the past month, opposing hitters have swung at 36% of Britton’s pitches that have been out of the zone, up from 28% before, per FanGraphs. That’s a huge part of Britton’s game, as his control has never been strong. Britton has always relied on getting hitters to chase his sinker out of the zone.
Now that opposing batters are going fishing, Britton’s swinging strike rate is at to 15% over that past month, up from 12% before. This, while still rarely actually throwing pitches in the zone. Essentially, Britton’s refined sinker has opposing hitters waving again, allowing Britton to get away with uneven control.
Sometimes, that uneven control will come back to bite him, like it did when Boston drew three walks off him on Friday. That one poor inning shouldn’t scare the Yankees off from using Britton. He has rounded into form just in time for the playoffs. This might be as close as Britton will ever come to recapturing his peak. With the Yankees playing an all-hands-on-deck game on Wednesday, it couldn’t have come at a better time.