In 2018, Zach Britton was good, if not great. A 3.10 ERA looked promising, even if his 4.20 FIP gave cause for concern. Of course, over the two previous seasons, Britton was probably the best reliever in baseball. Much of his regression in 2018, however, can probably be chalked up to rust after returning from an Achilles injury.
In signing Britton to a three-year deal, the Yankees clearly believe that. Britton didn’t throw his first MLB pitch in 2018 until June 12th, and New York is betting that a full offseason and spring training will bring the former Orioles closer back to his elite status.
Britton has never been a high-velocity, high strikeout guy. In that sense, he stands out in the Yankees bullpen, where Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances and Chad Green have made their names striking out 40% of the batters they face. Britton built his reputation on generating soft contact and inducing groundballs. In 2016, when he received real Cy Young Award consideration, he posted a ludicrous 80% groundball rate, and both his main pitches had an average exit velocity below 90 mph.
In 2018, that wasn’t quite the case:
Britton’s injury was to his drive leg, affecting his push off the mound and his ability to get “on top of” his sinker, his main pitch. It’s clear in the chart above that, upon returning, he pitched gingerly off the drive leg, which is understandable for a guy who just ruptured a tendon in the same leg. Once he grew comfortable with his drive leg, his pitches became much more effective.
This confidence in his drive leg is important:
In 2017, Britton battled a forearm strain that ultimately shortened his season. A pair of bad luck injuries limited his effectiveness, but the lack of subsequent arm problems in 2018 has to lead to optimism. The Achilles injury, while serious at the time, should hopefully not recur during the contract’s tenure - it’s not generally a precursor for anything more concerning.
The Yankees are a very smart organization. Clearly they liked what they saw in Britton during his short stretch in the Bronx, and his ability to keep the ball on the ground, matched with his familiarity with the AL East, makes him a natural fit for New York. That induction of groundballs is so crucial to Britton’s success, and as long as he’s healthy he should be able to keep that kind of contact consistent.
In picking Britton over the other relief options on the market, the Yankees are laying emphasis on the last month of that 2018 chart. As he shook off the rust, Britton looked more and more like his old self, and with a full offseason to rest and rebuild his strength, you have to believe he’ll be another weapon in the always-formidable Yankee bullpen.