The Yankees have shown a lot of faith in Zack Britton. They traded for him at the 2018 trade deadline despite Britton having only recorded 15.2 innings after undergoing Achilles surgery before the season. They signed him to a contract that could pay up to $53 million, one of the better deals a non-closer relief pitcher has ever received.
Britton has rewarded that faith. Though he’s never quite resembled the dominant force he was at his peak, Britton has now turned in a season and a half’s worth of high-quality late-inning relief work with New York.
2019 Statistics: 61.1 innings, 1.91 ERA, 53 strikeouts, 1.141 WHIP, 7.8 K/9, 4.7 BB/9, 3.74 FIP, 2.4 WAR
2020 Contract Status: Signed through 2021 (three years, $39 million, with a $14 million team option for 2022 that must be decided upon after 2020)
2019 marked Britton’s first full, healthy season since his historic 2016 campaign with the Orioles. He didn’t disappoint given a clean bill of health, stymieing opposing offense to the tune of the seventh-lowest ERA among relievers with at least 60 innings.
The key, as always, was Britton’s deadly sinker. While Britton cannot consistently reach the upper-90’s with his two-seam fastball as he did at his peak, he showed that he can crush hitters even with a 94-95 mph bowling ball heater. His sinker still falls off the table as it speeds to the plate:
Per Statcast, Britton yielded a minuscule .278 wOBA in plate appearances ending with a sinker, third-lowest among pitchers with at least 100 such plate appearances.
Interestingly, however, Britton used his signature offering less often than ever since converting to relief full-time. Instead, he used his breaking pitch nearly 14 percent of the time, up from about six percent last season. This change proved prudent, as Britton’s slider provided an excellent contrast to his power sinker. Hitters managed just one hit (a single) in 31 plate appearances ending with Britton’s breaking pitch.
Batters simply couldn’t put bat to ball against Britton’s slider while expecting his sinker, whiffing on a mind-boggling 58 percent of swings against the breaking ball, according to Brooks Baseball. The increased usage of the pitch made Britton a more well-rounded pitcher, with more than one way to get you out. The change bodes well for Britton’s effectiveness going forward.
The only real nit to pick with Britton was his control. His BB/9 mark increased for the fourth-consecutive season, all the way up to 4.7. Consequently, it often seemed as though Britton was fighting through relief appearances, putting a man or two on before escaping unscathed. Britton left 87 percent of runners on base, thanks to a .541 OPS allowed with runners in scoring position. Such clutch performance is hugely helpful when it comes to high-leverage relief work, but it’s not easy to repeat. If Britton works his way into so many sticky situations next year, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see a few more runners find their way home, and for his ERA to inflate a bit as a result.
Outside of his predilection for issuing free passes, the Yankees have to be thrilled with the 2019 season Britton turned in. He was perhaps the most consistent relief ace in a bullpen stocked to the brim with relief aces, never turning in a month with an ERA above 3.60, a rock in the seventh and eighth innings. At the end of 2020, the Yankees will have to decide whether to guarantee their 2022 team option on Britton; if they decide not to, Britton will immediately have the option to opt out of the final guaranteed year of his deal. If he repeats his performance, the Yankees’ decision should be a no-brainer.