When the Yankees acquired Zack Britton from the Orioles last summer, there was reason to be excited. The Yankees were getting a two-time All-Star who averaged a 1.61 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and more than 35 saves a season from 2014-2017. This was a reliever who had sustained elite success over a four-year span, for an AL East rival, no less.
However, the version of Britton that the Yankees have received since then has been sort of watered-down. He has a 3.23 ERA as a Yankee, three blown saves, and an unsightly 1.34 WHIP. He just hasn’t been capable of putting hitters away when he needs to most.
What’s behind this? After all, the Yankees just invested a three-year contract in Britton this offseason. Any signs of diminishing returns this early could spell major concern as his contract goes on.
First, let’s look at Britton’s batted-ball profile. When Britton was at his best, he was a ground ball heavy sinkerballer who avoided hard contact. Luckily, Britton is still exhibiting these traits for the Yankees. His ground ball rate as a Yankee is the third-best figure of his career (a stellar 76.2%), and his average exit velocity against this year is in the 84th percentile, at 84.6 mph.
There may also be some bad luck at play here, too. His .400 BABIP against this year is an incredibly unlucky number that will only go down as the season goes on. With some more batted-ball luck and some improved defense, Britton will see more of those grounders converted into outs.
However, Britton is still allowing a bit too much contact. Batters have made contact on 83.7% of their swings against Britton this year, which is a ridiculously high number. For comparison, that number was at 69.4% last year and 69.2% from 2014-2017.
Britton is just not missing as many bats anymore. His strikeout rate has dropped precipitously, from 8.76 K/9 during 2014-2017 to 6.95 K/9 in 2018-2019. As batters have made more contact and his strikeouts have declined, Britton’s control has also started to waver. His BB/9 has risen from 2.84 from 2014-2017 to a very troubling 5.50 in 2018-2019.
Granted, some of these numbers in 2019 can be taken with a grain of salt because of how early in the season we are, but they still show some alarming signs. First, Britton is allowing more contact. That means his whiff rate and chase rate have gone down. Furthermore, he is walking more batters than ever before. That, combined with the high rate of contact, have resulted in more baserunners, and ultimately, more runs against.
So what can Britton do to combat this? It sounds simple, but he just needs to locate his pitches better. Here are his heat maps from this year:
Britton’s 2018 heat maps:
Britton’s career-best 2016 season:
You’ll notice a difference in where the majority of his pitches are located. Britton excels when his bowling-ball sinker dips out of the zone. It did that less last year, and is even more concentrated in the middle of the zone this season. I’m no pitching coach, so I can’t explain how Britton needs to get his sinker back to where it was years ago, but he can’t keep throwing meatballs over the plate.
Ultimately, this could just be an early-season overreaction on our part regarding Britton. However, he has been a Yankee since last July and he has not pitched at the elite level that enticed the Yankees to trade for him in the first place. He has suffered arm and achilles injuries since his breakthrough years, though. If that is the reason behind Britton’s declining command, things might not look so hot for the Yankees with almost three full years of paychecks still to come Britton’s way.