Zack Britton made headlines when he told SNY’s Scott Thompson, “I’ve played against the Yankees my whole career, this is by far the best team I’ve seen them put together since I’ve been in the big leagues. So I think we got a really good shot with the guys in-house.” Whether you agree with Britton or not, his own success this season is a big reason for his and his teammates’ confidence as they enter the home stretch of the regular season.
When the Yankees acquired Britton last July he wasn’t necessarily a sure thing. The veteran left-hander was just starting to round back into form after an offseason achilles surgery, but he was hardly the pitcher who put up a 0.54 ERA in the 2016 season. At the time of the trade, Britton owned his worst ERA (3.45) and lowest groundball rate (64.1%) since converting to relief with the Orioles in 2014.
The Yankees acquired Britton with the expectation that he was trending back in the right direction, and that’s exactly what he’s done. Since July 25th, 2018, Britton has posted a 2.61 ERA and a league-leading 78.1 groundball in 69 innings as a Yankee. The Yankees saw enough from Britton last season to offer him a three-year, $39-million deal this past offseason, and they have to be happy they did. As the primary eighth-inning reliever and the bridge to Aroldis Chapman, Britton has been a stable force in the Yankees bullpen.
In 44 innings of work in 2019, Britton is 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA and three saves. Most importantly, Britton is leading MLB relievers with a 78.3% groundball rate – ten percentage points higher than any other reliever – asserting himself as the league’s most dominant groundball machine and serving as the Yankees’ best chance at inducing double plays to get out of jams. According to FanGraphs, Adam Ottavino ranks second among MLB relievers, stranding 94.1% of runners on base, but Britton’s 84.7% LOB% (25th in MLB) gives Aaron Boone two great options in high leverage spots, depending if they need a strikeout or a groundball double play.
One reason for Britton’s success is an increase in his slider usage this season. Britton is throwing his slider on 10.6% of pitches, the highest usage in his career as a relief pitcher, according to Statcast. Don’t be surprised if he relies on the slider even more down the stretch. Opponents are batting and slugging .067 against 74 Britton sliders this season, giving him another weapon to pair with an all-world sinker.
While Britton’s numbers have been strong this season, there’s still reason to believe he can improve. Among American League relievers, Britton owns the highest HR/FB% at a potentially unsustainable 27.3%. Last season he was in a similar situation with a 25.0% HR/FB%, but his career average is only 12.5%. If Britton can cut down on the long ball, he’ll reach another level of dominance and continue to prove he’s worth the investment the Yankees made in him this past offseason. He believes in this Yankees team, and his performance out of the pen is one of many reasons Yankees fans probably should too.