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Zack Britton was the Yankees’ most valuable bullpen arm

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This is undoubtedly the best we’ve seen from the lefty reliever in pinstripes

Division Series - Tampa Bay Rays v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Thursday night was one of the most impressive pitching displays from the Yankees all season. Jordan Montgomery exceeded all expectations, giving the Bombers four priceless innings of three-hit, one-run ball. The bullpen stepped up with the season on the line and gave an all-time performance, allowing only a single baserunner on an Aroldis Chapman walk, while striking out seven. Zack Britton was the most lockdown of the three arms to come in, and it’s his contributions that I’d like to focus on today.

When the Yankees traded for Britton near the 2018 deadline, no one quite knew what to expect. On one hand, the Yankees were acquiring a natural closer whose dominant track record (0.54 ERA, 47/47 converted saves, fourth place Cy Young finish) demanded a top-10 organizational prospect in Dillon Tate headline the package heading to Baltimore. On the other hand, Britton was nearly two years and an Achilles surgery removed from that magical year, and his performance since (3.45 ERA with Baltimore post-surgery) gave one pause.

Nonetheless, the Yankees pulled the trigger on the deal, and Britton rewarded them with a solid-if-not-spectacular end to 2018. The Yankees renewed their faith in Britton when they signed him to a potential four-year extension prior to the 2019 season. He responded by turning in his best season since 2016. However, I don’t think even the Yankees could have predicted the jump in production from their lefty reliever in 2020.

Britton paced all Yankees relievers with 0.5 fWAR, a 1.89 ERA, and 2.61 FIP. He deputized as closer while Chapman recovered from COVID-19, converting all eight of his save opportunities. When Chapman returned, he selflessly slotted right back to the set-up role, providing an ever-dependable bridge to the Cuban Missile.

This led me to wonder what Britton was doing differently this year to induce the improved results. The two things that leapt off the page were: 1) Britton did not surrender a home run this year, and 2) Britton cut his walk rate from 12.8% between 2018 and 2019 to 9.2% in 2020. Britton will never be the sexiest pitcher when it comes to strikeouts, whiff rates, or wOBA against. However, the two things he excels at doing he does better than pretty much everyone else in baseball. Among pitchers who threw at least ten innings, Britton was third in groundball rate (71.7%) and tenth in soft contact percentage (28.3%).

What allowed Britton to reclaim his position among the elite relievers in the league in 2020. This is where I got really excited. We all know that Britton’s sinker is his calling card, as he throws it over 80% of the time. At its peak, the pitch was described as a bowling ball that just disappeared below the zone. In 2020, Britton’s sinker had the most vertical movement it’s had in the last seven years. The almost 22 inches of break is even more tilt than in 2016. Just take a look at these strikeouts from 2016, 2018, and 2020:

2016

2018

2020

While all three resulted in strikeouts, the differences in pitch dynamics are quite stark. The strikeout of Diaz in Thursday’s game much more closely mirrors the pitch shape from 2016 than 2018. The depth on the sinker that allowed Britton to be so dominant in 2016 was absent in his first year-and-a-half with the Yankees, but it looks to have returned this season. On top of the obvious fact that a pitch with more tilt is harder to hit, the added downward break on Britton’s sinker allows him to start it higher in the zone, such that it looks like a strike for longer along its path, inducing more whiffs or topped grounders.

The other noticeable improvement to Britton’s sinker is pitch location. Relative to 2018, Britton is able to more consistently locate the pitch down-and-away to right handers. Notice below the tighter grouping at the bottom of the zone in 2020, whereas in previous seasons Britton would miss below the zone or in to a righty.

Another way to represent this is to look at the percentage of pitches thrown to the edges of the zone. These pitches are so effective because they are difficult to square up should the batter swing, but can also steal strikes when the batter takes. In his stellar 2016 campaign, Britton found the edge of the strike zone about 44% of the time with the sinker. That percentage dropped to 38.8% in Britton’s first two years in pinstripes, but jumped up to 44.8% in 2020.

Vintage Zack Britton could not come at a better time for the Yankees. He may not have offered the same length as Chad Green or the same velocity as Aroldis Chapman Thursday night, but I stand by my statement that Britton’s was the most impressive contribution in that elimination game. Green gave up two rockets and Chapman walked a batter; meanwhile Britton induced soft contact and struck out three.

Ultimately his contributions were not enough to keep the Yankees alive, as they were eliminated in Game Five Friday night. The bats rolled over and died as the Yankees were humbled by a truly elite pitching staff. Regardless, Britton will prove to be an indispensable weapon in the coming years as the Yankees look to capitalize on a rapidly-closing championship window.