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Zack Britton increased his breaking ball usage, and the Yankees should rejoice

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The lefty reliever now uses a breaking ball more than 20 percent of the time, and it’s paid off.

MLB: ALCS-Houston Astros at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Zack Britton built a reputation as a sinker specialist, capable of running groundball percentages north of 70 percent year after year. That particular skill earned him the closer position in Baltimore for several seasons and allowed him to become one of the most consistently dominant late-inning weapons in MLB.

In 349 relief appearances, Britton has posted a jaw-dropping 1.81 ERA with a 2.94 FIP. He has been selected to the All-Star game twice and has even accumulated Cy Young and MVP votes. When all is said and done, he can say he had a spectacular career.

Most of his success can be attributed to the sinker. In 2019, the pitch held hitters to a .207 batting average and a .291 slugging percentage. He had a .278 wOBA, with an xwOBA of .300. Batters had an average exit velocity of 87.4 mph, and the average launch angle against the sinker was -9 degrees (!).

However, as Tony Wolfe of FanGraphs notes, he isn’t a one-trick pony anymore. For the season as a whole he threw 86.4 percent of sinkers and 13.6 percent of breaking balls, which is already a sizable increment in usage of his secondary weapon.

But if we look closer, Britton now uses his breaking ball 21.4 percent of the time. That’s the split he showed in the second half. His usage of a non-sinker pitch had never topped 10 percent in any season of his career since he became a reliever.

It isn’t clear whether it is a curveball or a slider. You be the judge:

The increased usage of the breaking ball helped him achieve a 1.11 ERA in 24.1 second-half innings. In those frames, he only allowed one home run and upped his K/9 to 9.99, compared to just 6.32 before the break. Sure, he got a little lucky (.185 BABIP and 92.6 LOB%) but he still had an elite GB% of 77.8.

In the first half, he threw sinkers 91.1 percent of the time, and used his breaker only 8.9 percent. His ERA was 2.43, but his 4.21 FIP and 4.05 FIP weren’t as good. He had a mediocre 20/26 BB/K ratio during that span (37 innings).

Earlier in his career, Britton showed that his breaking ball was effective during short stints. He never dared to use it more often until last season, and it’s paying off.

In 2019, a total of 30 at-bats ended with Britton’s breaking ball. Batters only mustered one hit and they struck out 25 times. The pitch had a 61.0 whiff rate and a 37.9 put-away%.

In the Yankees’ bullpen, other names get more recognition. Aroldis Chapman is the elite closer, Adam Ottavino is the man with the wicked slider, and Tommy Kahnle’s changeup can make batters look silly. Chad Green’s high spin fastball is a weapon, too. Yet Britton is one of the most consistently great relievers of his time.

The Yankees are lucky to have Britton, and they are even luckier because he found something that could make him better than he already was, decided to embrace and work on the idea, and reached another level. Maybe he’s not 1.11 ERA-good, but he is an unquestionably elite reliever. He found a way to reinvent himself deep into his career.

Can you imagine hitting against Britton and expecting the 94-95 mph sinker at the knees, only to swing and miss at the breaking ball? Yeah, it’s not easy to be a major-league hitter.