Ever since being traded to the Yankees during July 2018, Zack Britton has consistently been one of the most reliable relievers in the Yankees bullpen, if not the singular most reliable one. Serving as the primary setup man but closing when Aroldis Chapman was unavailable, he was the backbone of a bullpen that was battered by injury, illness, and ineffectiveness at various points throughout the 2020 season. Britton was so good, in fact, that in the Pinstripe Alley end-of-season report cards last fall, Josh struggled to describe his performance, saying “It’s tough to write a report card for a pretty flawless year.”
But will that success continue into the new season?
2020 Stats: 19 IP, 1.89 ERA, 2.61 FIP, 7.6 K/9, 3.3 BB/9, 1.00 WHIP, 0.5 bWAR, 0.5 fWAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 63 IP, 3.60 ERA, 3.85 FIP, 8.51 K/9, 4.51 BB/9, 1.39 WHIP, 1.0 fWAR
At first glance, although the projected performance is not bad, strictly speaking, the expected decline appears pretty alarming. After all, the Yankees have constructed their roster under the assumption that Britton would be an elite arm pitching the eighth inning, not an average middle reliever. Fortunately, however, there’s actually very little reason to be alarmed — the projections have expected regression from Britton for years, but he has instead continued to regularly out-pitch his FIP throughout his career, oftentimes by upwards of a full run.
Britton’s batted ball profile goes a long way in explaining this phenomenon. Over the course of his career, nobody has been better at generating groundballs than Britton: since he made his Major League debut in 2011, only Brad Ziegler has posted a higher GB% (68.9%) than Britton (66.6%). Since he became a reliever prior to the 2014 season, his 76.2% GB% is nine points higher than anyone else in the league (Ziegler comes in at number two with 67.3%) and is 30 points higher than the league average of 45.3%. Moreover, he’s among the best in the league at avoiding hard contact, ranking in the 87th percentile in barrel percentage and 80th percentile in hard hit percentage in 2020 according to Statcast. These two trends have combined to give him a BABIP of less than .241 in five of the last seven seasons, including the last three seasons.
Could this be the year in which Britton begins to decline? Pitchers in general, and relief pitchers in particular, are fickle beings, so nothing is out of the question. That said, the Yankees will need to rely on Britton being able to lock down the eighth inning and close when necessary if they want the bullpen to regain its status as the best in the American League. Fortunately, history has shown that, no matter what the metrics say, he will be the man for the job.