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What is wrong with Zack Britton?

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The Yankees hoped the lefty reliever would be a major part of their bullpen, but he has been a major part of the problem instead.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

It has been no secret that 2021 has been an absolute disaster for the Yankees reliever Zack Britton. Before spring training, he had a bout with COVID-19, then before he could pitch in a game, elbow discomfort revealed a bone chip that required arthroscopic surgery and sidelined him until June 12th. After making just five appearances upon his mid-June return, Britton returned to the injured list with a left hamstring strain.

Worst of all, his performance this year has been absolutely terrible, surrendering 13 runs in just 16 innings while walking 14. He has been so bad, in fact, that after blowing the save in the Field of Dreams Game last Thursday night, he specifically requested that Boone not use him in the ninth inning at the moment, saying that he doesn’t deserve to pitch in them. Both injuries to the pitching staff and the Yankees’ bullpen-heavy organizational philosophy, however, mean that the team needs to get Britton back on track as soon as possible if they want to make a real run at the playoffs.

Unfortunately, beyond telling us the obvious — that he has been walking a ludicrous amount of hitters — the data does not exactly help us determine what exactly is the problem for Britton.

While his average launch angle is up and strikeout rate is down, neither of those are massive concerns to me. He still ranks seventh in baseball in launch angle and is only one of eighteen pitchers to have one below zero degrees. Britton has not ranked among the league’s top strikeout pitchers since his otherworldly 2016 campaign — he has always relied on generating groundballs, which he has done better than anyone else in baseball (his 75.2 groundball percentage since 2016 is more than ten percentage points higher than the second-ranked Framber Valdez).

Although generating fewer groundballs and more fly balls than normal — his 66.7 GB% is down five points from last year and ten points below his career average, while his 15.6 FB% is up 10 points from last year and double his career average — his batted ball data is still extremely good. His xBA, xSLG, xwOBACON are all within his career norms and, had he enough innings to qualify, would all rank within the top few percentiles in the league. Were his walk rate not literally the seventh-worst in baseball among pitchers who have thrown at least 10 innings, this article would probably not be necessary.

Not surprisingly, Statcast has Britton in the midst of his worst season in years according to their Swing/Take metrics, which has him worth -6 runs on swings and +8 runs on takes (a pitcher wants this number to be in the negative). For a comparison, here are the charts from this current season as well as 2019, his last full season.

In contrast to what you might expect, Britton hasn’t exactly been throwing more pitches outside the zone, or even in the shadow of the zone, which is the area on the edges of the strike zone which are called strikes roughly half the time. In fact, according to this data, you might expect Britton to be walking fewer batters but giving up a lot of hard contact — batters have been swinging at pitches in the heart of the zone at a higher rate than they used to, and while in the past that is exactly what Britton wanted you to do (more often than not, the hitter would drill it into the ground), this year hitters have been able to do some damage. But as we saw earlier, that’s not quite what’s happening, as the batted ball data has still been very positive.

Overall, it’s clear that Britton’s number one problem this year has been the free pass. Unfortunately, a dive into the publicly-available Statcast data does not suggest an easy solution to this problem. Hopefully, pitching coach Matt Blake and the Yankees’ coaching staff have more information at their fingertips, because getting Britton on track will be critical for the Yankees down the stretch.