Before the season, the Yankees were projected to have one of the strongest starting rotations in baseball, with a pair of co-aces in Gerrit Cole and offseason signing Carlos Rodón leading the charge, followed by 2022 All-Star Nestor Cortes, the resurgent Luis Severino, and a combination of Domingo Germán and Clarke Schmidt for the final spot.
That plan fell apart before the first pitch of the season was thrown. In addition to Frankie Montas following his February shoulder surgery, Rodón and Severino began the season on the IL, thrusting Jhony Brito into the starting rotation for the season-opening series against the Giants. From his debut as a starter through his transition to the bullpen, the rookie righty has given the Yankees plenty to consider heading into 2024.
2023 Statistics: 25 games (13 starts), 90.1 IP, 4.28 ERA (101 ERA+), 4.74 FIP, 4.66 xFIP, 7.2 K/9, 2.8 BB/9, 0.4 fWAR
2024 Contract Status: Remains in first year of pre-arbitration eligibility
Entering 2023, Brito was a relative unknown in the Yankees’ minor league system. He clocked in at 15th on FanGraphs’ top Yankees prospects list but failed to make an appearance on either MLB Pipeline’s nor The Athletic’s Keith Law’s prospect rankings, overshadowed by higher-end prospects above him including Luis Gil, Randy Vásquez and Yoendrys Gómez. It therefore likely surprised many — though not our pal, Marcus, who did dub Brito a Top-10 prospect — that his name was the first one called up to deputize for the ailing arms in the big league rotation.
If you peel back the layers, however, the decision to call him up comes a bit more into focus. In 26 games (23 starts) between Double- and Triple-A in 2022, Brito pitched to a 2.96 ERA with 91 strikeouts and 35 walks across 112.2 innings. This combined with the Yankees’ having traded away the bulk of their upper-minors starting pitching at the 2022 trade deadline and Gil’s Tommy John rehab singled out Brito as the closest option they had to the majors. At 25 years old, he had a bit more experience than guys behind him and with a four-pitch mix of sinker, changeup, curveball and four-seamer, he had the arsenal to navigate more than one turn through a lineup.
Brito certainly opened some eyes, finding immediate success at the big league level. He tossed five scoreless innings allowing two hits and a walk with six strikeouts in the Yankees’ series-clinching 6-0 victory over the Giants on April 2nd and followed it up with five innings of one-run ball yielding just three hits in a 4-1 win over the Orioles to start his major league career 2-0.
But then disaster struck, with Brito coughing up seven runs on six hits to the Twins, ultimately getting yanked in the first having recorded just two outs. From that point, Brito experienced some growing pains, giving up at least three runs in four of his next seven starts, failing to complete six innings in any of those contests. After that final start against the Reds, Brito was optioned back down to Triple-A to make room on the active roster for Severino.
Brito found himself riding the Scranton shuttle a couple times throughout the summer, getting called up to make a spot start here or there before getting sent right back down. He was given greater opportunity after Cortes went down with an eventual season-ending shoulder injury and turned in mixed results. With Schmidt having locked down his spot on the staff and Rodón and Severino underperforming but still entrenched in the rotation, the Yankees tried a new tack — moving Brito to the bullpen. His late-season conversion to a reliever coincided with the team stretching Michael King out as a starter, making it all the more valuable that someone like Brito could pick up those innings out of the ‘pen.
The impact was immediate and frankly beyond what even the most optimistic fan could have envisioned (check out Malachi’s piece for more).
Jhony Brito's 3Ks in the 5th (all changeups). pic.twitter.com/rTlduFxzXW— Rob Friedman (@PitchingNinja) August 30, 2023
In nine relief appearances to close out the year, Brito never gave up more than one run while pitching at least two innings in each outing. The splits between starting and relieving are stark; in 13 starts, Brito owned a 6.32 ERA, 6.33 FIP, .374 wOBA against, and surrendered 13 home runs across 52.2 innings. In 12 relief outings though, he posted a sterling 1.43 ERA, 2.51 FIP, and .226 wOBA against while limiting opponents to one home run across 37.2 innings.
For me, this all boils down to command. Normally when you hear about a starter getting moved to the bullpen and having success, it’s because the shortened outing allows them to go all-out, using only their best pitches at full-tilt rather than save bullets and different looks for later in a start. However, there is virtually no difference in Brito’s velocity or pitch sequencing as a starter vs. as a reliever.
Instead, I attribute the improvement to a shift in mindset. Simply put, I see him attacking the strike zone with greater intent as a reliever than as a starter. As he gained in confidence in his new role, you could see the results tick up in kind. The two metrics I like to use as proxies for command are strikeout-minus-walk rate (K-BB%) and called-strike-plus-whiff rate (CSW%). The more a pitcher is in or around the strike zone, the fewer walks he issues, the more strikeouts he tallies, and the more he’s able to fool the batter into taking a strike or swinging at a ball. His K-BB% jumped from 7.3 percent as a starter to 19.3 percent as a reliever while the his CSW% improved from 26.9 percent to 29.7 percent.
My colleague Alex recently investigated which of Brito and Vásquez was most likely to become the Yankees bullpen’s next Michael King now that the real Michael King looks destined for a rotation spot in 2024. He landed on Brito as the better long man candidate thanks to Brito’s ability to induce groundballs (sinker and slider each induce generate grounders in excess of 47 percent) and a walk rate that was half Vásquez’s after the pair joined the bullpen. I’d agree with this sentiment and feel there is even room for improvement in the groundball department. Brito’s sinker exhibited the 20th-most horizontal movement vs. average in MLB but is below-average in terms of vertical movement. If he can exchange some of that lateral run for greater downward tilt — perhaps by tweaking the spin axis or seam orientation at release — he could become a true groundball wizard in a King-esque role for the Yankees in 2024.