If Jhony Brito was your favorite under-the-radar Yankees prospect going into this season, well, the cat’s out of the bag.
On Sunday, the 25-year-old right-hander tossed 5.1 perfect innings against the Blue Jays, all but locking up the Yankees’ last rotation spot in the wake of Luis Severino’s injury. Brito is not officially on the roster yet, but as the top starter in Triple-A, he’s sure to play a key role on this team in 2023. So how was he so successful Sunday? And how sustainable is his strategy?
2022 (AA/AAA) Statistics: 26 games, 23 games started, 112.2 IP, 2.96 ERA, 3.91 FIP, 1.15 WHIP, 20.0 K%, 7.7 BB%, 0.72 HR/9
2023 ZiPS Projections: 24 games, 22 games started, 105 IP, 4.20 ERA, 4.26 FIP, 1.28 WHIP, 17.2 K%, 6.5 BB%, 1.11 HR/9
For starters, Brito came out throwing strikes. According to Statcast, 60 percent of his offerings were in the zone on Sunday, nearly 10-percent higher than the major league average last season. Prior to last year, Brito’s walk rate never exceeded 5.9 percent — the major league average last season was 8.2 percent. While his free passes inched upwards last season, with Brito allowing 6.6- and 8.4-percent walk rates at stops in Double-A and Triple-A, ZiPS still pegs him for a 6.5-percent rate in the majors this year based on the entirety of his minor league track record.
Next, Brito induced extremely weak contact. Only one ball in play against him on Sunday, a Matt Chapman groundout 108 mph off the bat, had an expected batting average (xBA) north of .250. As a whole, the Blue Jays had a .142 xBA on 13 balls in play against Brito.
Sadly, xBA data from last year’s Triple-A season is scant, but we do have a treasure trove of batted-ball metrics available nonetheless. One thing Brito did extremely well last year was generate popups: 27.7 percent of his fly balls were rainmakers, tied for the eighth-highest mark among the 126 Triple-A hurlers who threw at least 70 innings last year. His popup rate has also routinely been above 20 percent throughout his minor league career. On Sunday, he allowed one fly ball, and guess what — it was a popup.
Additionally, Brito drew an extremely high number of groundballs: 54.4 percent of his balls in play in Triple-A were worm-burners, the fourth-most among the aforementioned 126 pitchers. On Sunday, 10 of his 13 balls in play were grounders, good for a Zack-Britton-esque 76.9 percent rate.
Now, groundball pitchers tend to yield higher batting averages on balls in play (BABIPs) because grounders go for hits (albeit usually singles) more often than fly balls. Brito represents a major exception to this rule, as his high popup rate and low line-drive rate (at 14.1 percent, easily the lowest among the 126 Triple-A pitchers) enabled him to run a .266 BABIP, tied for 13th-lowest in the group. While we shouldn’t expect his BABIP to be that low, ZiPS anticipates a .286 mark, which would still best the major league average of .289, and with many more grounders to boot (which would suppress his opponents’ power output). Since 2019, spanning stops at four minor league levels, Brito has allowed a .284 BABIP across 330 innings.
How exactly does Brito suppress hard contact? He relies heavily on a power changeup, a 55-grade (out of 80) pitch that averaged 88.7 mph on Sunday and sent the side down on strikes in the first inning:
Those happened to be his only strikeouts of the day, but FanGraphs’ lead prospect analyst Eric Longenhagen describes Brito as preferring it that way, usually turning to the change at the beginning of an at bat to generate a weak ball in play.
If Brito did opt to use it more as a putaway pitch going forward, his 50-grade fastballs would likely serve as setup offerings. He sits 95 mph with the pitches, and his sinker is especially hard to differentiate from the change. But the velocity gap between his heaters and the change is lacking, which may also explain his penchant for weak grounders over whiffs. Still, he garnered whiffs on an above-average 11.7 percent of his pitches in Triple-A last year, so if he can develop his 45-grade breaking balls further — especially his curve, which would give him a new velocity band — he could morph into a strikeout pitcher. Further, the refinement of his arsenal could help him pitch deeper into games.
As it stands, though, the Yankees should feel pretty good about rolling Brito out to the mound every five days to begin the season. Marcus called him his No. 10 Yankees prospect back in December for a reason. As far as no. 8 starters go, you can’t do much better than a 25-year-old with upside already projected for a league-average ERA. If the Yankees don’t push their luck with Brito, limiting his exposure to lineups a third time through, they won’t lose too much of a step with him in place of Severino.