Jhony Brito probably wasn’t a name that too many were familiar with before this spring, when a disastrous string of injuries allowed him to break the Yankees’ rotation out of camp. It’s been an up-and-down season: a couple quality outings to start his career, an ERA above six from then to the middle of August, some detours to Scranton, and now, in five multi-inning appearance out of the bullpen since the 24th, a 1.29 ERA (2.55 FIP) covering 14 innings with just 11 hits and four walks. I like this version of Brito that we’ve seen as a true multi-inning reliever as of late, so I wanted to check out his most recent appearance against Boston and dive into the numbers to see if there’s anything there.
There are two main elements that I want to talk about, one of which is measurable, and one of which isn’t. The first is pitch selection. Brito hasn’t changed the way he’s operated that much, but ever since August 24th, a few subtle tendencies have emerged. Let’s see how he attacked Triston Casas, who’s been one of the most dangerous hitters in the game over the past few months.
The called ball on the first-pitch fastball is a tough one, but that’s how it goes. It’s also understandable that Brito would err towards an arm-side miss instead of leaving one over the plate against Casas, who’s got a .997 OPS since June 14th. Still, being down 2-0 isn’t very good either. Fortunately, Brito’s feel for his changeup against lefties is pretty solid, and he’s confident enough to throw and execute a better one to catch him out in front in a situation in which he’s almost certain to be sitting on a fastball.
Now, a strike away from evening the count, Brito dips into his bag of tricks and throws a zippy 96-mph sinker that runs from the top of the zone to the outer edge, which is virtually the only spot he throws the sinker to against lefties.
It doesn’t usually work — lefties have a .483 wOBA and .408 xwOBA against the sinker. But this time, it does work, backing Casas up and getting a whiff.
With the shadow between the plate and the mound, it’s going to be tough for Casas to identify that pitch in time to get his swing on plane with it high in the zone. Relatedly, the second element from above that I didn’t get to is less measurable than pitch usage. It’s actually a consequence of it: unpredictability.
Pitch sequencing is an element of the game that still, to this point, has avoided being quantified with any kind of reliability. If someone doesn’t have one of those outlier pitches that’s more or less unhittable even under the best circumstances — Jacob deGrom’s slider, or Kevin Gausman’s splitter — or if they don’t have great command, they need to be able to avoid hard contact by making it difficult for hitters to know what’s coming. You can be a good starter with two excellent pitches, and you can be a starter with three or four average pitches. But if you can’t come up with either of those things, you’re probably bullpen-bound. Right now, Brito is somewhere in between.
Since he’s been pitching in stints of 8-12 batters, Brito has seemingly been less predictable with his pitch mix. He throws four pitches with regularity, but there are really two distinct approaches depending on the hitter’s handedness. Against righties, he attacks with a sinker and a curveball, but lefties see a pitcher who leans more on four-seamers and changeups. Earlier in 2023, his pitch usage patterns were relatively consistent. But I suspect that the ability to pick spots, set up matchups, and not require more than 5-9 outs out of the bullpen means that Brito is able to use his arsenal more freely and lean on pitches when appropriate while also capably mixing it up enough to still get more than a small handful of outs at a time.
Around the beginning of August, when Brito first began appearing out of the bullpen, the lines on his pitch usage charts start zig-zagging all over the place.
We’ll see if the trend holds up. All that in mind, let’s see how he finishes the at-bat against Casas.
Surprise curveball! I didn’t intend for this to be a lesson on why the strike zone box on TV sucks, but I’m glad there’s an opportunity for it, because wouldn’t you believe it, that pitch was actually a strike.
Brito might still have a shot to make it as a starter, but as I said, I like what I’m seeing from him in this multi-inning role. Starters are sometimes shifted to the bullpen under the pretense of working extended outings, only to find themselves among the crowd of single-inning relievers before too long, if they can’t break back into a rotation.
In a perfect world in which the additions of NPB star Yoshinobu Yamamoto and [insert reader’s favorite pitching trade target here] push Brito far down the rotation depth chart, I’d like to see him get a chance to fill the multi-inning role that Michael King has occupied over the last several years. In that perfect world, maybe he’d follow the same path as King and refine his arsenal to the point that he can become a factor in a rotation someday. Either way, I suspect there’s a role for him on a big league roster in some capacity moving forward.