Dodgers Grab Zach Britton Lite in Three-Team Deal

While everyone waits for the thaw of the free-agent market, the Dodgers, Royals, and White Sox got together on a three-team trade Thursday evening.

The L.A. Times‘ Andy McCullough broke the news on the deal, as part of which the Royals send lefty reliever Scott Alexander to the Dodgers for prospects Erick Mejia and Trevor Oaks. The Dodgers ship lefty reliever Luis Avilan and $3 million to the White Sox. The Royals are also reportedly moving Joakim Soria and $1 million to the White Sox in something of a salary dump.

While there are quite a few moving parts, the focus within this post will be on Alexander, an interesting arm who could fill a need — and fill it cheaply — for one of the top clubs in baseball. Lefty reliever Tony Watson is a free agent, and the Dodgers are attempting to stay under the luxury tax. In giving up prospects and cash, the Dodgers must also feel Alexander is an upgrade over Avilan, who is projected to make $2.3 million in arbitration according to MLB Trade Rumors.

Alexander, a pre-arbitration arm with five years of control remaining, might not only fill a need cheaply for the next couple of seasons but also exceptionally well. While, on the one hand, the Dodgers are trading a lefty who misses bats, they’re also adding a lefty who might have more upside in today’s offensive environment.

In a year marked by fly balls, home runs, launch angles, and juiced balls, Alexander was, by some measures, the top ground-ball arm in the game in 2017. The approach led him to a 2.48 ERA, 3.23 FIP, and 56 ERA- last season over 69 innings. He emerged, quietly, as one of the better relievers in the game.

Among pitchers who threw at last 20 innings last year, Alexander led baseball in ground-ball rate (73.6%). He was one of only three pitchers to post a mark of 70% or greater, joining Marc Rzepczynski (70.0%) and Zach Britton (72.8%) in that small club. And it is Britton who could become a frequent comp for Alexander, thanks to latter’s darting sinker and handedness.

Not only are Britton and Alexander left-handed arms who finished Nos. 1 and 2 in ground-ball rate last season among all pitchers, they also placed first and second in reliance upon sinkers. Britton threw the pitch 95.1% of the time; Alexander, 91.9%. The next most frequent usage was recorded by Brandon Kintzler (74.4%).

The 28-year-old Alexander has been a ground-ball pitcher since he reached High-A in 2013. And by last season, his two-seamer had developed into one of the best pitches in baseball.

His emergence is due, in no small part, to added velocity: Alexander’s sinker jumped 3 mph between 2016 and -17, from 90.7 to 93.2 mph. According to Baseball Prospectus’s PITCHf/x leaderboards, the pitch ranked fifth in baseball among all sinkers (minimum 200 thrown) in swing-and-miss rate (28.1%) and 21st in GB/FB ratio (8.1).

He leaned on the pitch — and kept leaning on it — because it worked.

Perhaps one criteria for the excellence of a pitch is if the opposition expects it and yet fails to hit it anyway.

The following represents video evidence of the sinker’s darting effectiveness, a sequence from last season against Corey Seager:

And against Mikie Mahtook:

Both last season and also over the course of his brief career, Alexander has been more effective against righties, allowing wOBAs of .292 and .314, respectively, versus right- and left-handed batters. He is not doomed to situational status.

The deal makes sense for the Dodgers: they add to their bullpen but do so without endangering their luxury-tax status. At the moment, the Dodgers have a projected $184 million payroll in 2018. The tax threshold, meanwhile, stands at $197 million. The Royals are headed for a rebuild, and it makes sense to trade off relievers even if for marginal prospects while shedding payroll. The White Sox picked up cash and two quality veteran relievers — relievers they can perhaps flip this summer.

It’s not a trade that is going to make major headlines, but it’s something that involves a top contender and an interesting arm. And to give up money and prospects in addition to Avilan, maybe the Dodgers believe they’ve found something.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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6 years ago

ChiSox infielder Jake Peter also lands in Los Angeles.

6 years ago
Reply to  TommyLasordid

He’s interesting but was available to teams in the rule 5 draft. Not a bad flip.

KC couldn’t get more for these arms other than salary relief? Soria wasn’t cheap but still.

6 years ago
Reply to  mbs2001

Most teams evidently see the rule 5 draft as little more than a nuisance. It’s weird. But obviously, the roster restriction does play a role and now the Dodgers won’t have to worry about that with Peter.

This also looks like a deal that the Dodgers are using to set up their next move.

6 years ago
Reply to  Dooduh

I agree that the move suggests a further move. The way the front office has been shedding rotation arms tells me they plan to trade for a starter. I expect they will try to package Verdugo and other prospects to get another proven starter.