Loss of Britton Puts a Dent in Yankees’ Bullpen

Despite an atypically mediocre performance from their bullpen last year, the Yankees project to have the strongest relief corps in 2021 according to our forecasting systems. However, their chances of fulfilling that expectation have taken a hit with the news that Zack Britton, the team’s top setup man, will undergo arthroscopic surgery to remove a bone chip in his left elbow. The 33-year-old lefty could be out until mid-June or later.

Britton had already been slowed this spring by a bout of COVID-19, which he contracted in January while going to the hospital when his wife was giving birth to the couple’s fourth child. He told reporters that he lost 18 pounds and had been set back in his offseason throwing regimen. After experiencing elbow soreness in the wake of a bullpen session on Sunday, he underwent an MRI on Monday that showed the chip.

The surgery will be performed on March 15 by Dr. Christopher Ahmad, the Yankees’ team physician. As WFAN’s Sweeny Murti pointed out, Dr. Ahmad’s website suggests a timeline of six weeks before a pitcher undergoing such a procedure can be cleared to throw, and that a return to full competition could take 3-4 months:

Roughly speaking, three months from now means a mid-June return, and four months a return just after the All-Star break (the All-Star Game is scheduled for July 13 in Atlanta). Even a best-case scenario, involving a minimally invasive operation and a buildup to a reliever’s workload instead of a starter’s, might shave a month off that. In 2019, for example, the Rays’ Blake Snell missed about eight weeks after undergoing surgery to remove loose bodies (bone chips or cartilage fragments). He wasn’t built up to a full workload upon returning to help the Rays secure a Wild Card berth and reach the postseason, totaling just 10.1 innings in six appearances and maxing out at 62 pitches, but he was reasonably effective. Because this is happening out of the gate rather than towards the end of the season, the Yankees and Britton have less incentive to hurry back. Via ESPN’s Marly Rivera, Britton isn’t in a rush, saying, “However long that takes is how long I’m going to be out. I know that I’m going to be back with the team at some point this year and pitch significant innings. So that’s all that matters.”

The Yankees will miss him while he’s out. Last year, Britton pitched to a 1.89 ERA and 2.61 FIP, albeit in just 19 innings due not only to the pandemic-shortened season but to a left hamstring strain that cost him 12 days, just one of several injuries that have limited his availability in recent years. After totaling 204 appearances and 209 innings for the Orioles from 2014-16, he’s thrown more than 41 innings in a season just once. He strained his forearm in May 2017, tore his Achilles tendon in December of that year, and was traded to the Yankees on July 24, 2018, about six weeks after returning. In 2019, he avoided the injured list entirely, throwing 61.1 innings in 66 games. Despite his absences, he’s delivered a 2.31 ERA in 121 innings since the start of the 2018 season, the majors’ fifth-lowest among the 141 relievers with at least 100 innings in that span. His FIP during that period is a more modest 3.72, but he has outpitched his peripherals in each of the past seven seasons, four times by more than a run, and with a 1.84 ERA and 2.93 FIP in that span. He’s a groundball machine via his sinker/slider combination; his 74.8% groundball rate over the past three seasons is tops among the aforementioned set of relievers by over six percentage points, while his 0.45 homers per nine rate is fifth. Via Statcast, his xAVG, xSLG, wOBA, xwOBA, and xwOBAcon all placed in the 91st percentile or better in each of the past two seasons save for his 2019 xwOBA, which slipped all the way down to the 87th percentile. Though he doesn’t conform to the blow-it-by-you model of late-inning relievers, he’s the real deal.

As I noted in connection with the Yankees’ recent signing of another lefty, Justin Wilson, the Yankees’ bullpen did not live up to its high standards last year. Reproducing the table from that piece:

Yankees Bullpen Performance Since 2015
2015 3.65 14 3.84 19 5.3 2
2016 3.67 16 3.83 18 6.6 2
2017 3.34 3 3.37 2 8.9 1
2018 3.38 4 3.33 3 8.8 1
2019 4.08 9 4.15 9 7.7 1
2020 4.51 16 4.69 20 0.8 19
Rk = ranking among all 30 teams.

The losses of Britton and closer Aroldis Chapman, who missed the first three and a half weeks of the season due to a bout of COVID-19, had a ripple effect on the bullpen that was exacerbated by the loss of Tommy Kahnle to Tommy John surgery and the difficulties of Chad Green and Adam Ottavino in higher-leverage work, leading to the overexposure of Luis Cessa, Nick Nelson, and Jonathan Holder, who respectively ranked second, third, and fourth in innings on the team yet combined for a 4.36 ERA, 4.85 FIP, and 0.0 WAR.

After non-tendering Holder, losing Kahnle to free agency, and trading Ottavino to the Red Sox, the Yankees signed sidearming righty Darren O’Day as well as Wilson, squeezing them into a payroll that’s only a few million dollars shy of the $210 million Competitive Balance Tax threshold, which the Yankees are currently treating as a hard cap, like just about every other team. The free agent market has been picked almost bare, though it seems worth noting that two of the most recognizable names on the market are righties who were drafted and developed by the Yankees: David Robertson and Shane Greene. Robertson, who turns 36 on April 9 and who has pitched for the Yankees in parts of nine seasons, made just seven appearances under a two-year deal with the Phillies, undergoing Tommy John surgery in August 2019 and then suffering a setback last summer. He’s thrown a couple of showcases this winter, and in mid-February was reportedly sitting 90-91 mph and touching 92, right around his average velocity, but thus far no deal has materialized. Greene, like Robertson, spent about half of the 2014 season with the Yankees before being traded to the Tigers in a December 2014 three-way swap that brought them Didi Gregorius. Greene was reasonably effective last year, pitching to a 2.60 ERA and 3.81 FIP in 27.2 innings for the Braves, but his strikeout rate plummeted from 25.4% to 19.3% even as his contact-based stats — such as an xSLG that dropped from .411 to .345, and an xwOBAcon that fell from .370 to .315 — improved markedly.

Despite their availability, the Yankees appear to favor patching over Britton’s absence with internal options. On Wednesday, manager Aaron Boone told reporters that he foresees using Green, O’Day, and Wilson as his primary setup men, with matchups in mind:

“It will probably be more matchup-related about what we have on a given day from a usage standpoint. We’re trying to put guys in the best matchups possible to be successful, so I would say that sixth, seventh and eighth inning will be very fluid throughout this process.”

Boone noted that the Yankees aren’t bent on carrying another lefty and additionally mentioned righty Jonathan Loaisiga as a candidate to take on a larger role in Britton’s absence. Here’s a look at those four pitchers’ three-year platoon splits:

Yankees Setup Men Platoon Splits, 2018-2020
Pitcher wOBA vs RHB xwOBA vs RHB wOBA vs LHB xwOBA vs LHB
Green .289 .294 .275 .272
Wilson .311 .305 .272 .272
O’Day .248 .239 .303 .300
Loaisiga .333 .340 .341 .304
* throws left-handed

Green has actually been somewhat more effective against lefties than righties in recent years, right on par with Wilson, though their performances are shaped differently, with Green holding them to a .218/.269/.380 showing (16 points lower than against righties in terms of OBP and SLG), and Wilson a .185/.307/.298 line. O’Day has been thoroughly stifling against righties (.193/.262/.287), and still passable against lefties (.228/.299/.412). Loaisiga, a 26-year-old fireballer who has struck out 92 batters in 79.1 innings during his young career, has been roughed up by hitters of both hands, but is less of a finished product, having never thrown more than 31.2 big league innings in a season, and he’s shown significant year-to-year improvement overall. The splits suggest he may have been rather unlucky against lefties given the 37-point gap between his wOBA and xwOBA.

Before Britton’s injury, the Yankees appeared to have two lower leverage slots in the bullpen to be filled from among righties Luis Cessa, Nick Nelson, and Albert Abreu, with Cessa the only one among them out of minor league options. Righties Kyle Barraclough, Nestor Cortes Jr. (in his second stint with the Yankees), Adam Warren (in his third stint with the Yankees, and coming off Tommy John surgery), and Asher Wojciechowski, and are all in camp as non-roster invitees, hoping to recover that special something and slip onto the staff.

From among the pool of lefties, Tyler Lyons, who made one appearance with the team last year and 11 the year before as part of an eight-year career spent mostly with the Cardinals, is next on the depth chart, but the southpaw who’s turned heads thus far is Lucas Luetge, who struck out the Phillies’ Andrew McCutchen, Gregorius and Bryce Harper 1-2-3 in the sixth inning of Sunday’s exhibition, and has totaled eight strikeouts in three innings of work this spring. Here’s the putaway pitch on each of those three strikeouts:

The 33-year-old Luetge hasn’t pitched in a major league game since April 25, 2015 with the Mariners, his lone outing of the Statcast era; he had 110 appearances with Seattle in the three years before that. Since then, he’s passed through the organizations of the Angels, Reds, Orioles, Diamondbacks, and A’s, the last two after undergoing Tommy John surgery in 2018. The Yankees had interest in him prior to last season but he chose to sign with Oakland, figuring he’d have a greater chance to pitch, but he spent the summer at the team’s alternate site as the A’s bullpen excelled. When he became a free agent, the Yankees called again, and here he is.

The New York Post’s Joel Sherman quoted Boone as saying that Luetge “has absolutely jumped out at us,” and shed light into the front office’s attraction to him:

Luetge has been one of the revelations of camp. Yankees assistant GM Mike Fishman, who pursued Luetge each of the past two years and signed him to a minor league deal this offseason, said, “A lot of people are talking about him [in camp]. He is opening eyes with how he is performing — and the quality of the stuff, too. He has swing-and-miss pitches.”

…The Yankees were attracted by many items — notably the elite spin rates Luetge had on his cutter, curve and slider in the minors in 2019 and from the available data from the alternate site last year.

Luetge used to throw a sinker. He broke his finger with the Mariners’ minor league system in 2015 and found he had cut on his fastball when the finger healed. A scout who has seen Luetge this spring says that while the fastball is just 89-92 mph, it plays up because of the spin rate, the ability to drive it down in the zone and to play it off the two late-moving breaking balls.

It will certainly be interesting to see how the Luetge story develops, but whatever opportunity he earns will probably start towards the bottom of the bullpen food chain, with the bigger fish taking on the higher-leverage duty. Whatever happens, Britton won’t be easily replaced, but so long as he’s available later in the season, the Yankees will make do.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

just because there aren’t any comments, doesn’t mean this article wan’t appreciated.

3 years ago
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I’m absorbing all the Lucas Luetge content I can get right now. He’s my irrational spring training rando I’m throwing my weight behind supporting.