It was just a little over two years ago that the Orioles lost to the Blue Jays in the AL wild-card game. At that point, Zach Britton was one of the greatest per-inning pitchers in the world, yet the Orioles left him in the bullpen while they lost in extra innings. Before they got to Britton, they went to Donnie Hart. Before they got to Britton, they went to Brian Duensing. Before they got to Britton, they went to Ubaldo Jimenez. It was as inexplicable then as it still is today –Britton was too good of a weapon to ignore, when the stakes were so high. There’s nothing to wait for in a game of that magnitude.
For Britton now, it might feel like ancient history. He moved on to a different team, and in 2018 he made it back to the playoffs, where this time he actually pitched. And Britton has elected to re-sign with that team, agreeing with the Yankees for $39 million over three years. The idea, from the Yankees’ perspective, is to again build out a bullpen that already included Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Chad Green, and Jonathan Holder. Britton will pitch in the seventh and eighth innings, this being further evidence of how teams are coming to reward non-closers. Something else is different, however. Britton will be paid more than he was in 2016. And yet he also hasn’t been that pitcher ever since. The Yankees are rolling the dice on a hard-to-hit sinker.
Before we get to the performance, Scott Boras has again given us reason to talk about the contract structure. Boras has taken to referring to his new trick as the “swellopt,” which is stupid, but there you go. Britton’s deal is similar in concept to the deals signed by Yusei Kikuchi and Jake Arrieta. What’s guaranteed is $39 million over three years. After the second year, though, the Yankees can pick up a fourth-year option, worth $14 million. If they don’t do that, Britton will have the option to opt out and become a free agent again. So this could go for two years and $26 million, for three years and $39 million, or for four years and $53 million.
The idea is the same across the board. Britton has an opt-out if he thinks free agency would be somewhat lucrative, but if Britton pitches really well, the Yankees would just pick up the fourth year. If Britton gets hurt or underachieves, he’ll end up with the three-year terms. For this to end up as a two-year contract, Britton would have to think he could get more than $13 million, but the Yankees would have to think he’d get less than $27 million. There’s player protection, but there’s also team protection, in the event that Britton gets back to being amazing. The opt-out clause continues its evolution. Credit to Scott Boras for introducing a new twist to old paperwork.
There’s something else worth noting here, given Britton’s high average annual salary. For 2019, the cutoff for the competitive-balance tax is set at $206 million. According to Cot’s, now, for tax purposes, the Yankees project for a payroll of just above $207 million. The actual tax on a one-million overage is negligible. But the penalties get worse with successive overages. Given how often the Yankees have talked about the competitive-balance tax in the past, one might expect them to try to drop back down, possibly or probably by trading Sonny Gray. This being the Yankees, though, in reality they can afford almost anything. There’s no getting under the tax if they end up signing, say, Manny Machado. The Yankees shouldn’t worry much about the threshold at all, but, just know where they stand. This could inform their future decisions.
Not that the Yankees didn’t know where they stood already. They agreed to this. They’re reportedly still interested in Adam Ottavino. Maybe the Yankees are now quite willing to pay a tax after resetting the penalties in 2018. That was the whole point, right? The Yankees can’t stay under the tax cutoff forever. Not if they want to preserve their identity and avoid the kind of heat that gets directed at the Mets.
Getting back to the player, now, let’s talk about Zach Britton. Britton moved to the bullpen full-time in 2014, and, for three years, he was one of baseball’s best relievers. You remember that version of Zach Britton. He was the guy who made the sinker sexy again. Since Britton now is only 31 years old, you’d figure he should have plenty of good pitching in front of him. He’s almost three years younger than David Robertson. And in complete honesty, my inclination is to give the Yankees the benefit of the doubt. But there are some real causes for concern here. Britton’s stock has dropped.
In 2017, he had multiple bouts of forearm soreness. Then he got a late start in 2018 after blowing out his Achilles. It’s not like his entire career has gone off the rails, but here’s a plot of some of his two-year percentile rankings, among other big-league relievers with at least 50 innings:
No pitcher has generated a higher rate of grounders. Few pitchers have allowed less hard contact. And yet, few pitchers have thrown a lower rate of strikes. Few pitchers have thrown a lower rate of pitches in the strike zone. Britton’s strikeout rate hasn’t been good, and neither has his walk rate. He’s succeeded because he’s allowed grounders, but this isn’t the same pitcher from before.
I’ll say, as well, that in 2016, Britton threw 97% of his fastballs at least 95 miles per hour. This past season, that rate fell to 44%. The top-end velocity has started to erode. There are some good signs, but there are also some worse signs, and it feels a little bit like the Yankees just guaranteed $39 million to Scott Alexander. The profiles are more or less the same.
Remember that Britton converted to relief in 2014. Here’s how his career strikeouts and walks have trended:
Lately, Britton hasn’t gotten the chases he used to. Maybe it’s declining command; maybe it’s just a reflection of an adjustment on the part of his opponents. They understand they dig in looking for a sinker down around the shins. Now, on the plus side, Britton’s sinker clearly still works. By movement, it’s not the most extreme sinker in the world, but it’s always been almost impossible to elevate:
Another good sign for Britton and the Yankees is that his pitches still aren’t easy to actually hit. When batters attempted swings in 2018, they frequently missed:
Britton’s contact rate in 2018: 69%. His contact rate in 2015, when he was terrific: 67%. When batters are swinging, Britton’s still good. Where he’s declined is in compelling those swings in the first place. That’s not an easy thing to reverse, but at least we know the stuff itself is still dangerous. Maybe it’s Britton’s turn to make an adjustment.
He’s been throwing sinkers 90% of the time for five years. It might work to Britton’s benefit to introduce a few more breaking balls. Aside from or on top of that, I want to show you something from Brooks Baseball. Well, first, I’ll show you this pitch:
Nothing too remarkable, right? Fastball, mid-thigh, 94. But this is a pitch plot from Britton’s last appearance of 2018, in the playoffs:
Look at those pitches in black, marked “FA.” Those are fastballs different from the sinker. Relatively speaking, those are rising fastballs, something like four-seam fastballs. Britton, for a long time as the Orioles’ closer, leaned on his sinker. After joining the Yankees, he threw a handful or two of these alternate fastballs, including consecutive four-seamers to Andrew Benintendi in the ALDS. This might be much ado about nothing, but there are at least subtle signs that Britton and the Yankees have worked on a tweak. If he were to develop and introduce a second fastball, it could again keep hitters guessing when they see something hard and low.
There’s time for Zach Britton to be great again. There’s time for him to take a step forward. It might even be as simple as just enjoying a normal, healthy offseason, without an Achilles injury. Very clearly, the Yankees believe in the Zach Britton skillset. But know that this isn’t without risk, because for as much as one might be optimistic about Britton’s bounceback potential, he hasn’t thrown many strikes since 2016. He hasn’t gotten enough strikeouts since 2016. He’s pitched as something of a ground-ball specialist, which is useful, but not ordinarily worth $39 million. You can only pitch yourself out of so many jams.
The Yankees see enough that they like. One way or another, the infield is going to be busy. It’s not a great infield, defensively speaking. With luck, there’ll be enough greatness on the mound to compensate.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.