As it has been widely reported, Zach Britton has been re-signed by the New York Yankees, returning on an interesting deal that is for 3 years, $39 million, with a $14 million team option for a 4th year and provides Britton the opportunity to opt-out of the deal after 2 years. For the purposes of calculating the luxury tax, Britton’s cap hit will be $13 million. Re-signing Britton gives the Yankees another arm with a premium reputation in the bullpen. Does this move make sense for the Yankees?
Who Would You Rather Have?
Pitcher A: 138 IP, 2.54 ERA, 5.3 H/9, 3.2 BB/9, 12.3 K/9, 3.89 K/BB, .942 WHiP, 0.88 GB/FB
Pitcher B: 78 IP, 3.00 ERA, 7.8 H/9, 4.5 BB/9, 7.3 K/9, 1.62 K/BB, 1.372 WHiP, 2.86 GB/FB
The above statistics are compiled for the 2017/2018 seasons for both Pitcher A and Pitcher B (all stats compiled from baseball-reference.com). Pitcher A dominated, allowing few balls in play with high strikeout rates and low hit rates, while limiting walks at an acceptable rate for a reliever and keeping fly balls in check. Pitcher B threw fewer innings, allowed more contact, striking out many fewer batters on a rate basis, and struggled with control, walking a significant number of batters. Pitcher B was a groundball machine by comparison, making good infield defense imperative.
Pitcher A is David Robertson. Pitcher B is Zach Britton. We know that Zach Britton worked around injuries in both 2017 and 2018, possibly impacting his statistics in both seasons. However, there is no denying that Robertson did a better job in statistical categories over which pitchers have the most control in 2017 and 2018. Yes, Robertson is 2 years older, but he is still pitching similarly to his statistical peak. Britton is now two years removed from his peak, statistically, and it is entirely possible that he will not return to that peak.
Taking into account that Robertson signed for 2 years, $23 million with the Phillies, and it is hard not to knock the Britton deal by comparison. I know there have been rumors floating around about Robertson’s role as player representative in the playoff shares debacle at the end of the season, but from a purely statistical standpoint, there is not much argument for Britton over Robertson, particularly when Robertson was the cheaper buy.
Britton Got Better Throughout the Season
Zach Britton did get better upon being traded to the Yankees, and his improvement continued throughout his time in pinstripes. Here are the pertinent monthly statistics Britton accumulated throughout 2018:
Britton struck out more batters, gave up fewer hits, and maintained a stable, albeit high, walk rate as the season progressed. The fact that Britton gave up fewer hits in pinstripes is likely due to the fact that the Yankees were a far superior defensive team as compared to the Orioles during Britton’s time there in 2018. It is also important to note that Britton was coming back from a torn Achilles tendon, an injury suffered early in the 2017/2018 off-season. That is a significant injury, and Britton attempted to come back to the mound in less than 7 months. It is likely that Yankee fans did not see the real Zach Britton until the end of the season, when he was generally excellent. With a full off-season to train and prepare normally, it is likely that Britton will come into 2019 with improved stuff and control.
Britton is a good signing for the Yankees. He is a left-handed, high-leverage reliever who diversifies a bullpen dependent on strikeouts and right-handers (outside of Chapman). That said, I do not think that this is the best signing that the Yankees could have made. The Yankees could have saved money and brought back a better pitcher in David Robertson. Give me the strikeout-dominant pitcher who keeps serious fly balls in check over the groundball artist any day. The Yankees have a defensive infield that will be in flux for much of 2019, so I am not sure that Britton fits the roster as well as Robertson would have. I will miss Robertson, but I like Britton, and hope he can return to the form he exhibited from 2014-2016 and at the end of 2018. Time will tell whether the Yankees were right to give the money to Britton instead of Robertson.