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Zach Britton’s compelling free agency case

Britton finds success in unconventional ways. How will that impact his offseason outlook?

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

Look at some of the surface stats for Zach Britton’s 2018 season. You’d guess he’s closer to a reliever on the tightrope of a spot in the majors than a a premium free agent. After all, his comparable counterparts in K-BB% this year were names like Louis Coleman, Steven Brault, and Pierce Johnson.

This does line up towards all of the concern with Britton as a free agent signing. He walks the fine line of having success with a subpar strikeout rate and walk rate. Among 201 relievers with at least 70 innings since the start of 2017, only ten have a lower strikeout-minus-walk percentage than Britton. The median ERA of the bottom is 4.04.

Stacking Britton up against some of the top free agent relievers this offseason, his case looks worse.

Now, it’s certainly unfair not to mention the success Britton has had even with the ugly strikeout and walk rates. By limiting damage via the home run and consistently keeping the ball on the ground, he managed to put up a serviceable 3.10 ERA and 4.22 FIP last year. Grouping pitchers with at least 40 innings last year, nobody reached his ground ball rate of 73 percent.

Top 10 GB% in 2018

Name Team GB%
Name Team GB%
Zach Britton - - - 73
Brad Ziegler - - - 71.1
Scott Alexander Dodgers 70.9
T.J. McFarland Diamondbacks 67.9
Jared Hughes Reds 65.4
Kevin McCarthy Royals 64.3
Marcus Stroman Blue Jays 62.1
Tim Hill Royals 61.8
Cody Reed Reds 61.4
Sam Dyson Giants 61.3
Minimum 40 IP FanGraphs

One could argue that a strong majority of Britton’s success has come from his consistent ability to induce soft-contact on the ground. We saw the best case of this in 2016, when he went for a 0.54 ERA and 1.94 FIP in 67 innings in probably one of the better seasons by a reliever ever, in terms of a result standpoint.

The terrific seasons Britton posted in 2015 and 2016 (2.1 and 2.5 fWAR respectively) leave optimism on the part of his free agency case. If he could ever fix the control issues that have been ailing him for the past few seasons, maybe he could at least replicate a fraction of that past success.

The ceiling on a deal for a reliever like Britton is pretty high. MLB Trade Rumors predicted his deal to be three-years/$33 million. He probably hits the value if his production nears his projected level, as Steamer still has him as one of the better relievers in all of baseball for 2019.

10 lowest ERA projections for 2019

Name ERA
Name ERA
Edwin Diaz 2.63
Chris Sale 2.76
Aroldis Chapman 2.77
Craig Kimbrel 2.79
Dellin Betances 2.85
Felipe Vazquez 2.94
Josh Hader 2.95
Jacob deGrom 2.96
Zach Britton 3.01
Ray Black 3.02

With the volatility in relievers and the fact that Britton has already declined the past few seasons, a multi-year deal for a player like him is for sure to have risk. But, being a reliever, the fits for him are endless, so that works in his favor. Contending teams looking to bolster their bullpens, but not wanting to pay the high cost for the services of Craig Kimbrel, are almost sure to at least kick the tires on Britton. Teams like the Astros, Phillies, Dodgers, and Braves could all be a match.

Perhaps the Astros are the team we should keep an eye on the most, considering their past efforts in trading for him. As stated in MLB Trade Rumors’ offseason outlook for the Astros:

In the event Sipp’s on his way out, Houston may consider fellow free agents Zach Britton, Andrew Miller, Justin Wilson, Oliver Perez and Jerry Blevins to replace him. It’s worth noting the Astros already have connections to four of those players. They unsuccessfully chased Britton and Wilson on the trade market in recent years, traded for Perez in 2015 (it didn’t go well), and made a generous offer to Miller during his previous trip to free agency in 2014.

Like most free agent relievers that are below mega deal status, they bring a free agency that is sure to be compelling and turning. Maybe the market collapses for Britton and he ends up in the situation that Greg Holland was in last year. Maybe he strikes a deal early and gets the money that was anticipated for him. It’s almost impossible to be sure which direction it heads.

Patrick Brennan loves to research pitchers and minor leaguers with data. You can find additional work of his at Royals Review and Royals Farm Report. You can also find him on Twitter @paintingcorner.