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The Yankees signing of Zach Britton is risky

Did the Yankees overpay?

Divisional Round - Boston Red Sox v New York Yankees - Game Four Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Last night, the Yankees reunited with free agent reliever Zach Britton. The lefty agreed to a deal worth roughly $13 million per year for either two, three, or four seasons, depending on opt-outs, opt-ins, the lunar calendar, and the Dow Jones Industrial Average, I think. These Scott Boras contracts are getting pretty weird.

No matter, Britton is under contract with the Yankees for at least 2019 and 2020. They previously acquired him at the trade deadline from the Orioles for prospects. He appeared to pitch much better in his new environment, lowering his ERA and walk rate from 3.45 and 15.9 percent with Baltimore to 2.88 and 10.4 percent with New York...

...Except maybe he didn’t. His FIP was 4.47 in Baltimore and 4.11 in New York, and his DRA only improved from 7.71 to 6.55. That’s actually kind of terrible. Here at Beyond the Box Score, we tend to favor advanced metrics, and they tell the tale of a downright awful pitcher.

In this case, perhaps, they don’t tell the full story. Britton’s ERA has outperformed his DRA in every season of his career— even including his early days as a fringe starting pitcher. This is likely due in part to his “pitch-to-contact” profile. He succeeds in doing so better than anyone else because of his insanely high ground ball rate.

Highest Ground Ball Rate by Relievers, 2014-18 (min. 100 IP)

Pitcher GB%
Pitcher GB%
Zach Britton 76.4
Scott Alexander 72.0
Brad Ziegler 67.3
Javier Lopez 65.3
Marc Rzepczynski 65.2

With a devastating sinker that averages 95 miles per hour, Britton is the king of ground balls. While he might give up his share of singles, it’s nearly impossible to yield an extra base hit on a bouncer. This is why his wOBA against since 2015 is just .247.

An even better illustration of his extreme ground ball proclivity is launch angle. The MLB average launch angle since 2015 is 10.9 degrees. Against Britton it’s -7.3! That’s 18.2 degrees lower than average. That difference is roughly the angle of a household door wedge. (I must admit, I don’t actually have any door wedges in my home. If I did, I would label them “Britton.”)

Ground balls are good, and Britton gets lots of them, so maybe we shouldn’t overthink this. However, there’s reason to be concerned about his future. He only appeared in 51 games over the last two seasons due to injuries, and missed the first two and half months of the 2018 season. He’s obviously healthy now, but his this has to be a concern to some degree. (Get it? Degree? It’s funny, right?)

Even when healthy, Britton’s performance has declined over the last two seasons. Here’s a few of his indicators:

Britton 2015-18

Year K% BB% Sinker Velocity Launch Angle
Year K% BB% Sinker Velocity Launch Angle
2015 31.2 5.5 97.1 -8.7
2016 29.1 7.1 97.4 -8.4
2017 18.0 11.2 96.3 -6.2
2018 20.1 12.4 95.0 -4.7

Britton was arguably the best relief pitcher in baseball from 2015-16. Since then, his strikeout rate, walk rate, velocity, and launch angle have all trended in the wrong direction. The Yankees signed him through his age-32 season (or possibly age-34, depending on the Siberian precipitation level in February). If all these factors keep declining, they may quickly regret this contract.

Speaking of the contract, it’s pretty hefty for a questionable relief pitcher. Here are the highest reliever salaries for 2019:

Highest 2019 Reliever Salaries

Reliever 2019 Salary (millions)
Reliever 2019 Salary (millions)
Kenley Jansen 19.3
Mark Melancon 19.0
Wade Davis 18.0
Aroldis Chapman 17.2
Zach Britton 13.0
Andrew Miller 11.0
David Robertson 10.0

Free agency is still ongoing, and Craig Kimbrel will certainly earn more than Britton. Adam Ottavino and a few others could too. Nevertheless, Britton is one of the highest paid relievers in baseball, and the second highest lefty behind Chapman.

David Robertson is also highlighted in the above chart. He was another Yankee free agent who just signed with Philadelphia. He’s right-handed and a few years older, but he has a cleaner medical history and more recent success. They aren’t perfectly interchangeable, but it appears the Phillies signed the better pitcher for less money.

It’s okay though, with all those ground balls, there’s no way things could go too badly. Who are the Yankee infielders anyway? Around the horn, they’re going with Miguel Andújar, Troy Tulowitzki, Gleyber Torres, and Luke Voit. Uh oh.

Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Tweets @depstein1983