Zack Britton makes $13 million per year. This makes him the sixth-highest paid reliever in baseball. Can a player be underrated if he earns that much? Somehow, Britton fits this label. In fact, he might also be underappreciated. As a fan of the New York Yankees, it is easy to see that Britton does not get nearly the credit he deserves. Not only by Yankees fans, but by many people throughout the sport. Since 2014, Britton has been one of the best relievers in the game; arguably top-five. Let’s take a look at his excellence since 2014 and why he is often overlooked throughout the sport.
Zack Britton Defines Peak and Longevity
Despite missing time with an achilles injury, Britton’s 367 1/3 innings pitched ranks in the top-20 among relievers since 2014. His 0.37 HR/9 ranks first among relievers with more than 200 innings pitched. He is a sinker-ball pitcher so is it his primary goal to keep the ball on the ground, he has been the best in the sport at not allowing home runs. Even changing the scope to 2018 through 2020, Britton has allowed a total of six home runs. This is the fifth-best figure in the sport, right ahead of teammate Aroldis Chapman, who has allowed seven. In an era, where home run rates have spiked, Britton excels where many others fail. This includes relievers who typically rate higher, such as Liam Hendriks, Josh Hader, and Kirby Yates, among others.
In sticking with his peak, Britton’s 1.84 ERA ranks first in baseball since 2014. His 2.93 FIP and 2.83 xFIP rank 17th and 9th, respectively, in that span as well. His groundball rate is 76.2%, by far the best in the sport, and 5.4% ahead of the next best reliever. Britton is able to perform this well despite basically throwing one pitch. In this seven-year stretch, 2020 was the year in which he threw his sinker the least, and he still threw it 80.6% of the time. While no one compares to Mariano Rivera, Britton comes pretty close in that he produces elite results by leaning on one elite pitch. In all, Britton’s 231 ERA+ since 2014 ranks first in all of baseball.
At His Best
Zack Britton’s 2016 season is arguably the greatest relief season in history. He led baseball with 47 saves to go along with a 0.54 ERA, 1.94 FIP, 0.836 WHIP, 803 ERA+, and 4.1 bWAR. This phenomenal season led to a 4th place Cy Young finish and 11th in MVP voting. Britton is the model of consistency. Even in a 2020 season in which many players struggled to play their best, the lefty was humming along with a 1.89 ERA and 2.61 FIP in 19 innings pitched.
What Makes Him Underappreciated?
Maybe it is the consistency that makes it so easy to overlook him. Maybe it is the fact that he is not a closer anymore. However, the role of relievers is more fluid now than it has ever been. Closers can be openers, middle relievers can be closers, it is all a scramble to find the method that works best right now. The primary difference between Britton and the other top relievers in the game are strikeouts. He has averaged only 8.5 K/9 since 2014, and an even lower 7.7 since 2018. By comparison, Chapman, Hader, and Nick Anderson have all averaged more than 15 K/9 since 2018. In this landscape, relievers who throw 99 mph and strike out a ton of batters are seen as more valuable. Thus, no matter how good Britton’s results are, ground balls are less sexy than strikeouts.
One of Britton’s main detractors are his walks. While his 4.5 BB/9 since 2018 is not great, he makes up for it by getting a ton of ground balls and double plays. It is not hard to see that he struggles with his command at times, but he looks dominant on the mound more often than not.
Relying on weak contact and getting a lot of ground balls does not make Zack Britton a favorite in the analytical community as well. Unlike strikeout pitchers, his performance is more dependent on the fielders behind him. He does not typically rank among the best relievers in the game despite posting numbers comparable to those who are.
Relievers are historically fickle beings who lack any real sort of consistency or longevity. However, Zack Britton has shown the baseball world he deserves more respect than what he has received. General fans, Yankees fans, and the analytical community fail to appreciate Britton for who he is – a consistent, durable, and dominant force who excels with only one pitch. It is time that Britton gets the respect he deserves.
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