Stay or Go: Should Yankees re-sign Zack Britton?

Zack Britton stay or go two panel Yankees treated art October 2022
Zack Britton stay or go two panel Yankees treated art October 2022

Zack Britton is an elite relief pitcher when healthy, a ground ball machine who suppresses home runs and has experience as a top-flight closer but has also been willing to serve as a shutdown setup man in the right situation. In other words, he makes a compelling offseason target as teams look to build their bullpens.

But injuries have ruined his past two seasons. He had Tommy John surgery in September of 2021 and only pitched in 25 games for the Yankees across the 2021 and 22 seasons. He turbo-charged his rehab from TJ this year to try to return and he made it, but was shut down after just three appearances in the major leagues because of arm fatigue.

Still, the Yankees love a lockdown relief corps and bullpens require a bushel of arms to be effective over the 162-game grind.

Britton has been a Yankee since 2018 and has a 2.75 ERA, a 160 ERA+ and 0.5 HR/9 across 136 games in pinstripes. In his 12-year career with the Baltimore Orioles and Yankees, he’s got a ground-ball rate of 65.9 percent, according to baseball-reference.com. The MLB average over that span is 43.8 percent.

Aroldis Chapman likely has thrown his last pitch in pinstripes. Chad Green is a free agent, too. And the Yankees have numerous young pen arms, including several who thrived in 2022.

Can Britton fit in going forward?

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE SENSE TO LET BRITTON GO

Health and age are the main concerns with the lefty. He will be 35 in December and finished the year on the 60-day injured list. In 2021, he did not pitch until June 12 because of surgery to remove a bone chip. He missed 14 games that year with a hamstring injury and then was shelved for the rest of the season in August leading up to his UCL reconstruction. He tried to get sharp enough to help in ‘22 but ultimately couldn’t last, though Aaron Boone said Britton was in a good place heading into the winter.

Britton was the sixth-highest paid relief pitcher in MLB in 2022, according to spotrac.com. He was pitching on a $14 million option picked up by the Yankees in 2020. He had signed a three-year, $39 million deal prior to the 2019 season and that contract required the Yanks exercise the option after the 2020 season, when Britton had a 1.89 ERA in 20 games in a season shortened by the pandemic.

Coming off injury now, he’s unlikely to command those types of numbers. Still, he’s been one of the best relief pitchers in baseball since he moved full-time to the bullpen with the Orioles in 2014. Assuming he’s fully healthy, some team might want to make him its closer and the Yankees might not want to compete financially with that kind of contract.

WHY IT COULD MAKE SENSE TO KEEP BRITTON

He’s really good. Again, when healthy. He might never get to these heights again, but in the three seasons from 2014-16, his ERA was 1.65, 1.92 and 0.54. Seven times he’s had a ground ball rate above 70 percent. In 2019, he appeared in 66 games for the Yanks with a 1.91 ERA.

Yankee Stadium is a fun place for Yankee batters to hit, thanks to the short right field porch and the overall home run friendly environment, to put it mildly. But that means it’s that way for opponents, too.

Britton, over his career, has only allowed a fly ball percentage of 14.0. The MLB average is 23.8 percent. His home run percentage is 1.5, nearly half of the MLB average (2.9 percent) over that stretch. In his big years, those numbers are even better. In 2020’s small sample size, he didn’t give up a single homer. Anywhere.

Opponents have slashed .233/.312/.326 against him with a .638 OPS over his career. The MLB average is .251/.319/.408 and .727 over that span. As a Yankee, he’s given up only 86 hits in 124.1 innings.

Britton has been wild in the playoffs as a Yankee (12 walks in 18.1 innings), but he’s also got a 2.95 ERA and a .129 batting average against in October in pinstripes. He’s got 21 games overall of postseason experience and would figure to be a sage advisor to all the youthful Yankee arms, with pointers about coping with October’s cauldron. The Yanks kept him with the team this past playoffs, even though he wasn't pitching.

THE VERDICT

The Yanks doubtless are glad to see Britton’s $14 million come off their ledgers, since they have so many other expenses this winter. Yes, we’re referring to any potential Aaron Judge contract. But what if they can entice Britton with an incentive-laden contract that keeps the payroll hit lower if health gets in the way again? Can’t imagine the Yankees would be disappointed to pay Britton for his old level of performance. You can’t have enough elite relievers.