Coming into the offseason it was a matter of “when” the Yankees would add bullpen help, not “if.” David Robertson and Zach Britton both became free agents after the season and reports indicated the Yankees wanted to add two relievers to replace them. Makes sense, right?
So far the Yankees have added one reliever. They re-signed Britton last week to a unique contact. Britton and his turbosinker rejoin Dellin Betances and Chad Green as Aroldis Chapman’s primary setup crew. Three different looks there. Betances is just overwhelming. Green gives you straight gas. Britton is a ground ball machine.
Once upon a time Britton was a starting pitcher with a four-pitch mix. He threw four-seam fastballs and the sinker, plus a slider and a changeup. Then he scrapped the slider and went with a curveball. Once he moved into relief, Britton became a sinker/curveball guy. It’s more like SINKER/curveball. Look at this:
Like most guys Britton shelved his third and fourth pitches after moving into the bullpen. In his case, he has a dominant sinker, so he just throws it over and over and over again, with enough curveballs to keep hitters honest. Look at that graph again though. Notice anything? There’s a little bump in four-seamers late in 2018.
Britton, for whatever reason, threw some four-seam fastballs late last season with the Yankees. They were the first four-seamers he’d thrown since 2014. Here, for the sake of having a visual, is one of those four-seam fastballs:
Yep, that is a four-seam fastball, not a diving sinker. The question now is why? Why did Britton start throwing four-seam fastballs for the first time in four years last season? This is what we know:
1. He didn’t use it often. First and foremost, we’re talking about a very small sample size here. Ten four-seam fastballs total. Britton threw 475 pitches as a Yankee last season, postseason included, and ten were four-seamers. That is nothing. They are the first four-seamers Britton threw in four years though. That suggests there was something more to it than randomness.
2. There’s nothing special about the spin. The Yankees love spin rate. In Britton’s case, those ten four-seamers he threw did not show surprising spin. They averaged 2,168 rpm — the top spin rate recorded was 2,349 rpm, but none of the other four-seamers checked it at over 2,227 rpm — which is below the 2,263 rpm league average. It’s not like Britton had this high-spin four-seamer in his back pocket the entire time and the Yankees decided to unleash it. That would’ve been fun.
3. He only used it when behind in the count. This seems notable. Britton threw those ten four-seamers only when he was behind in the count. In get-me-over situations, basically. Here is the four-seamer by count breakdown:
- 1-0 count: One
- 2-0 count: Two
- 2-1 count: One
- 3-0 count: Three
- 3-1 count: Two
- 3-2 count: One
Furthermore, Britton only used the four-seamer in situations where he really needed to make a pitch to get back into the count. That four-seamer in the GIF above? Britton threw it in a 3-0 count leading off the seventh inning in a tie game. The remaining nine four-seamers came with men on base. They were “throw a strike, stupid” situations.
4. He used it mostly against the Red Sox. Coincidence? Maybe! Eight of those ten four-seamers came in three different outings against the Red Sox. Britton threw one four-seamer to Derek Dietrich (the GIF above) and one to Ronny Rodriguez of the Tigers. The other eight were thrown to Red Sox. Hmmm.
There are a few possible explanations here. One, randomness. Baseball is weird sometimes. Two, Britton has faced the Red Sox so many times over the years that he’s looking for ways to change the scouting report and continue getting outs. It’s a game of adjustments, after all. And three, the Yankees and Britton knew they’d have to go through the Red Sox in the ALDS, so they planted some seeds, and gave Red Sox hitters something to think about. Shrugs.
* * *
We can’t make any conclusions based on ten pitches so I am declaring Britton’s four-seam fastball usage a #thingtowatch. We’ll see if he sticks with it. My hunch is he used the four-seamer on days he couldn’t control his sinker. Remember all those walk problems he had following the Achilles surgery? Given the fact he only used the four-seamer when behind in the count, I’m inclined to believe he turned to it only when he wasn’t confident he could throw that moving sinker for a strike.
Perhaps the Yankees and Britton will stick with the four-seamer, just to give him another weapon and keep opposing hitters on their toes. We saw David Robertson throw a two-seamer at times last year and also mix in a few sliders. Veteran pitchers make adjustments and it could be Britton’s four-seamer is his attempt to remain dominant. For now, the sudden four-seam usage is something that happened and is worth monitoring. It’s too early to know whether it’ll make a meaningful difference on the field.