Following surgery to remove bone chips in his left elbow, Zack Britton is out indefinitely. His loss means the New York Yankees need to scramble together a new pathway to Aroldis Chapman. With several capable arms in the bullpen to fill the setup man role, who is best candidate to replace Zack Britton?
Let’s explore each rostered option, the stats, and a free agent who could guide manager Aaron Boone‘s thinking.
Next Man Up
That’s a philosophy with which Yankees fans are quite familiar. So who is the next man up to replace Zack Britton? Thankfully, Aaron Boone does not necessarily need to dig deep to find the next man up to cover for the left-handed reliever.
Chad Green may be the most obvious choice to cover Britton’s role. The hard-throwing righty was back in his late-inning role in 2020 after being used as an opener in 2019. He’s also expected to fill the closing role for the first couple games of ’21, as Chapman is serving his 2-game suspension for throwing at the Rays Mike Brosseau on September 1, 2020. In his one inning of work so far this spring, Green was dominant, striking out the side on 14 pitches.
The Yankees have another lefty ready to replace Zack Britton in Justin Wilson. Signed to a 1-yr deal in the off-season, the reliever made his unceremonious return in pinstripes on Wednesday evening. He lasted only a third of an inning giving up two homers on 26 pitches while striking out one.
Another 1-yr FA signing over the winter, Darren O’Day boasted dominant numbers in 2020 with the NL East champion Braves. A sidewinder with a pedigree not seen on the Yankees since Jeff Nelson, O’Day is effective eliminating both righties and lefties. As with the two Yankees pitchers previously mentioned, O’Day has appeared once so far this spring, striking out one without allowing a baserunner in his single inning.
Two final options to replace Zack Britton are Jonathan Loaisiga and Nick Nelson. Posting nearly identical lines so far this spring (6IP, 2H, 5K for Loaisiga; 5IP, 3H, 4K for Nelson), Boone seems ready to work both righties in higher-leverage situations this season.
Now that we’ve detailed the available replacements, here’s how some of the advanced stats could shape Boone’s decisions come Opening Day.
The Statistical Approach
Ideally, the pitcher to replace Zack Britton should be able to perform in a similar capacity. They should to keep the ball on the ground and maintain a low hard-hit percentage, hopefully averting Yankee Stadium’s propensity to allow the long ball. So let’s focus on those two stats, along the corollary K-BB% and FIP to see who may be the best fit. For reference, I use Fangraphs player pages for their advanced statistical approach.
Focusing first on ground ball percentage, only Loaisiga and Wilson are remotely close to Britton’s gaudy low 70s GB%. They both clock in at the mid-to-low 40s, while Green and O’Day find themselves below the league average in the mid-30s.
Where Green and O’Day diverge is their hard-hit percentage. Green is the highest at 42.3%, showing that when he’s not striking out batters, they’re making pretty solid contact. O’Day’s percentage is the lowest of the group at 25.9% even with his below average velocity. Wilson and Loaisiga find themselves around the league average in the low 30s.
Those pitching statistical pairings continue into with K-BB%, where Green and O’Day excel. Both hover in the mid-to-low 20s for that statistic, while Loasiga and Wilson are both right around 16%. Britton is even lower at ~11% for comparison.
The only true outlier when factoring in FIP is Chad Green, who has seen a steady rise in the past 3 seasons. That’s what happens you combine a low GB% and high hard-hit percentage, Green becomes the pitching embodiment of the “three true outcomes.”
So what do you do when it’s hard to separate the available options on the roster? Well guess who’s still on the market…
Is David Robertson the Guy?
The former Yankee is still a free agent, but yet to pitch following Tommy John surgery in 2019. His former employers, the Philadelphia Phillies, bought out his contract at the end of the 2020 season.
Already a two-time Yankee, CC Sabathia wants D-Rob to make third return to the Bronx to replace Zack Britton. Speaking on his R2C2 Podcast with Ryan Ruocco, Sabathia said, “You got D-Rob sitting out there, I think you may need to go ahead and look into signing that guy for the back end of the bullpen, just to help because you’re gonna have so many guys on short pitch counts because they didn’t throw a lot of innings last year.”
Robertson threw in front of scouts on February 11th, but remains unsigned. His pedigree is certainly there as a low FIP and GB% guy who strikes out lots of batters. And as evidenced by the signings of Kluber and Taillon, the Yankees are willing to take a chance on arms coming off major injuries.
Realistically, each of these guys deserves a shot to replace Zack Britton. What’s most likely to happen is a setup man by committee approach, as hinted by Boone during Wednesday evening’s win over the Pirates.
Chad Green should be first up once Chapman returns from suspension. In later innings, a strikeout pitcher has a better chance of averting chunk run totals. But O’Day is most likely to challenge Green. His pedigree, veteran mind, and statistics all play well for Yankee Stadium.
All four relievers have plenty of time to show their capabilities as Spring Training continues. But Brian Cashman could throw a wrench in the plans if he makes an approach for Robertson. No matter what, like the rotation situation, the Yankees have options come Opening Day.