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A year after his return, who is Zack Britton now?

Time marches on, undaunted by the whims and wishes of fans and players alike. The clock ticks and ticks.

On June 12 of last year, Zack Britton (then: Zach) returned to the mound for the Baltimore Orioles after rupturing his Achilles tendon. Britton had been a tremendous reliever in prior years for the Orioles, especially in 2016: 67 innings, 0.54 ERA. Hard to top that. After struggling as a highly-touted starter, Britton transitioned to the bullpen and found his sinker more than up to the challenge. The lefty was like plenty before him; not quite cut out for starting, but dynamite in short bursts. As a fan of sinkerballers in general — I remember you, Brandon Webb and Chien-Ming Wang — I found Britton a treat to watch, even against the Yanks.

Then, well, bad stuff happened. Britton tore his Achilles doing an offseason workout after the 2017 season, a year plagued by other maladies. Typically, leg injuries with pitchers don’t arouse the same panic as arm injuries but make no mistake, Achilles tears are truly awful. Like, keep you up at night awful. Consider what Kobe Bryant said about his injury:

“When I first did it, right there, I was trying to feel if the tendon is there or if it’s gone. I realized it wasn’t there. I was literally trying to pull the tendon up, so hopefully I could walk and kind of hobble through the last two and a half minutes and try to play.”

Yikes. Basketball players have plenty of reason to fear such an experience, but so do pitchers. Consider all the balance and control that your Achilles gives you; then imagine having to develop the trust in landing on that same leg again and again, as Britton did. It’s not a small task. The Yankees acquired Britton last July, another arrow in Aaron Boone‘s bullpen quiver. There was hope that the lefty sinkerballer extraordinaire might regain his previous form, and while he’s generally been good, he certainly hasn’t been a true relief ace.

Nearly 12 months after his return, who is Zack Britton now?

Lots of groundballs, few too many walks

Britton’s 2016 is so pretty. That .54 ERA … wow. Imagine putting that up in MLB The Show. Imagine that in OOTP. Seems impossible, even in a video game. But Britton did it. Unfortunately, that might color the way we view him now.

No one is that good. Mariano Rivera, the unquestioned greatest reliever ever, never produced a regular season ERA below 1. To do so requires a serious helping of good luck, as evidenced by Britton’s xFIP in his magical 2016 season: 2.09. His BABIP? .215. He allowed just one homer in nearly 70 innings.

Two things can be true at once: Britton was awesome and also fortunate. I happen to think that being awesome can help you be more fortunate, but that’s for a different day.

His 2017-18 campaigns were both marred by injuries; in the previous year, some ankle and right forearm issues and last year by his rehab from the Achilles. That incredible, improbable season feels like a long time ago now.

Britton has been good in 2019, if not exactly the picture of reliability. He’s thrown 17 innings, with a nice 25 percent strikeout rate and a slightly uncomfortable 11.1 percent walk rate, all for an ERA right around 3. The walks give me a coronary, but the strikeouts are there and he leads all relievers in groundball rate.

A few things seem definitive about Britton now, post-Achilles. He’s still good! But, his velocity just doesn’t seem to be coming all the way back:

Season Sinker velocity xwOBA
2016 96.9 .209
2017 96 .294
2018 94.8 .328
Year 94.6 .307

Losing almost two miles per hour off your bread and butter pitch is tough on any late-inning reliever. The velocity is a rising tide that lifts all boats: the sinker and the slider play better if he’s touching 97. At 97, we question how human beings even create such pitches; at more like 94, he’s still good but we’re not pondering his true origins anymore.

Consider this particular 96 MPH sinker, captured by the Pitching Ninja:

That is the very definition of hard, late break. Obviously, he threw that in Yankee pinstripes, so we know the stuff is still there, even if he’s not the monster he once was.

The other issue is the walks. I have to admit a bit of bias here; I see those walks and I get twitchy. I was all prepared to unleash a brief screed here, telling you how allowing that many free passes make it awfully hard to nail down the kind of high-leverage outs the Yankees are asking of Britton, especially as his velocity inches down. I could bring up Adam Ottavino, who allows even more walks than his teammate, but his strikeouts are higher, too; that hardly makes it ideal, but the balance helps.

And yet, among relievers Britton is 25th in xFIP. Pretty good. Is it exceptionable? Is it mind-blowing? No. But it’s pretty good, and pretty good goes a long way. Would it be nice if the walk rate fell below 10? Yes. Is it likely? Who knows — pitchers figure out stuff all the time. But even if he doesn’t, Britton remains a hell of an arrow for Boone to use, especially as Dellin Betances remains unavailable.

The stuff is there. Britton has had a few rough outings this year that, fairly or not, might color the way Yankee fans view him. Chances are the Bombers will be glad they have him as the season rolls on.

Adam Adkins also writes about baseball at AdkinsOnSports.com. His most recent Ode to a Pitcher breakdown covered Noah Syndergaard.