Zack Britton Is a Big Problem

The Yankees are going to win the AL East. Actually, they already have. They are going to the playoffs and that means everything between now and the last game of the regular season is to get ready for the postseason.

I have two legitimate fears when it comes to the 2019 Yankees and their chances at winning the World Series this October. The first is the lineup will get shutdown against elite pitching in a short series, the way they were last season and the way they were in Games 1, 2, 6 and 7 of the ALCS the year before. The second is Aaron Boone will ruin and destroy the season the same way he did in Games 3 and 4 of the ALDS last season.

We know Boone has little to no actual power as manager of the Yankees. He’s essentially the Queen of England, a figurehead for the organization, who acts as if he’s important when talking with the media. There’s no way Boone truly owns the lineup card, there’s no way the front office and analytics team lets him decide where batters hit in the order and when players get a scheduled day off and I highly doubt he has any real input on who’s on the 25-man roster each day. But the bullpen is a completely different story.

Most likely, Boone has a guide or map on how to manage his bullpen, provided to him by the analytics team. Bring Reliever A into Situation B, and if Situation X happens, bring in Reliever Y. I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere in the Yankees dugout, Boone has a card similar to a multiplication table or a blackjack cheat sheet to help him navigate his own bullpen. The issue here is that once the game starts, Boone is free to do whatever he wants. Sure, he might hear about it later from Brian Cashman, but in the actual moment, he has all the power and can easily disregard the guide or cheat sheet and determine which reliever to bring in and when.

I believe this is what happened in Game 3 of the 2018 ALDS when Boone let Luis Severino go out for the fourth inning when every ball in play to that point had been a hard line drive and Severino clearly didn’t have it. Boone let Severino load the bases in the fourth with no outs before finally removing him, and needing a strikeout more than ever, Boone brought in Lance Lynn, the last man on the postseason roster. The Red Sox immediately immediately cleared the bases and put the game out of reach.

I believe this is what happened in Game 4 of the 2018 ALDS when Boone let CC Sabathia go through the Red Sox’ order a second time, later using the excuse he liked the matchup of Sabathia vs. Jackie Bradley, the Red Sox’ 9-hitter. Boone liked the matchup so much, he let Sabathia lose the game by going through the first eight hitters in the lineup.

Boone is in over his head as an actual in-game manager. We know this because he’s proven it for 250 games as manager of the Yankees. Cashman stood by Boone’s side after the season, giving his manager “A’s across the board” when asked about his his first season. Boone had been Cashman’s choice and there was no way he was going to turn on Boone after he had recently appointed him as manager to lead a team in a championship window. There’s no way Cashman thought Boone’s bullpen decisions in Game 3 and 4 of the ALDS were the right moves that just didn’t happen to work out.

If you think Boone has learned from his mistakes in the 2018 regular season and 2018 postseason, you haven’t watched him this season. The Yankees aren’t in first place because he suddenly figured out how to manage. They’re in first place because DJ LeMahieu is the AL MVP, Gary Sanchez has returned to his pre-2018 self, Luke Voit is a combination of power and discipline, Gleyber Torres is on his way to superstardom, the bullpen has been mostly good, the Replacement Yankees got timely hits and the Yankees have taken care of business by beating up on the bad teams in the league, which there are a lot of once again. Boone isn’t responsible for any of those things. He doesn’t have some magic touch to give LeMahieu a hit nearly every time he’s up and he didn’t fix Sanchez at the plate. He didn’t find the diamond in the rough that is Voit and didn’t instill the amazing baseball talent in Torres the middle infielder has had his whole life. He didn’t make the elite relievers elite since they all came from other organizations and were already elite. He didn’t tell most of the teams in Major League Baseball to cut payroll and not be competitive. The only thing Boone could be given credit for is keeping the clubhouse and plane rides and road trips loose and fun, and there’s no way of knowing if he’s done that, and even if he has, there’s no way of measuring it.

The only thing we can measure when it comes to Boone is his in-game bullpen decisions, when he clearly tosses aside his cheat sheet and starts managing on his own. He has made the same egregious mistakes over and over, failing to follow his guide. I say he’s failing to follow it since there’s no way anyone with an Ivy league degree who’s part of the Yankees analytics team suggests or recommends the moves Boone makes with his bullpen or agrees with them.

At times, it’s hard to get on Boone for his bullpen decisions. When you build a super bullpen like the Yankees have, fans are more inclined to blame the reliever than the manager for a poor result. When you have so many big-name relievers on one team, nearly every pitcher Boone brings in is on the Yankees because of an elite resume, established with another organization. No one more than Zack Britton.

The Yankees were able to acquire Britton from the Orioles at a discounted rate last season since the left-handed closer was still on his way back from an Achilles injury, was nowhere near the pitcher he had once been, was an impending free agent and wasn’t going to re-sign with the Orioles. His walks were up and his strikeouts were down, but the Yankees felt the more removed from his Achilles injury he was, the better he would be.

Britton pitched in 25 games for the 2018 Yankees and rarely ever pitched like you would expect Zack Britton to pitch like. If his name had been anything else, he would have been viewed as a good to very good reliever, not someone who at times was the most dominant reliever in the world. Britton was good but not great in the 25 regular-season games, and no Yankees fan trusted him to put up a zero or get out of a game-threatening jam. So it came as no surprise when he gave up an opposite-field solo home run to the light-hitting Christian Vazquez in Game 4 of the ALDS, which would be the difference in the 2018 Yankees’ elimination.

The Yankees decided to bring Britton back for 2019 and 2020 and 2021 with a three-year deal, and after a four-appearance scoreless streak against the lowly Orioles and Tigers to open the season, Britton has been a disaster ever since.

The first-pitch, go-ahead double in the eighth inning allowed by Britton to Michael Conforto on Tuesday night wasn’t a shock, it was expected. There was a time when Britton would have gotten out of the inning without a problem, especially facing a left-handed batter, but that was a long, long time ago.

I wrote this on Monday and it took one appearance for Britton to come through on it:

Don’t let Britton’s 2.55 ERA fool you. He has walked 20 and struck out 26 in 35 1/3 innings this season. Since May 20, he has walked 12 and struck out four in 15 innings. I don’t know what’s worse, the four strikeouts or the 12 walks. But I do know a pitcher with those kind of numbers can’t be trusted to pitch the eighth inning in close games and can’t be viewed as an elite option. It’s only a matter of time until Britton’s high walk rate and low strikeout rate translate into earned runs. He can’t pitch like this and escape damage forever and he better figure it out before it gets to that point.

Britton has now appeared in 38 games for the Yankees this season and has failed to record a strikeout in 16 of them, which seems impossible given his stuff and history. But since May 31, Britton has faced 50 batters and struck out two of them. To make matters worse, he’s walked 11 of those 50 and this season he has only struck out 26 and walked 20 in 36 innings. I was more worried about him walking in a run when facing Conforto on Tuesday night due to his command and control issues, and likely fearing the same thing, he grooved a middle-middle pitch to Conforto to lose the game. No, Britton didn’t put the runners on base, Adam Ottavino did, Britton hasn’t been good with clean starts to innings, let alone with runners on base as 40 percent of his inherited runners this season have scored.

Britton is going to receive special treatment for his name and not his performance and he’s going to pitch in the eighth inning or other high-leverage spots three months from now when the Yankees can’t afford to have him walking the park and failing to miss bats. If Dellin Betances doesn’t pitch this season, Boone is going to keep giving the ball to Britton in crucial spots because of his career resume, not his season resume.

Yes, the Yankees have a seven-game loss column lead over the Rays and an 11-game loss column lead over the Red Sox, but this isn’t a problem which can simply be shrugged aside by saying, “The Yankees are in first place, stop complaining.” The Yankees aren’t in first place because of Britton, and the goal of the season isn’t to be satisfied with finishing in first place or winning 100-plus games. The goal is to win the World Series, something the Yankees haven’t done in going on a decade.

Everything the Yankees do between now and the end of the regular season is to prepare to win 11 games in October and that includes getting Britton right. He will never be the pitcher he was four and five years ago, but there’s no reason he should be this bad either. Britton has 79 games to figure it out because Boone is going to use him in the postseason whether he deserves to pitch or not, and once Britton’s in the game, it’s on him to perform, whether he’s been put in the best position to succeed or not.


My book The Next Yankees Era: My Transition from the Core Four to the Baby Bombers is available!