08 September 2015

Can Britton Start In 2016?

One of our commentators recently asked whether Zach Britton could be a potential 2016 rotation option. In his argument for why this could be possible, he made the following point:
Britton's success hinges more on control (2.0 BB/9) of a primary pitch that moves like crazy. Higher velocity likely decreases the movement, if anything, and lower velocity certainly wouldn't impact the movement.
If this is correct then this would strengthen the case for making Britton a starter because while he'd need a third pitch he would already have two plus pitches. The way I see it, his slider already serves as a pitch that can be used to strike batters out so he'd need to resurrect his four-seam fastball to become a starter. However, this all depends on whether the success of Britton's sinker does depend on its velocity.

Using data from ESPN's Stats and Information Portal, it is possible to view the results of Britton's sinker as a reliever when its velocity was below 94 mph, between 94.01 to 95 mph, 95.01 to 96 mph and above 96.01. 

When Britton throws a sinker less than 95 mph as the last pitch of an at-bat then the result is a strikeout roughly 12.5% of the time. When he throws the sinker between 95 and 96 mph as the last pitch of an at-bat then the result is a strikeout 22.6% of the time. When he throws it faster than 96 mph as the last pitch of an at-bat, then the result is a strikeout 30.3% of the time. The faster he throws his sinker, the more likely it results in strike #3. This partially explains why batters’ wOBA is lower against his sinker when he throws it faster than 96 mph than when he throws it lower than that. The differences appear to be somewhat drastic as shown by this chart.

However, the main difference becomes clear when looking at the results of balls put into play. Britton has thrown 85 sinkers faster than 96 mph that were put into play and has allowed only 2 extra base hits (2 doubles). This is primarily because 71 of the 85 (83.5%) balls put into play have been either ground balls or bunts. He’s allowed 5 flyballs and only one of those resulted in a hit (a double). In contrast, when Britton throws his sinker at speeds lower than 96, he’s allowed 13 total fly balls in 210 balls put into play in which batters have hit 5 home runs and 2 doubles.

As a result, batters are averaging a .264 wOBA and .024 ISO when putting sinkers faster than 96 mph into play and averaging a .291 wOBA and a .093 ISO when putting sinkers slower than 96 mph into play. Simply put, batters are unable to do much damage even against mistakes faster than 96 mph while they simply punish mistakes slower than 96 mph. This chart shows his results at different speeds on balls put into play.

Britton’s sinker also becomes harder to make contact with when he throws it faster. When he throws it faster than 96 mph, batters swing and miss 18% of the time. When he throws it slower than 96 mph, batters swing and miss 12% of the time.  Britton has a 23% called strike rate when he throws his sinker slower than 94 mph compared to a roughly 16% rate when he throws it faster than 94 mph. As the chart below shows, the data suggests that the benefit Britton gains from increased control and being able to throw more strikes by throwing slower is neutralized by the benefits Britton gains by throwing faster and making it harder to make contact with this pitch. Once one takes into account the fact that Britton gives up weaker contact when throwing the ball faster, it seems clear that Britton does benefit from his high velocity and that using him as a starter would weaken this advantage.

That stated, the results from this pitch thrown at even lower speeds are definitely acceptable. As a starter, opposing batters had a wOBA of .321 against his sinker while they only have a wOBA of .288 against it as a reliever. If his sinker can remain as effective as a starter as it as a reliever then it seems reasonable to presume that he would have two good pitches.

The real question is whether he could throw a third pitch and what impact that would have on his current arsenal. When he was used as a starter, he used four pitches: a four-seam fastball, a change up, a sinker and a slider. Since he’s currently throwing the sinker and slider, it would make sense to presume that he would try to add a four-seam fastball or a changeup. The problem is that there are a few relievers that rely primarily on a sinker, but most starters throw a four-seam fastball relatively often. Not only would he have to reintroduce that fastball to his arsenal but he’d have to throw it often. Presuming he’d be able to do that is awfully risky.

I don’t think the Orioles would consider using Britton as a starter. Even if they did, I don’t think he’d be an ace. And certainly the Orioles have seen teams attempt to convert relievers like Bard, Feliz and Ogando to starters and seen how that ruined their careers. Britton will probably be an elite reliever as long as he doesn’t lose velocity on his sinker. It is perhaps disappointing to see a top prospect top out as a reliever but relievers have value also and something is certainly better than nothing


Tim said...

A more pressing issue is how whatever he picks up as a third pitch would be a pitch for show and nothing more. His sinker is a plus pitch as a starter, but his slider is average. You add a below average four seam or changeup or both, and you have a rather unimpressive pitcher who will have trouble holding down a backend rotation job. Pitchers who are effectively two pitch pitchers need plus to plus plus pitches with both of those pitches to be successful and that success is highly dependent on those pitches working all of the time. AJ Burnett with the Marlins and Blue Jays, mostly, was a prime example. Those pitches have to work or else you are in trouble, particularly, with the number of times a batter sees you.

Matt Perez said...

That's the problem. A four-seam fastball usually isn't just for show. Even pitchers that use the pitch sparingly still throw it 40% of the time. Realistically, he'd be throwing it as often as he does the sinker. I suppose he could be the one starter in the majors that throws his sinker as his primary pitch but I tend to stay away from that.

Britton's slider is far better than just average. It's a devastatingly effective pitch with two strikes. Put it this way, he's struck out 32 batters with the pitch and has only allowed 10 batters to put it into play. And those 10 batters have a .200/.200/.200 line against the pitch even though they put the ball into play. I'd have to look at what other pitchers have done but I feel like that could be a legit 70 pitch.

Tim said...

If you throw your worst pitch of three pitches 40% of the time, then the entire organization has failed you. I think relying on data will likely wind up with a bit of a survivor issue. Pitchers with horrible four seam fastballs will not be throwing them that often because they are horrible pitches. They will just throw two seam fastballs instead.

Anonymous said...

Wow, absolutely phenomenal, I am aforementioned Anon and I definitely did not expect to have my comment responded to with a strong, analytically sound, piece.
This definitely swayed me away from Britton as a starter, to an extent, but I still have a degree of optimism that he could be a successful, above-average major league starter.
First of all, I think the 2-seamer has to be considered an 80 pitch at this point. I say this because I think its pretty widely accepted (correct me if I'm wrong), that Britton is the best sinkerballer in baseball. Pair that with the fact that he's topped out at 100 on the 2-seamer this year (yesterday in new york, I believe against the second batter of the inning after Jacoby) and I think its fair to say that there is not another level above Britton's that anyone is reaching with the 2-seamer.
So if Britton has an 80 sinker, a 70 slider (your above comment), 65 control? (I'm looking at walk rate), as a reliever, we regress the sinker grade to what, 65/70?. Then we're left with the third pitch.
My biggest issue with the analysis concerns the 4-seam. I don't think there's a pitcher in baseball (again, correct me if I'm wrong), who throws their 2-seamer harder than the 4-seamer. In 2011 as a starter, Britton was throwing his 2-seamer at 92-95 if memory serves (also watched a couple old starts for reference; saw him flash at least an average changeup). So, if the 4-seamer is easier to throw harder, he might well be 94-97 with that pitch, which I think would merit at least a 60 grade, depending on movement and control (but again, isn't the 4-seamer supposed to be easier to control)?
Not even accounting for a potentially average changeup, that leaves us with a
70 2-seam, 70 slider, 60 4-seam, 50-changeup, 65-control pitcher.
Compare that to an older (for a top 100), pitching prospect like Steven Matz who has these grades (mlbdotcom): 65 4-seam, 50 curveball, 60 changeup, 50 control.
Zach Britton looks like an elite level starting prospect by that method of comparison.
Again, I understand that Britton is older and acclimated to his current role, but is any of that scouting grading that far from the truth?
Feel free to point out any error in my method, I didn't go to the same analytical/statistical depth that you did.
My favorite comp is CJ Wilson btw, to counter those examples you gave at the end of the piece.

Matt Perez said...

Tim - Yeah, you're right.

Actually, when I was looking up starters that primarily threw sinkers I didn't look far back enough in time and just completely blew it. If I had, I would have found Masterson and Lowe whom would have been relevant to this very question.

My fault.

Anon - Speaking for myself, I like good comments and I thought it was an interesting question worth addressing. I'm glad you enjoyed.

Brooks Baseball claims that Britton's sinker/two-seamer current velocity (2014 and 2015) is on average 96.55 mph.

Brooks Baseball also claims that his sinker and four-seamer both had an average velocity of 92.8 (one was 92.81 and the other 92.82) from 2010 to 2013. It probably means he'd be throwing on average around 91 or 92 now.

But Masterson and Lowe primarily survived on two pitches and are the primary comps. Just looking at them, I think that Britton probably would go with the changeup and would throw it relatively rarely (less than 10% of the time). I haven't looked at either of those two pitchers sufficiently and probably should to answer the question.

Unknown said...

There are certainly a lot of Orioles players not in their role they were drafted on have the most experience. Sounds like we don't have enough legitimate everyday players to put players in the best position to succeed. IMHO