The 'Zack Britton Package': How This Defensive Scheme Could Help Yankees Without Aroldis Chapman
NEW YORK – As Luke Voit pounded a chopper to the left-side of the infield in the late innings of Saturday's intrasquad, Zack Britton hopped off the mound, throwing his hands above his head with a huge grin across his face.
At the surface, it seemed out of the ordinary, considering all the southpaw had done was retire the side in a practice game. When all seven fielders began trotting in toward the dugout behind him, the source of his excitement became clear.
New York had successfully worked through an inning with a five-man infield, bringing Tyler Wade in from right field to stand sandwiched between Gleyber Torres and Kyle Holder up the middle. It was as though the Yankees were shifting for a left-handed hitter, but had the left side of the infield straight up as usual.
When asked about the defensive scheme, a wry smile crept across manager Aaron Boone's face. It was something the Yankees have been working on for quite some time and it even has a name.
"Its our 'Zack Britton Package,'" Boone said. "It's something we've been very close to using. We almost used it in a game last year."
The five-man infield leaves right field completely open, leaving the defense susceptible to surrendering unorthodox extra base hits should a line drive or fly ball get past the right side of the infield. For a sinkerballer like Britton, however, keeping the ball on the ground is his forte.
Last season, according to Fangraphs, 77.2% of balls put in play when the left-handed reliever was on the mound were ground balls. That was the highest percentage in all of Major League Baseball (among those who threw more than 60 innings).
At his peak performance, Britton's ground-ball rate gets even higher. With the Baltimore Orioles in 2015 and 2016—both seasons in which the southpaw was voted to the All-Star Game—Britton posted a ground-ball rate above 80%, per Statcast.
The Yankees won't be using this unique analytical approach on defense every time Britton toes the rubber. Only in specific situations, with specific personnel, will the Yankees deploy the alignment, Boone says.
"With Tyler Wade in the outfield today, if it's the right matchup, we probably wouldn't hesitate to go with that," he said, while also noting the opposing batter also factors into the decision. "We'd be willing to do it with Aaron Hicks. Aaron Hicks has worked on it quite a bit, but last year being out a lot, some of the outfield alignment situations didn't lend itself to that being possible."
Aaron Judge was a last-second scratch out of right field with neck stiffness on Saturday, opening the door for Wade, the team's utilityman. His defensive versatility has given him a shot to crack New York's Opening Day roster, while also making him an ideal player to use as the fifth infielder in this scheme.
Although Boone explained that this has been in his back pocket since last season, it seems like now is the right time for the Yankees to add it to their repertoire, with less than two weeks to go before the commencement of this summer's regular season. The 'Zack Britton Package' could be especially useful because its namesake is expected to be their closer when they open the season July 23 against the World Series champion Nationals in D.C.
Closer Aroldis Chapman is the latest Yankee to test positive for COVID-19, showing mild symptoms. He is no longer at New York's Summer Camp and the club's skipper doesn't expect the flamethrower back at the ballpark "for the foreseeable future."
Starting a truncated season without the reigning Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year is certainly not ideal, but the Yankees are confident Britton, who won the Rivera award in 2016, is more than capable of closing games out if needed.
"Britton has been an elite closer in this game for a long time, and he's still a great pitcher, so he naturally could fill that role," Boone said confidently.
Britton is coming off a resurgent campaign in 2019, posting a sparkling 1.91 ERA over 61 1/3 innings pitched. In '15 and '16, the left-hander compiled 36 and 47 saves, respectively. The latter was the best in the league that year, earning him a fourth-place finish in the race for the AL Cy Young Award. Even more impressive was Britton's absurd 0.54 ERA that season.
Plenty can happen in the next two weeks, but Britton feels that New York's "fantastic" bullpen is ready to conquer any challenges ahead.
"Everyone I've seen throw out of our 'pen has looked great and looked ready to go," he said Friday, referencing the work of Tommy Kahnle, Chad Green and Adam Ottavino in previous intrasquads. "That's nice considering you know that we've had that long layoff. So you know guys have been putting in the work, which is always good to see."
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