Signing Zach Britton would fill the St. Louis Cardinals need for a lefty reliever, but he would also be one of the most expensive on the market this year. At 30 years old, Britton may not be worth it to some, but he’s a better fit on the team than you might think.
The St. Louis Cardinals have not had a great deal of success in acquiring left-handed relievers that can consistently get the job done. From Marc Rzepczynski to Brett Cecil, the Cardinals have been in a position where they can’t trust their left-handed pitchers out of the bullpen for too long, and the front office is keen on changing that.
Despite not putting up the jaw dropping numbers that he did in his 2016 season, where he finished 4th in Cy Young Award voting as a reliever, Zach Britton still has been one of the best left handed relievers in the league for several years.
In 79 games since 2016, Britton has registered a 3.00 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP. Those are decent numbers at first glance, but not nearly enough to justify the $12M salary he received last season, and they pale in comparison to the three years of dominance he had prior.
Here is a look at how they compare:
|Two Faced Britton||2014-16||2017-18|
|TBF vs LHH||225||94|
|RA vs LHH||4||13|
|BB% vs LHH||5.78%||9.57%|
|BAA vs LHH||.165||.191|
|SLG vs LHH||.178||.364|
While the extra year obviously adds some runs and hits, there is still no denying how much of a drop off he suffered from these last few seasons. If the dramatic difference in his BAA and SLG didn’t make it clear, his mortality against lefties in the previous two years should. Despite this regression, his numbers are still more than serviceable, especially against lefties.
This can be a blessing for the St. Louis Cardinals. If they sign Britton for a relative discount, and he is able to perform closer to the Britton of old, he could be the piece the Cardinals need to stick their heads into the World Series conversation.
Even if they do get a 3.00 ERA pitcher, it’s still important because it can fill two major needs the St. Louis Cardinals have going into 2019. On top of consistently pitching well against lefties, Zach Britton has a great deal of closing experience and the ability to serve as the Cardinals closer. While his performance over the past two seasons wasn’t elite, it is still enough to get the job done, and is exactly what the Cardinals are looking for.
This can also allow for Jordan Hicks to get sporadic appearances as the closer early in the season, on those occasions that Britton is brought in earlier to face lefties in a crucial situation. This will give him experience in the role without putting too much pressure on him to maintain his role as the closer, growing at his own pace under Britton and eventually take his place.
This might actually be the best way to groom him to eventually take the mantle as the St. Louis Cardinals closer of the future. To pull an analogy from another sport, Patrick Mahomes is also an elite talent, but he was brought up very carefully by the Kansas City Chiefs. He spent a season on the bench, learning from an intelligent veteran in Alex Smith, and eased him into playing in 2018.
If the St. Louis Cardinals sign Zach Britton, they can work with Hicks in a similar fashion. The high leverage situations he will face earlier in the season have a bit less pressure on them because of the number of games left. A ‘closer committee’ of sorts might be worthwhile to start the season to give Hicks some exposure while not directly thrusting him into a role he might not be ready for.
Having roles is important as evidenced by Mike Matheny‘s atrocious bullpen management, but keeping Hicks in between the set-up and closer roles can work because of how similar they are. Britton’ talent makes a role obsolete in his case, and while he might not be available in every crucial lefty situation, having an arm as strong as his to face key left handed batters during a playoff push could be crucial.
The Unseen Factor
There is another reason I believe Britton would be a good fit for the St. Louis Cardinals, but it’s not something that is tangible, at least not yet. Looking at things from a mentoring perspective, an you will realize that Britton is a great match for Hicks. He has been an incredibly successful closer, but has also experienced some of the lows that come with struggling in the role, both things Hicks will undoubtedly experience with his pitching style.
Speaking of pitching style, their arsenals are nearly identical. They each pair a fast sinker with a strong breaking slider, and like Hicks, Britton too mainly deals with a sinker that is significantly faster than league average. In 2018, his sinker clocked an average velocity of 94.8 mph, and topping out at 97.6 mph.
Of the options that are realistically available to the St. Louis Cardinals, Zach Britton is the one who is most well suited to serve as a mentor for Hicks. As a lefty, Britton can give Hicks perspective of his own pitching style from the opposite side of the plate, which can only serve to supplement his overall approach.
While Britton can’t teach Hicks how to blow people away with blistering sinkers, he can teach him how to handle his arsenal with a lower margin of error, which is something that would benefit Hicks greatly. Many of his pitches got away from him last year, but his velocity compensated for that. However, this trouble with these mistakes is preventing him from achieving the full potential of his elite talent, and it is an obstacle the Cardinals are eager to remove.
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While Britton’s sinker has great velocity, comparing Britton and Hicks’ velocities is like comparing Tyreek Hill to Usain Bolt. Sure, Hill is really fast, but Bolt would still blow him out of the water in a straight sprint. That’s how it is with Hick’s dynamite stick of an arm, but it would be great for him to cut down on those mistakes.
Britton should be able to help him do that while pitching in a similar fashion, something you can argue no other pitcher in the league can do.
This is an important time for Hicks’ development. The St. Louis Cardinals are finally in a position to gear up and compete, which will hopefully allow him to pitch in situations that are high leverage not just for the individual game, but for the season as a whole.
As a closer, it’s how you perform in those moments that defines you. Getting Hicks experience in those moments and allowing him to prove himself will be crucial for the growth of the young pitching core of the St. Louis Cardinals moving forward. Adding Zach Britton will help that development in many ways, which is why I believe he is worth the investment for the St. Louis Cardinals.
With Bryce Harper seemingly out of the picture, the Cardinals have plenty of money to spend to reach their payroll from last season. For the unique fit in the bullpen he represents and the compatibility with Jordan Hicks as a mentor, investing in Zach Britton would be a smart move for the Cardinals.