NEW YORK, NEW YORK - OCTOBER 15: Zack Britton #53 of the New York Yankees pitches during the seventh inning against the Houston Astros in game three of the American League Championship Series at Yankee Stadium on October 15, 2019 in New York City.
(Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)

Aroldis Chapman testing positive means Zack Britton is the New York Yankees closer now, and that could lead to great things in the Bronx.

Josh Benjamin

Not even the New York Yankees are immune to the reality that is a global pandemic.

Speaking to the media on Saturday, manager Aaron Boone announced star closer Aroldis Chapman tested positive for coronavirus two days prior. Boone also added the hard-throwing lefty would be out for “the foreseeable future” despite mild symptoms, according to Erik Boland of Newsday.

In spite of the chilling diagnosis, there is no need for the Yankees to panic. Per Bryan Hoch of MLB.com, Boone implied lefty Zack Britton would handle the ninth inning until Chapman was well again.

“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,” the Yankees skipper observed. “It’s easy to put him in that, but with our team and with our bullpen and our pitchers, we feel confident in a lot of guys. Britt would be a natural guy if Chappy wasn’t back at that point.”

Fans may not realize it, but in a short 60-game season, Britton in the closer’s role is a remarkably smart decision.

Opposites attract

To some, the idea of Britton almost automatically being named closer may seem strange. After all, the bullpen has quietly been New York’s bread and butter for years. The Yankees ranked ninth in bullpen ERA in 2019 and have had a top-10 relief corps each of the last three years. A team doesn’t accomplish that without a deep collection of arms.

This brings the conversation back to Chapman, a man whose ability to consistently hit triple digits with his fastball helped establish him as a top closer. He notched 37 saves last year with a 2.21 ERA. Chapman also posted a K/9 of 13.42 and fanned 85 hitters in just 57 innings of work. As closer’s come, he checks all the boxes.

Britton, meanwhile, is a completely different pitcher. Per Fangraphs, his K/9 last year was just 7.78 and sits at a mere 7.45 for his career. Chapman’s, meanwhile, is at 14.84. Not only that, but the top five closers in baseball last season had an average K/9 of 13.62.

Such is the standard expectation of closers in today’s MLB. Velocity aside, being able to limit baserunners in a close contest via finesse or overpowering hitters is key. Moreover, the Yankees have a pair of pitchers in Tommy Kahnle and Chad Green with more traditional closer “stuff” than Britton. They each posted respective K/9 marks of 12.91 and 12.78 last season.

Why, then, is Britton getting the nod when he pitches more to contact?

Zack Britton: Secret elite closer

The answer is simple: because Britton is an elite closer.

How quickly we all forget that before he put on the pinstripes, the lanky lefty had two All-Star seasons as the Baltimore Orioles stopper. Since becoming a full-time reliever in 2014, Britton has 145 saves to go with an outstanding 1.83 ERA.

But wait, there’s more. In 2016, he led the American League with 47 saves with a freakish 0.54 ERA. This helped Britton finish fourth in American League Cy Young voting and 11th in the MVP race.

And how did Britton excel despite not being a strikeout pitcher? Well, his power sinker is effective enough that he can induce soft contact via routine ground balls. He has a career groundball rate (GB%) of 66.5% and has averaged a rate of 74.2% in the last three years. Britton also has a career soft contact rate of 24.2%.

By comparison, Chapman’s soft contact rate has consistently dropped since 2015. His 18.7% mark last year was the lowest since he debuted in 2010, and his career GB% is just 43.2%.

What does it mean?

Now, let’s consider the kind of pitcher Chapman is and how it all comes back to MLB playing a shortened season in 2020. His high-velocity arm means when he’s not throwing his fastball, he’s throwing a slider. Though still elite, Chapman’s average velocity on both pitches has dipped annually since 2016. It isn’t a problem for him, but allows hitters to do more damage if he makes a mistake or his slider isn’t biting on a particular day.

Furthermore, we’ve all heard the COVID-19 stories. The fever, fatigue, and shortness of breath are debilitating. Additionally, a full recovery isn’t instant. Broadway star Adam Perry told ABC News that even months after testing negative, he still has issues breathing. Though Chapman only has mild symptoms, it’s hard to believe he’ll be in full Cuban Missile form in 2020, perhaps beyond.

This is why it’s so important that, at least for now, Britton be the Yankees closer. In a 60-game season, there’s less margin for error. One mistake in a single game could be enough to trigger a losing streak that, no matter how brief or small, could affect the playoff race.

In a full season, odds are someone like Kahnle would have a chance to compete for the job. But today, better to have someone who, though prone to contact, doesn’t rely on velocity or strikeouts to get out of trouble.

Final thoughts

Don’t get me wrong. When push comes to shove, Chapman will likely recover from the virus and return to the Yankees as their closer. The numbers say despite his obvious decline, he is still the best man to handle the ninth inning.

In the meantime, however, Britton needs to be the Yankees closer because every game counts. He is capable not only of pitching in that role, but dominating in it as well. Just how Ronnie “Sunshine” Bass stepped up when the Titans needed him, so will Britton for the Yankees.

And meanwhile, soft contact comes with risks. Just ask CC Sabathia. Balls sneak through the infield and sometimes won’t cooperate, and the ensuing rallies can be crippling.

But with Britton’s experience and abilities, the Yankees can afford to risk it.

And in a short season, it can mean a large payoff.

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