Zach Britton came out of nowhere last year to be one of the most dominant relievers, and one of the best fantasy baseball commodities to own, especially as a relief pitcher. His stats were completely out of this world, as he notched 47 saves with a 0.836 WHIP and a Carl Edwards Jr-thin 0.54 ERA. He did this over 67 innings last year, with 74:18 K:BB rate. He had an amazingly great season, and his ERA happened despite relatively low strikeout numbers due to his insane ability to induce weak contact. As such, he is going into the season as the #2 FantasyPros Expert Consensus Ranking (ECR) for relief pitchers. Unfortunately for those who invest that pick in Britton, he has little chance of returning that value.
Investing highly in relief pitchers in fantasy baseball is already a difficult proposition. They only contribute in four fantasy baseball categories (K, ERA, SV, WHIP), and if a relief pitcher does not contribute in one of those categories, then their value takes another dip. While I am not saying Britton is not an amazingly great real-life pitcher, his success is predicated on his 80% groundball rate rather than striking people out.
While Britton was able to contribute to great effectiveness in ERA, WHIP, and SV, his strikeout rate left much to be desired last year, and that is something that is likely to continue this year. Britton’s strikeout rate was well below elite for relievers last year. Among pitchers with at least 10 saves, Britton’s 29.1% strikeout rate was fourteenth. That isn’t bad by any sense, but it is not elite. When you are getting to the top tiers, you’re looking for elite stats. Unfortunately, Britton cannot boast an elite strikeout rate as his game is built around inducing weak contact.
Britton’s extra-elite 2016 statistic, ERA, is no-doubt due for regression, meaning that he won’t have the benefit of a half-run-per-nine-innings pace to offset his low K-rate in terms of fantasy baseball value. There have been 15 seasons where a pitcher maintained an ERA below one for an entire season (pitching at least 50 innings), and only eleven instances since the Deadball Era. Only one pitcher—Wade Davis—repeated this feat, doing it in both 2014 and 2015.
For the non-Deadball pitchers, their ERAs naturally bounced back closer to league average. For the eleven pitcher seasons that ended with an ERA under one, the average ERA the following season was 2.53. While 2.53 is still very good, it, again is not elite among fantasy baseball relievers. For pitchers who had at least ten saves last year, an ERA around 2.50, which Britton faces, was in the Cody Allen/Jeurys Familia range.
While Zach Britton is one of the best real-life baseball pitchers out there, unfortunately, his success won’t completely translate to fantasy baseball value in 2017. His game is built around inducing groundballs for the Orioles defense to scoop up, which means he isn’t racking up a ton of strikeouts, which is what you want from an elite fantasy reliever. His 2016 was buoyed by an ERA that, at least historically, has meant a big regression the following year. While Britton is a no-doubt top-ten fantasy baseball reliever, those taking him as the #2 reliever off the board will be disappointed in 2017 when he’s passed by strikeout artists like Edwin Diaz or Seung-Hwan Oh in the final overall rankings. His ADP is in the early seventh-round in twelve-team leagues, which paying for his 2016 production, which is due to fall off in 2017.
Plus you never know if Buck Showalter will just forget he’s in the bullpen and go with Ubaldo for no reason, instead.