If you haven’t already noticed, the Baltimore Orioles possess an emerging star out of their bullpen in the form of lefty Zach Britton. The starter-turned-reliever has reinvented himself to a stunning degree in his new role with the Orioles, and the results have been nothing short of astounding. But I want to take a closer look at what exactly prompted this remarkable turnaround and the real basis for Britton’s recent success.
Formerly a third-round pick in the 2006 Amateur Draft, Britton quickly became one of Baltimore’s most promising pitching prospects. He finally broke into the big leagues — as a starter — in 2011. The expectations were for him to eventually front-line a young rotation that included Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Matusz. Those expectations lingered even after Britton’s disappointing rookie season, in which faltered to the tune of a 4.12 xFIP and 110 ERA- in 154.1 innings pitched.
Shoulder issues hampered Britton’s ability to stay on the mound between 2012 and 2013, but he failed to find any inkling of consistency when he was. The off-season addition of Ubaldo Jimenez to an already overachieving rotation left Britton in an unfamiliar spot heading into the 2014 season. Finally healthy but out of options, Britton was required to make the transition to the bullpen. As it turns out, this last-ditch effort to salvage Britton’s career in Baltimore was the best thing that could have happened to him.
Tommy Hunter‘s early season struggles allowed Britton to assume a full-time role as the team’s closer. To say he took advantage of this opportunity would be a prodigious understatement. Britton was masterful throughout the course of the 2014 season, registering a 1.56 ERA, 2.82 xFIP, and a phenomenal 42 ERA-, while racking up 37 saves for the eventual AL East champs. But this radical improvement was no fluke.
Britton’s most effective pitch has always been his two-seam fastball (sinker). The regularity in which he threw that pitch fluctuated from year-to-year prior to his breakout campaign, but it was clear that his starting role had forced him to focus more on the expansion of his repertoire and partially neglect his bread-and-butter. That all changed when he made the move to the pen.
All Britton needed was a few slight adjustments to finally be able to harness his substantial potential. In his sensational 2014 season, Britton began throwing his sinker with remarkable frequency (89.3 percent of the time), a significant increase to his average for the 2011-2013 seasons (46.8 percent). His role in relief also contributed to his uptick in velocity with that pitch, raising his average speed from 91.9 mph to 95.1 mph in 2014.
The devastating objective of a two-seam fastball is to induce ground balls by way of a relatively high-velocity pitch with traumatizing horizontal or vertical movement. Britton’s sinker is the epitome of that illustration. Thrown with purpose and precision, this pitch has been unbelievably effective for Britton, and it culminated in an astronomical ground ball rate of 75.3 percent in 2014. In addition, Britton posted the highest whiff-per-swing percentage (28.5 percent) of any sinker-thrower (minimum 200 sinkers thrown) in Major League Baseball, predictably resulting in a much-improved strikeout rate.
The unpredictability of this pitch makes Britton’s recent success far more sustainable than his spectacular .215 BABIP from last season would seem to indicate. More often than not, the result of an at bat against Zach Britton is either a strikeout or a ground out, and, more often than not, those ground balls come weakly off the bat, due to the extreme difficulty of squaring up that sinking heater.
Did his defense play a role in his swift ascendance? Absolutely — as indicated by his 3.13 FIP last season — but that’s not to take anything away from Britton and his stupendous work. Baseball is a game of constant adjustments, and Britton’s story is an exemplary testament to that sentiment. With a newly found confidence, arguably the most lethal pitch in the game, and the likes of Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop, and J.J. Hardy patrolling his infield, Britton appears to be ready to assert himself among the premier closer in baseball, and all it took was a little perseverance.