Baltimore Orioles: Zach Britton Poised for All-Star Season


Oct 15, 2014; Kansas City, MO, USA; Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton throws a pitch against the Kansas City Royals during the 8th inning in game four of the 2014 ALCS playoff baseball game at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher Zach Britton has made me a converted believer in the role of a closer. I suspect I am not the only one to have had such a revival in 2014.

About this time every year I dust off an old article on closers, refine and update it just a bit, and put it out there as one of my best baseball pieces ever. The essence of it is to say that closers are more myth than reality, and that there are no more than a handful or so of pitchers each year who can be counted upon and slotted most nights to successfully accomplish this defined role.

Actually, now that I think about it, I stand by my old analysis. By application, this is to say that the majority of teams do not have a reliever in the bullpen who is actually capable of fulfilling the defined expectation of the job. And if you are one of these (majority) teams, to try to designate a closer is to foolishly set yourself up to lose more games than if going with a nightly strategy of a “closer by committee” approach. The role of a closer evolved from the inception of a statistic for it, rather than the statistic invented to track a baseball strategy.

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For many years, the Baltimore Orioles did not have a closer, not that they did not try to find one, and not that they did not place the mantle upon many hapless hurlers who could not hit the broad side of a barn, let alone slam the door so the horses wouldn’t escape.

Then in 2012, Jim Johnson had a breakout season and was a truly legitimate closer. In 2013, the Birds went back to him in that role, and back to him in that role, and back to him in that role; and the next thing they knew, he had blown so many saves that it was the #1 reason for only 85 wins and missing the playoffs.

Johnson was traded, with much fan consternation. The silly Balfour saga came and went. And at the start of spring training 2014, there was no defined closer candidate. Tommy Hunter seemed the most likely candidate and it was his job to lose, which he ultimately did.

But Zach Britton stepped up and saved the day, saved the season, and saved 37 games. Nobody clearly saw it coming, but looking back now it makes perfect sense. The best closers don’t walk people, and they keep the ball on the ground and out of the air and over the fence.

Britton showed up in 2014 with a filthy-nasty sinking fastball that is simply an awesome pitch. It can sometimes be nearly unhittable, and it is getting better as time goes by. His sinker could be categorically even more lethal to batters this year.

Britton made 71 appearances in 2014, throwing 76.1 innings and giving up only 48 base hits. His WHIP was .904 — a fabulous number for 76 innings of work. The opponent batting average against him was .178, right-handers were .182 and lefties .170.  He did give up four home runs and had four blown saves, but that is tolerable, as well as unlikely to grow bigger.

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Even if the Orioles do not repeat a 96-win season, look for Britton to get more than 37 saves. Zach did not take on the closer role until the middle of May. I will have a complete predictions article coming very soon, but let me get a jump on it by saying that Zach Britton will set a new Orioles record with well over 50 saves and be acclaimed as one of the two or three best relievers in the game.

And even if he fails at that, he could come back as a designated hitter. I’m not making this up: his career slash line is .625 / .625 / 1.125 / 1.750!

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