Baltimore Orioles: An ode to Zach Britton, reliever extraordinaire

BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 23: Zach Britton
BALTIMORE, MD - AUGUST 23: Zach Britton /

Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton‘s consecutive saves streak of 60 games, a new American League record, came to an end Wed., Aug. 23 against the Oakland Athletics, which the Orioles later won in extras.

Baltimore Orioles left-handed closer Zach Britton had pitched for almost two years since his last blown save. There were close calls, and 2017 hasn’t been his sharpest, especially in non-save situations.

But, the fact Britton was booed as he walked off the mound at Oriole Park Camden Yards is, well, appalling.

What kind of fan boos someone who just had a streak of doing something that isn’t easy to do broken? Did fans boo Cal Ripken Jr. when Ryan Minor took the field at third base, ending his games played streak?

I didn’t think so.

Since becoming a closer in 2014, Britton has a record of 10-4.

His ERA over those four years:

2014: 1.65
2015: 1.92
2016: 0.54
2017: 3.55

In both 2015 and 2016, Britton was an All-Star. In 2016, arguably the greatest season ever by a closer, he was fourth in the Cy Young race and 11th in the AL MVP race.

Britton finished the most games in baseball in both 2015 and 2016, with 58 and 63 respectively.

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He had 36 saves in 2015 and 47 in 2016. Those 47 were the most in the AL.

In an era where closers are often beaten by the home run, Britton has allowed nine home runs over the last four years.

Britton had a WHIP under one each of the previous three years, before 2017 where it is currently the highest in his career.

His hits per nine innings were between five and seven in 2014-2016. His walks per nine innings were between 1.9 (2015) and three.

One could argue the stretch from 2014-2016 was top ten performances ever by a closer. He saved 120 games in that period.

Sure, the number of saves over that period is less than stretches by Mariano Rivera, Craig Kimbrel or Dennis Eckersley. But, Britton wasn’t on the same caliber of a team of those guys either.

Britton often had little margin for error, and yet he navigated the ninth inning with relative ease.

Think of some other recent closers in Baltimore. Many of those guys had successful years in the Orioles’ bullpen. Guys like Tommy Hunter, Jim Johnson, George Sherrill, Jorge Julio.

But, they couldn’t carry prolonged success. They flamed out, often in an ugly way in Baltimore.

Even during this down year, Britton still has a 3.55 ERA.

Now, the argument still exists as to whether the Baltimore Orioles should have traded Britton when he was at top value. A chronic knee issue that has plagued him for several years may be part of the reason he wasn’t traded, or maybe not, who knows.

Britton says the injury is minor, and something he has learned to deal with. Obviously, if he has dealt with it since 2014, he did just fine.

As for what else is ailing him this year, I think being out of sync from the injuries, and rehab stints have hurt. Britton just doesn’t have the same type of command, and when he can’t get that nasty sinker to start in the strike zone, he either has to resort to other pitches or throw it higher where it is more hittable.

Britton’s hits per nine innings are at 11, one of the highest numbers of his career. His walks per nine innings are at 4.6, one of the highest numbers of his career.

A combination of a high walk count and a high percentage of hits allowed makes it difficult to keep runs from scoring.

The Orioles now must decide what to do with their star closer, to finish 2017 and also in 2018.

The MRI came back relatively clean, and Britton is still one of the best late-inning options the Orioles have for this season.

But, will they pay him at least $11 million in 2018, after arbitration?

Or will they choose to go with someone else, and trade him to the highest bidder? Will his value have taken a hit after his 2017 season?

The Baltimore Orioles hope that the 2017 season isn’t quite over. They hope they still have a playoff run left in them.

Next: The past, present, and future of the Orioles outfield

No matter the case on that, all Baltimore Orioles fans should appreciate the excellence Zach Britton has displayed in orange and black over the past four years.