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Zach Britton, Closer?
by Patrick Holden
Entering Spring Training, Zach Britton was thought of as a fringe 25-man roster player who would likely make the team in part because he is out of options. Britton was also mentioned as a trade candidate. Fast-forward to the All-Star break and Britton, who had 2 relief appearances vs. 46 starts entering the season, has pitched effectively enough to be anointed the Orioles closer, picking up 15 saves in 17 opportunities since inheriting the role from Tommy Hunter in mid-May.
Britton has become a 2-pitch pitcher, abandoning his changeup, throwing only a fastball (sinker) and a slider. In fact, Britton has become primarily a one-pitch pitcher, throwing his fastball 92.6% of the time this season, after throwing it 70.6%, 68.4%, and 67.8% the last 3 years. The other 7.4% of his pitcher have been sliders, well below his career rate of 14.7%. So, what exactly is different about Britton's fastball this year? His average fastball velocity this season is up 2.7 MPH from last season to 94.1. Britton is pitching in the strike zone more often this year while also missing more bats. Britton has a 12.3% swinging-strike rate this year, well above his career mark of 8.2%. Britton is hitting the strike zone with 52% of his pitches this season after posting rates of 44.3%, 38.7%, and 44.9% in the three previous seasons. Britton has also improved upon his contact %, which has fallen to 73.5% after posting a career-high 84.1% last season. While these numbers are not fastball-specific, the heavy reliance on, as well as improved velocity of, his fastball make it not-so-crazy to conclude that much of the improvements in these numbers are due to his fastball.
Some may point to Britton's BABIP as certain to regress to the mean. While Britton will likely see his current BABIP of .224 jump up a bit, (as well as his his ERA regress towards his FIP and xFIP, which are also both drastically improved) there is reason to believe that the changes in Britton, from his days as a .320+ BABIP and upper 4’s ERA and FIP starter, are real. He is inducing more ground balls (78% vs. 52.8%, 60.8%, and 58% his previous three seasons) and is allowing less line drives (12.2% vs. 18.8%, 16.0%, and 19.6%). Britton’s GB% is almost certain to regress a bit, but that doesn’t mean that a drastic improvement, albeit lesser, can’t be sustained. Britton's HR/FB rate currently sits at 16.7%, 64% above his career average of 10.7%. But thanks to a GB/FB rate sitting at 8.00, over 3.5 times better than his career mark, Britton has seen his HR/9 rate drop to 0.37 this season after never being below 0.90 since his rookie year.
One point worth mentioning is that the Orioles are rumored to be in the market for a bullpen upgrade. Baltimore made sense as a landing spot for Huston Street or Joakim Soria before they were each traded. While moving Britton out of the closer role may seem crazy given his success thus far, it would save the Orioles millions of dollars when Britton becomes arbitration eligible after the 2015 season. Soria and Street, for example, both have relatively reasonable club options of $7 million for next season. If the Orioles are able to move Britton to a set-up role, either now or for next season, through at least the 2015 season, his arbitration years (certainly at least his first arbitration year) will be much more affordable. If Britton remains in the closer role moving forward, especially if he continue to have success anywhere near his current level, his arbitration figure will likely cause the club to deal him at some point, much like they did with Jim Johnson this past off-season. In short, trading for a closer would not only would bolster the Orioles bullpen, but it would also likely lengthen Britton’s tenure with the Orioles, something the team should be interested in given his success as a reliever thus far.
Britton has made significant changes in his approach since being moved to the bullpen. Many of these changes were likely made possible because of the move to the bullpen. Ironically, his success as a closer is the very reason the Orioles should consider trading for a closer to bridge the gap at least until Britton’s arbitration years. Either way, this changed role has produced results that, while they might not be sustainable at their current level, find Britton rightfully planted in the back end of the Orioles bullpen moving forward.
Stats current as of 7/18/14. All stats pulled from Fangraphs.