25 July 2014

Expanded Roster: Zach Britton, Closer?

Article was written as part of our Expanded Roster series.  If you wish to contribute, write to us at Camden Depot.

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.


Philip said...

Britton is doing a great job as closer, and I can't think why, after being willing to go with Hunter and all his flaws, he can't remain in the role for the duration. What the Orioles really need is stronger middle relief, to compensate for the starters rarely going past 6 innings.
In an email I asked about Tony Sipp, a fantastic left hander in the Houston bullpen, who was signed off waivers from San Diego, and who has been little short of Miraculous with the Astros.
Middle relievers, even those of increasing value-and public awareness-such as Sipp, are not too expensive, and I would cheerfully give them Hundley and Matusz in trade.
I am not suggesting that specific trade, but it wouldnt take much to get Sipp, and that would be the most valuable upgrade we could make.
The fact that Duquette is now apparently interested in Kurt Suzuki indicates how fruitless was that Patton/Hundley trade.
Here's hoping Dan doesnt make any more dumb trades this summer, and instead, at least tries to get someone like Sipp.

Unknown said...

Now that Soria and Street are gone, who would you suggest? I think Britton is doing fantastic this year, but the reasons in the article do make sense.

Like Phillip said, I think Tony Sipp could be an excellent target for the O's. Kurt Suzuki would also be great if they don't have to give up any of the top 4 prospects (Bundy, Gausman, E-Rod, Harvey), but considering Suzuki is only signed through the end of the year it shouldn't come to that (right?). Sipp and Suzuki would be excellent additions to the team without going selling the farm.

Pat Holden said...

Phillip, The only reason why I'd suggest Britton not being the closer anymore is what I mentioned in the article. That being, it'll save the O's a boatload of cash down the road when he's arbitration eligible.

Michael, The market really thins out after those two. Papelbon could probably be had, but, if I'm the O's, I'd want Philadelphia to take on some of that contract before I'd consider it. Full disclosure, I had Soria and Street as targets in this post before they were dealt. With them being dealt, it may make more sense to pursue this strategy in the off-season, if the O's were thinking of going that route.

Matt Kremnitzer said...

No, acquiring Suzuki should not cost that much.

I'm not sure where this infatuation with Troy Patton came from. He can be a decent reliever, but he is nothing more than that. Hundley has not been good, either, but that's also the kind of player that a team would acquire when dangling Patton.

Anonymous said...

Another reason to replace Britton as the closer is to stop limiting him to save situations. He's so good you really want him in high-leverage situations anywhere in the game as often as possible, preferably for two inning stints if he gets quick outs in his first frame. The reason this won't happen is baseball culture dictates that once a guy earns the closer's role, he has to lose it by blowing saves. Being a closer is the reward dangled to failed starters because it's the only way to make big money as a bullpen arm, as you pointed out. Not saying the Os can't do it, but I think they won't because it'll piss off Buck and Britton.

John Morgan said...

I'm sorry, but this article is completely illogical. Of course, if you have an elite closer, you're going to have to pay the man eventually. Britton's superior performance does not therefore imply that it's time to move him to a setup role so that he gets fewer saves and a lower arbitration figure. The article assumes--but doesn't say--that he will be replaced by a closer who will therefore perform more poorly and therefore be cheaper. Heck, we could have moved Adam Jones to AAA and saved a bundle on his contract too. If the Orioles want to win, they should be ready to put high performers in a position to excel and let them stay there.

Oh, that we should have such problems.

Jon Shepherd said...

John...this is not an uncommon thought among front offices. It has been implemented by other teams. Clubs like the Rays, A's, Red Sox, etc. look for ways to reduce arbitration figures.

Pat Holden said...

I completely understand why someone would disagree with the thought, but I don't think it's illogical at all. Like Jon said, looking at ways to reduce arbitration figures is not something foreign to MLB front offices.
And I'm not advocating bringing in a less effective or cheaper closer. In fact, the closer would be an established guy, so he'll be more expensive. But the closer can serve as a cost-certain option to ensure Britton's arbitration figure doesn't become inflated as quickly as it will will the current path.

Matt said...

Sticking with Britton in the 9th is going to lead to some really uncomfortable spots in the playoffs. A quick look at the likely playoff teams shows a lot of elite right-handed hitters (Trout, Pujols, Donaldson, Encarnacion, Bautista), and similarly few left-handed ones. This is even more true of the O's likely first round opponent Detroit. Cabrera, Kinsler, JD Martinez, Davis, Castellanos and Hunter are all right-handed, while switch-hitter Victor Martinez has hit considerably better from the right side this year.

For me, if Street or Soria were targets, Koji Uehara should be as well. He's a FA at the end of the year, and doesn't carry a big price tag for the remaining two months. His dominance over the last two years ought to make Britton more amenable to giving up the role in the short-term.