25 June 2018

Is Zach Britton OK?

It remains to be seen if the Orioles will consider dealing any player who is under team control beyond 2018. Still, every trade chip among the team's "big four" of soon-to-be free agents besides Manny Machado -- Adam Jones, Brad Brach, and Zach Britton -- has at least one major issue. Jones is no longer a capable defender in center field. Brach is a good reliever, but not a great one. And Britton, who is now back after rupturing his Achilles in December, has an ERA over 6, a FIP over 4, and does not yet look like himself. (The quality of Machado's defense at shortstop is also a question mark, if you want to nitpick, but he is still the team's top trade chip, by far.)

Back to Britton. After being activated on June 11, he made his first appearance of the year on June 12, which was a few days earlier than the June 15 return date Buck Showalter mentioned in early June. In his 2018 debut, Britton walked three but still tossed a scoreless inning. His next three appearances were relatively uneventful, though his vaunted sinker hit 93 and 94 mph on the radar gun instead of 96 and 97 (or higher).

Then, this past Friday, Britton had a major meltdown. After the Orioles surprisingly rallied from a 3-1 deficit in the ninth inning to take a 7-3 lead over the Braves, Britton entered the game hoping to shut things down. That didn't happen. All six batters reached -- in order: single, double, hit-by-pitch, single, single, double -- and the game was quickly tied at 7. The game-typing double, hit by Nick Markakis on a 93 mph sinker that didn't sink, had to sting (although it was an exciting play, with the potential winning run thrown out at the plate):

Britton didn't get much help from his defense; that second hit, a double to deep center field by Danny Santana, was muffed at the wall by Jones. But Britton was shaky from the start.

It's hard to judge any pitcher on six appearances and just 5.2 innings, but overall, the numbers aren't good. Britton has six strikeouts but five walks. Opposing batters are also finding it a little easier to put the ball in the air against him. Britton's 60% groundball percentage and his 13.3% fly ball percentage would be his lowest and highest, respectively, since 2013.

Any pitcher can have a really bad outing, and in such a small sample of innings, that ugly ninth inning on Friday makes Britton's numbers look worse. But there's a little more to it than that. As usual, Britton has thrown his sinker over 90% of the time since he returned. It's one of the best pitches in baseball, and it's his bread-and-butter pitch. But right now, Britton has an average velocity on his sinker of 94.3 mph. That would be his lowest since 2013 (92.5), when he was still being used as a starting pitcher. Since the full-time switch in 2014, he hasn't been below 96.2 mph.

Interestingly enough, Britton's hardest pitch of 2018 came in that first outing on June 12: 96.5 mph. Since then, he's yet to throw a pitch over 95 mph. When Britton is at his best with his sinker, he's obviously able to get lots of sink but also plenty of horizontal movement. While some more sink has returned in 2018 after a subpar (for him) and injury-filled 2017, Britton's sinker is moving less horizontally than it ever has. He's also spiking his sinker more than usual; the vertical location of the pitch would be his lowest since his rookie season. The velocity isn't there, and neither is the command.

Maybe this is just Britton's natural progression as he begins to round into form. Rupturing an Achilles is a significant injury, and Britton was able to return and pitch in a major league game just five months and 23 days after sustaining the injury. That's incredible. I can't imagine how much work went into returning that fast, and Britton surely seemed to do everything in his power to get back quickly.

Britton and the Orioles both have an extra incentive for him to start pitching better soon. He almost surely isn't part of the team's plans beyond 2018, and the O's need him to start looking like the 2015 or 2016 version so they can get as much as possible in a July trade. And Britton is currently playing for his next contract, so he wants to prove to teams that he's healthy and can still be a dominant closer. It would be impossible for a team that's interested in his services to not have at least some hesitation at the moment.

The hope is that Britton is truly healthy and he'll be able to light up the radar gun soon as he builds up strength. There's a lot counting on it.

Photo: Keith Allison. Stats via FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.

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