Zach Britton entered into the 2014 season without a role and without options. The Orioles knew the only way he would make this team was out of the bullpen. He started spring training pitching multiple innings, and started the season with a line of 11.1 IP over 6 games, giving up only 4 H, 4 BB, and 0 ER. He continued to dominate and by May 15th, he had replaced Tommy Hunter who had struggled as closer. Since that date, he has a 2.75 ERA, 3.09 FIP, 0.94 WHIP, and batters managed only a .193 AVG against him.
But is he the best option out of the bullpen for the closer?
The reason Britton has been so successful as a closer has been in his Groundball to Flyball ratio (6.94), which leads all MLB relievers. The reason this is so valuable is that groundballs generally lead to a higher probability of outs and double plays, especially given the great Orioles defense. Additionally, minimizing the amount of flyballs assists with not giving up as many home runs over the course of the season. However, Britton ranks as 68th along all MLB relievers for HR/9 (.59). The individual who Britton replaced as closer, who is labeled as homer prone, Tommy Hunter ranks 69th with a HR/9 of .60. Britton ranks behind Andrew Miller, Darren O’Day, Ryan Webb, and Brad Brach on the team in HR/9. Let’s not just focus on the long ball though. Here are the rest of the stats to examine:
Zach Britton has a lower K% than Miller, O’Day, and Brach. This means that Britton is putting more balls into play. Jim Johnson was constantly criticized as a closer for not being a higher strikeout pitcher. Johnson issued a 5.37 and 7.17 K/9 for the Orioles in 2012 and 2013, respectively. While Britton represents an improvement, it’s not as drastic as expected.
In addition, Britton has a higher average against batters compared to the three and has a higher WHIP than both Miller and O’Day.
Britton’s BABIP is similar to both Brach and O’Day. However, he has significantly lower LD% at 11.8 compared to O’Day (19.5%) and Miller (16.3%). Limiting the number of line drives minimizes the amount of hard hits. Once again, this emphasizes just how good Britton has been with his sinker in getting the groundball.
What we sometimes overlook in these situation that Britton is being put into high leverage situations. Perhaps his numbers are inflated a bit due to being the closer. However, Andrew Miller (1.38) and Darren O’Day (1.63) both have high Leverage Index compared to Britton (1.68).
Britton has also shown some issues with his command in August. His pitches in and out of the zone have gone the wrong way, recently. Throwing more pitches out of the strike zone has led to fewer swings outside the zone and more swings inside the zone with batters waiting on pitches:
Is it time to make a move? Absolutely not. But it’s worth keeping an eye on as the rest of the season continues. Normally teams don’t have the option in the bullpen to consider anyone else. However if Britton continues to struggle with command, the Orioles may need to tap Miller or O’Day to close.
Image Credit: Keith Allison