Britton ranked third on Rotographs’ End-of-Season rankings among closers.
I can’t help myself; I’m like most other saber-inclined baseball people — I love strikeouts. I mean, I love a lot of things about pitching. I love that guys can seemingly come out of nowhere and be studs, like Corey Kluber, Dallas Keuchel or countless others.
As a person who has spent most of their life watching the Minnesota Twins, I can also appreciate guys who don’t walk anyone. Year after year while I watched the club as a fan in my teens, the Twins led or were near the top of the league in fewest walks allowed. Not walking batters isn’t always necessary, but if you’re going to have guys with a paucity of strikeouts — like non-Johan Santana starters in those days — keeping the bases clean is key.
I also really like grounders. The holy trinity of pitching for me — and probably for everyone else — is strikeout and walk rates married with groundball rates. It’s very, very rare to find a pitcher who is solid across all three aspects who isn’t a wonderful pitcher. Each of these things in isolation can lead to a tremendous pitcher, provided he checks off other necessary boxes further down the list.
But when you find someone who checks off all three boxes — oh boy.
Zach Britton is one of those guys. He hasn’t always been, though, as he’s sort of the reliever version of Keuchel/Kluber. He kind of checks off all the boxes for a Baltimore Orioles pitching prospect. High pick? Check (third round). Good, but not great minor league numbers? Check. Arm issues? Check (shoulder in 2012). Bad as an MLB starter? Check (4.86 ERA, 1.52 WHIP in 46 starts).
Britton worked pretty much exclusively as a starter for parts of three seasons from 2011-’13. It didn’t go well. After the 2013 season, Britton had a career ERA of 4.77, a K/9 of 5.9 and a BB/9 mark of 3.9. His groundball rate was a solid, but still unrecognizable — in light of his current numbers — 55.5 percent. He had given up medium or hard contact on a stunning 79.7 percent of his batted balls.
It’s obviously no surprise that as a starter his velocity was nothing near what it is today. While he did see peaks in the 94-95 mph range, he was still sitting 91-92, and was relying too heavily on a four-seam fastball that was getting absolutely pasted. That’s a pitch he effectively eliminated the second he moved to the pen, too, as he threw just 22 four-seam fastballs in 2014 and hasn’t thrown more than five in any season since.
The move to using the two-seamer basically exclusively has been stunning for Britton. It wasn’t a terrible pitch for Britton as a starter, but it was just rather hittable, even if it meant guys were pounding it into the ground. In his three years as a starter, Britton was able to keep the OPS against on it under .700 for the first two before things got out of control in 2013. That year, he allowed opposing batters to hit .325 on the pitch with an OPS of .850. With the four-seamer becoming even more hittable — 1.241 OPS against — that season, it was clear something had to give.
The bullpen move yielded immediate results in some respects but not others. The strikeouts have been a work in progress, as he’s jumped in whiff rate on the two-seamer in each of his three years in the pen — starting at 13.1 percent all the way up to 17.3 percent this season. He’ll never throw too many sliders — 80-90 in each of his three seasons in the pen — but the whiff rates on those have been out of this world the last three years as well (18, 28.7 and 20 percent, respectively).
In short, it would be easy to call him a classic sinker-slider guy, but in reality he’s basically just sinker-sinker-sinker-sink….well, you get the point. No season exemplified this more than in 2016, when he threw sinkers (two-seamers, whichever you prefer) a career-high 91.7 percent of the time. Basically as a reliever, he’s scrapped the changeup and some of the sinkers and gone all-in on his fastball. In doing so, he opted to amp up the usage on his best pitch, and it’s paid off beautifully.
Of course, the velocity spike helps a lot. That peaked in 2016 at 96.3 mph, and it’s easy to see why that type of high-end velocity made an already useful pitch absolutely blow up. If weighted pitch values are to be believed, Britton’s sinker is on line with Mariano Rivera’s and Kenley Jansen’s cutter both of those pitches peaked around 23 runs above average — right in line with Britton’s 23.2 mark this year.
Ultimately, it’s the perfect pitch. It’s nearly impossible to square up (17.3 percent whiff rate, .159 batting average against) and goes nowhere when someone does hit it (.200 slugging percentage). No wonder he throws it more than nine times out of 10.
With an unthinkable 80 percent groundball rate, more than a K per inning and a great walk rate, there might not be a safer closer in the game than Britton. Since 2010, Britton has three of the top four groundball rates for relievers — Brad Ziegler has the No. 3 season back in 2012 — with 2016 being the highest GB rate we have on record — ever.
Britton is good. Scary good, in fact.