The Orioles’ Elite: Zach Britton and Darren O’Day

When the eighth and ninth innings roll around, the Orioles will turn to a familiar pair of relief aces. Zach Britton just pitched the best season of his life. In one regard, he is the best player in all of Baseball Land. His setup man, Darren O’Day, is also the very best in his own quirky way.

Britton is a ground ball specialist – a nasty one. Usually, when we talk about ground ball pitchers, we’re referring to a 55 percent ground ball rate. Britton burned worms at a 79 percent rate last season. It’s no fluke either. That’s what we thought after 2014 when he posted a 75 percent ground ball rate. The only pitcher in all of baseball who comes anywhere close to that ground ball rate is Brad Ziegler (72% GB%).

If you’re batting against Britton, you’re going to see his sinker. He uses the 96 mph pitch about 90 percent of the time. And it’s not just a ground ball offering. Sure, against his fastball, over 80 percent of balls in play are grounders. However, the pitch also has an elite 16 percent whiff rate. Sinkers don’t produce those kinds of whiff rates. It just doesn’t happen. By way of comparison, Aroldis Chapman’s fastball induces a 17 percent swinging strike rate. Chapman’s fastball produces half as many grounders.

Britton also turns to an occasional curve. In a small 84 pitch sample, he induced a 31 percent swinging strike rate (77% whiffs per swing). In other words, if you swung at his curve, there was a three in four chance you were going to miss. His infrequent use of the pitch probably helps it to play up to this elite level. If he used it more, he might get weaker results.

While most ground ball pitchers are happy to tally a 17 percent strikeout rate (or about 6.9 K/9), Britton learned to have his cake and eat it with his hands. His 10.83 K/9 (31% K%) and 1.92 BB/9 led to excellent fantasy results. If he can maintain his strikeout and walk rates, another 1.92 ERA and 0.99 WHIP should follow. Britton saved “just” 36 games in 64 appearances. It’s possible the Orioles will present more save opportunities this season.

Some might see a 20 percent HR/FB ratio and call him homer prone. That’s stretching the truth. While that particular measure looks ugly, Britton only allowed 0.41 HR/9. That ties him for the 17th best rate among relievers – with Chapman. In 2014, Britton allowed 0.47 HR/9. It’s a good trend.

If anything goes wrong with Britton, the O’s can turn to a closer quality setup man. O’Day has wrecked the competition for four straight seasons. He’s a submariner, and he’s the best at his craft. Coincidentally, Ziegler is once again second best in this category.

Unlike Britton (and Ziegler), O’Day is a fly ball pitcher. Despite a homer friendly division and an even homer friendlier home park, O’Day does a good job of keeping the ball in the yard. His fly balls tend to fly short distances, leading to an above average infield fly rate. Coupled with 11.30 K/9 (32% K%), O’Day induces an automatic out against nearly 40 percent of all batters. He’s also stingy with the free passes (1.93 BB/9).

O’Day uses two fastballs and a frequently used slider to retire opponents. His primary fastball can be termed a “riser.” The pitch had a 24 percent infield fly rate last season. It also carried a beyond elite 22 percent swinging strike rate. Remember, Chapman’s rocketball produced “just” a 17 percent whiff rate.

To get the most out of his riser, O’Day also throws a sinker. It’s a contact-focused pitch with a slightly better than average ground ball rate (54% GB%). He likes to use it early in the count, especially against left-handed hitters.

While he throws more fastballs than sliders, the breaking ball is his most-used pitch. It’s a good one too. Hitters have trouble even putting it in play. It’s not quite as dominating as his rising fastball, but the slider does notch a 16 percent swinging strike rate.

The rest of the Orioles bullpen can best be described as uncertain. What is certain – or at least as near to certain as baseball allows – is their eighth and ninth inning relievers. Britton and O’Day are on top of their games. Both pitchers should offer plenty of real and fantasy value.

Edit: Do take the time to view how Britton blew his saves (they’re all hilarious).

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Haven’t you guys been getting hard-ons for Mychal Givens? Why isn’t he mentioned? “The rest of the Orioles bullpen can best be described as uncertain” — and yet Matusz and Brach are both fairly good relievers, and Givens is the wild card that could make the O’s bullpen even better than the Yankees.

Cory Settoon

Sullivan gave Givens his just due here: