Back in March, the closing pitcher for the Baltimore Orioles was Tommy Hunter with Darren O'Day looking to be the replacement should "Big Game" falter. Zach Britton was being eyeballed for a possible spot at the back end of the rotation.
The former third-round pick from Texas had impressed as a starter during his rookie 2011 campaign, going 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA and a 4.00 FIP. However, the O's seemed to be all set in that department with Chris Tillman, Miguel Gonzalez, Bud Norris, Wei-Yin Chen, Kevin Gausman and, of course, Ubaldo Jimenez. Even Brian Matusz and T.J. McFarland seemed to be candidates.
Britton, who was once the 28th-ranked prospect in all of baseball by Baseball America, was out of options and seemed to be headed for a middle relief role, which tends to lead down a very dark path. He would go the same way of Matusz, Garrett Olson, Adam Loewen or Brad Bergesen. All pitchers who looked to have great upside before flaming out as starters with the Birds.
He did go into that middle relief spot for manager Buck Showalter to begin the 2014 campaign and did well, pitching to a 1.17 ERA in March and April with an opponent batting average of .182. And he was more than a LOOGY, getting both-handed hitters out. Meanwhile, Hunter was getting saves by the skin of his teeth, allowing a .324 opponent's batting average in that same time span, failing to work a perfect inning but managing to go 6-for-7 on save opportunities.
May was the turning point in the season for Britton. He continued to dominate opposing hitters to the tune of a 0.63 ERA that month while the wheels fell off of Hunter's wagon. The righty blew back-to-back save opportunities on May 10 and 13. Showalter made a switch and gave the ninth inning to Britton, who ran with it.
It was the best decision for everyone involved. Hunter turned his season around and Britton became one of the top relievers in the game.
In the middle months of the year, Britton did "slump" a bit. For him, that meant ERAs of 3.09, 2.03 and 3.09 in June, July and August, respectively. But he more than made up for it in the season's final month in which he made 10 appearances, threw 10 innings, saved six games and didn't allow a single earned run. Even his final seven appearances in August were scoreless over 6.2 innings. Wowzers!
The lefty earned the fourth most saves (37) in the American League despite not becoming the closer until mid-May. His ERA was a microscopic 1.65 and opponents hit .176 against him for the entire season.
If you followed the O's at all this season, you know it was no secret that Britton was going to throw the sinker and it was going to work. Fangraphs, despite the fact that they refer to it as a two-seam fastball (they are close, but not necessarily the same), has the pitch making up nearly 90 percent of his arsenal, up from his previous high in 2011 of 53 percent.
On top of that, his velocity shot through the roof. Before, he was typically a low-90s pitcher. In 2014, he was consistently 95-96 mph with great late life on the ball. So much so that he had a ground ball rate of 75.3 percent. That led the Major Leagues for pitchers with at least 50 innings thrown on the season. The jump in velocity is very likely associated with the move to the bullpen. Taking away the responsibility of lasting six or seven innings allowed Britton to let it all go in 10-20 pitches.
His opponents batting average on balls in play was also a measly .215. That was seventh in baseball for pitchers with at least 50 innings of work. It shows that, perhaps, he was a tad lucky. But it more likely shows that when hitters put the ball in play, they were not squaring it up very often. (On a related note: Jim Johnson was last in the league in that same category with a .366 BABIP)
In the postseason, Britton did struggle some. He pitched 4.2 innings, appearing in six of the teams seven games and accumulated a 3.86 ERA. Against Detroit, his only wobble was in the Game Three clincher. He couldn't deal with the middle of their lineup but ended up working out of it to send the O's to the ALCS.
When it came to Kansas City, he couldn't get the Royals to bite on his sinker in Game One. The pitch that many before them had swung at, they let break right out of the strike zone. In Game One, he walked the bases loaded before getting Eric Hosmer to ground into a fielder's choice and Darren O'Day bailed him out.
In Game Two, Britton was unable to return the favor to O'Day, allowing his inherited runner to score on an Alcides Escobar double. Then Escobar scored on a Lorenzo Cain single to seal the O's fate.
He did managed to put things together in Game Four to give the O's a chance to come back, but it wasn't to be.
Britton was far from the only problem for the Orioles in the ALCS, but he was one of the major reasons why the team was even able to get to that point. It is scary to think of where they would have been without him and Steve Pearce. Fangraphs rates him as a 1.1 WAR player, whereas Baseball Reference gives him a 2.5 WAR. Either way, for a relief pitcher, that is impressive.
Not to mention, on Oct. 7, between the ALDS and ALCS, Zach and his wife, Courtney, became parents when they welcomed their son, Zander Lee Britton, into the world. It couldn't have been a much better season for the starter turned stud reliever.
The ridiculously low batting average on balls in play and the way the Royals seemed to pick him apart worries me for 2015 and makes the likely loss of Andrew Miller sting a bit more. Projections for next season from Steamer indicate that they expect that BABIP to rise to .298. With that, his ERA would increase to 3.24 and he will save only 28 games.
I don't expect such a dramatic drop in production, but we were definitely spoiled this time around. Fingers crossed that it will happen again.