Zach Britton's short career as a starter was plagued by inconsistency, but he finally found a home in the Orioles' bullpen in 2014. By the end of the season he supplanted Tommy Hunter as the closer and was statistically one of the best closers in the league. He posted a 1.65 ERA, saved 37 games, and led MLB in ground ball percentage by a huge margin at 75.3%. Still, the questions remained as to whether he could do it again. His FIP of 3.13 and BABIP of .215 made it look like there was some luck involved in his breakout season, and his struggles in the ALCS didn't help that impression.
One year later, there are very few doubters as to whether or not Britton's the real deal. In 2015 he earned his first All-Star appearance, blew only four saves, and improved statistically in nearly every way. Let's take a look at the numbers:
Britton improved his game across the board: he struck out more batters, walked less, and took his already ridiculous GB% to historic new heights. The last three columns tell the overall story: even though Britton's ERA was slightly higher, he was far unluckier with balls in play and was actually a much better pitcher in 2015. Unlike 2014, FIP believes his ERA this year was right around where it should have been. A big reason his ERA actually went up was the huge increase in BABIP, and most of that was from infield hits: 11.2% of ground balls against Britton resulted in infield hits this year vs. 7.5% last year.
Let's take a look at three of the four saves Britton blew this year:
April 25th vs. Boston (3-2 lead): Pedroia walks. Ortiz strikes out swinging. Ramirez infield single to 2nd. Napoli infield single to shortstop. Sandoval reaches and Pedroia scores on fielder's choice at 3rd, when Machado throws the ball into the stands trying to turn a game-ending double play.
August 14th vs. Oakland (6-4 lead): Semien infield single to pitcher. Burns infield single to shortstop. Canha groundout to pitcher. Phegley groundout to third, scoring Semien. Valencia singles to right on a grounder that sneaks through the infield, tying the game.
August 23rd vs. Minnesota (3-2 lead): Dozier infield single to first. Mauer grounds out, Dozier advances to second. Sano strikes out swinging. Plouffe singles on a grounder between shortstop and 3rd, scoring Dozier.
It's hard to say Britton pitched poorly in any of them. None of these three even involved a ball hit in the air. Only Britton's fourth blown save, against Tampa during the last week of the season, was one where he really blew up. Even then, it was with a few games left in a disappointing season. I know I didn't watch that game. I doubt many others did either.
Zach Britton was phenomenal this year. More importantly, he did it in a way that suggests he can keep it up in the future. This wasn't a season fueled by a low BABIP where his ERA was artificially low. This was dominance. This was a pitcher getting even better at locating one of the best, if not the best, single pitches in baseball. It sure was fun to watch. The Orioles have a lot of holes to fill on their roster next year, but closer certainly isn't one of them.