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Zach Britton has only gotten better for the Orioles in 2015

Zach Britton was a key development for the Orioles run to the 2014 AL East crown. In 2015, Britton has somehow been even better as the Orioles closer.

Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Zach Britton came into 2014 with no options and on the roster bubble. Britton was once a highly touted starting pitching prospect, ranked as high as 28th overall by Baseball America in their 2010 top 100 list. He started 28 games in 2011 for the big league club and was pretty good for a rookie. However, as Spring Training began in 2012 he developed an issue with his shoulder labrum and received the now popular Platelet Rich Plasma (PRP) injection to alleviate the issue. He would never get surgery, but he struggled in 2012 and 2013 bouncing between the major and minor leagues. So, in 2014 Britton had to stick on the roster that broke camp if the Orioles wanted to keep him around.

That is a pretty remarkable timeline for a player and should serve as a reminder to everyone that development is rarely a linear process. As you all know, Britton dominated opponents in 2014 coming out of the bullpen. From last guy on the roster to closer by mid-May. Britton recorded 37 saves in 2014 posting a 1.65 ERA and a devastating 75.3% ground ball rate, good for tops in the league. He achieved those marks in what is a somewhat nontraditional way for a closer striking out just 21.8% of hitters last season, slightly below league average for relievers. Still, his high ground ball rate fueled by his high 90s sinker was effective for him in 2014.

However, in 2015 he has been even better. He has moved on from depending on getting ground ball outs and is now depending more on himself to get people out.

2014 21.8% 8.1% 1.65 3.13 75.3% .215
2015 33.0% 3.3% 1.96 1.47 68.4% .333

In 2015, basically all of Britton's peripheral numbers are better while his ERA is ever so slightly higher. He is walking batters nearly five points less, good for 7th best among relievers with at least 20 innings pitched in 2015 and striking them out 11 points better, good for 12th best. He has the third best FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) among relievers as well. All of this with a high .333 BABIP (Batting Average on Balls put in Play). Furthermore, he is still getting his ground balls. One could argue that Britton may have been lucky to get such great results in 2014, but in 2015 Britton has made his own luck.

He has transformed himself into a more traditional closer by utilizing his slider more and getting way more whiffs with it. He has thrown his slider 11% of the time this year compared to only 8.5% last year. He is essentially a two pitch pitcher at this point so relying so heavily on a fastball, even a great one like Britton's can be dangerous. Well, now he has added a super effective slider as well. According to pitch value, among 112 relievers who have thrown at least 20 innings in 2015 Britton's slider has been the 12th best slider per 100 pitches at 2.93 runs above average.

His swing and miss, or whiff, rate for his sinker has been stable this year. But, the sharper slider has dramatically improved his overall whiff rate. Britton has already recorded 11 strike outs on his slider in 2015 and ONLY ONE of 36 has been put into play, which did fall for a single. The whiff rate on his breaking ball has gone from 17.7% in 2014 to 36% in 2015. More importantly, against right handed hitters, the whiff rate has gone from 9.3% to 38.5%. His slider has been a great tool in wiping out any platoon advantage.

Looking into how the pitch has changed in 2015 versus 2014 reveals possible reasons for it's heightened effectiveness. First, and importantly, the average velocity of the pitch is right around 84mph which is 12mph slower than his sinker which averages right around 96mph. The velocity of his slider has not changed year over year, but so far the break has.

Pitchf/x data is one of the more incredible free data sources available to baseball analysts and the wonderful people over at Brooks Baseball have made it easy to search and analyze. The movement of pitches is measured and given in inches moved both horizontally and vertically. Britton's slider this year has slightly less horizontal break than it did before, around 2/3 of an inch. However, it's vertical movement, graph shown below, has decreased by about 1.2 inches. So the pitch has slightly less horizontal break in 2015, but it has much less vertical break. (For some reason, Brooks Baseball classifies Britton's breaking ball as a curve ball rather than a slider, but for our sake here, consider it a slider)

Vertical Movement

Therefore, Britton's slider looks more like a fastball from a vertical standpoint, but still has the nice horizontal break. This creates a truly deceptive pitch, especially because of the nice 12mph separation from his fastball. Britton has used this new and refined pitch to great effect in 2015 busting it inside to right handed hitters and working it away to lefties.

Britton's slider has been an incredible weapon for him in 2015. The higher strikeout rate and stable ground ball rate only means that Britton is getting better. Striking out hitters is not the only way to get someone out, but it it one of the few ways that guarantees an out. With his new sharper slider Britton has been able to strike guys out rather than hoping for weak contact and he is still getting those ground balls when someone does put the ball in play. He has transformed himself from a failed starter into a top flight closer. Now we can all only hope that his improvement will be put to use by the offense giving him some leads to protect.