Zach Britton is the best relief pitcher in baseball right now. His sinker baffles opposing hitters. His ERA is microscopic. He
won finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting, and 11th for the MVP. So, let’s stop talking about putting him back in the rotation, please.
The latest instance of this inquiry came from Britt Ghiroli’s MLB.com piece on Monday. It turns out that even some within the Orioles organization have thought about Britton starting every fifth day, but those thoughts were deemed idiotic, probably by Zach himself.
Preach, Dukie. Preach!
It’s not unheard of for pitchers to make the switch from closing to starting and be successful. John Smoltz did it and was a Cy Young candidate in both roles. But more often than not, guys are moved into the bullpen, and ultimately to closer, because they can’t hack it as a starter.
Andrew Miller used to start. He stunk. Mariano Rivera started as a rookie. He had a 5.94 ERA. Dellin Betances was a starter in the minors. He did OK, but as a reliever he is pretty great. Britton has a similar story.
From 2011-2013, the southpaw was typically a starter, making only two of 48 appearances out of the bullpen. In that time, he amassed a 4.77 ERA, 88 ERA+, 3.9 BB/9 and 5.7 SO/9. Since 2014, he has been the O’s full-time closer and has pitched in 204 games, all as a reliever, with a 1.38 ERA, 302 ERA+, 2.4 BB/9, and 9.3 SO/9. If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it.
Most of the time, the reason that a player is made a closer is because he has one really, really great pitch that he can locate. That’s it. Usually, that is some variation of a fastball with ridiculous movement or velocity. For Britton, that pitch is his bat-melting sinker.
MASN’s Steve Melewski investigated the pitch a little bit last month and came up with some impressive information. Britton tosses the sinker 92 percent of the time, averaged 97.4 mph on it, had a .157 batting average against, a .193 slugging percentage against and made hitters swing and miss 17.8 percent of the time.
Batters KNOW the pitch is coming, but they still can’t hit it and when they do, they just beat it into the ground. Britton’s 80 percent ground ball rate led all of Major League Baseball. Second place was Marc Rzepczynski with 67.4 percent. That’s a big difference.
But as a starter, the advantage of having that one dominant pitch greatly diminishes. When extending Britton from one inning to six or seven, you now give the opposing hitters a chance to see 10-15 pitches in one night from him rather than just three or four. These are big league guys. Given those chances, they can now pick up on the spin a bit easier and, maybe, they lay off some of those low sinkers and let them scrape the dirt so they can take a free base.
To combat this, Britton would need to have at least one other “plus” pitch. Currently, he does use a curveball from time to time, and it’s really not all that bad. But would it stand up as a pitch if he used more than eight percent of the time? And what would his theoretical third pitch be? What I’m trying to say is, that would be a lot to figure out this offseason. I’m sure these guys work on additional pitches during their preseason bullpen sessions. Based on what we see on the field, Britton can’t find anything else he finds reliable.
On top of that, when you make a closer into a starter, you are going to see a severe drop in average velocity. As a starter, Britton’s fastball averaged right around 91.6 mph, according to Fangraphs. In the ‘pen, he is averaging about 95 mph. Taking more than three mph off of that sinker makes Britton much more hittable.
Moving Britton back to the rotation would seem that it can only decrease his value. Have you seen what some of the moderately successful relievers are getting on the open market? Brett Cecil just got $30.5 million over four years. Aroldis Chapman is looking for $100 million. Chapman, Miller and Craig Kimbrel have all be traded for a ridiculous number of prospects recently.
Britton is better than all of them right now and should be worth a whole lot to the Orioles and they have control of him for two more seasons. For those two seasons, if he is kept in the bullpen, Baltimore has a sure thing. Either you have one of the most reliable closers in the history of baseball, or you have an attractive trade chip that you can use to rebuild a depleted minor league system to help you compete again while some of the team’s younger stars are still under contract.
Moving Zach to the rotation throws all of that out the window. Maybe he stabilizes the staff and Mychal Givens is able to fill-in admirable in the ninth inning. But that is a big gamble to take. One that could create more problems than it solves. Play it safe, O’s. Keep Britton in the ‘pen.