clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

In Zach Britton, the Orioles have baseball’s best closer

Armed with baseball’s deadliest pitch, Orioles’ lefty Zach Britton has transformed himself into baseball’s most dominant late-inning arm.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

As baseball continues to adapt to the ever-present development of furthering information, folks have hypothesized that a “closer-by-committee” approach may be the way of future.

There’s some sense to it, sure. Navigating the bullpen to favor the arm-side match-ups provides its benefits. For example, let’s say you start the 9th inning with two right-handed batters, followed by a lefty.

In comes Mychal Givens, a notorious nightmare for right-handers whose sweeping slider and mid-90's fastball perfectly slots him as a two-batter specialist. Who follows? For farts and giggles how about Fernando Abad, whose current .100/.125/.133 slash versus lefties is a natural fit to record the crucial 27th out.

Manipulating the odds into your favor using situational splits, even more so as the baseball game reaches its breaking point, is a strategy that should work, and can work. Baseball has created the specialist to succeed in special opportunities, and again, the numbers theorize its merits.

In today’s sphere, the Clint Eastwoods of the world intimidated by kids and their algebras often fall back to traditional baseball acumen using phrases like “he’s a baseball player” or “he knows how to get outs”. We call that the “Harold Reynolds Doctrine.” Still, there is some truth we can latch onto thanks to the old-schoolers.

Despite an abundance of what tends to be overwhelming raw talent at the position, closing baseball games can’t be fun, man. Storming out of the outfield gates, running to the mound with the force of the crowd, both for and against your cause.

Classic rock, hip-hop, modern pop or whatever it is, the music usually playing in your Beats are instead blared over the loudspeakers, amplifying the moment to come. Three outs. You only need three outs, but as the situation dictates, you’re in control of the finishing frame. Closing takes a certain kind of personality combined with the right dominant stuff, and not everyone has those things like Britton does.

What a relief it is for the likes of us to know that even on nights the Orioles score a bunch and surrender a few less, or squeak out a lead only to lean on the rare quality start, that Britton slumbers in the bullpen. There really isn’t any other way to put it than to say he’s awesome. Super-duper, man-crush Monday, Khaleesi-burnin’-bad-guys kind of awesome.

Comparing a mortal man to the Mother of Dragons should not be taken lightly, but who is to say that Britton is a mortal man? How is that a human being is capable of throwing a 96 MPH fastball that moves like a wiffle ball?

And just how good is Britton? You know, 0.96 ERA and perfect 20 saves in 20 chances kind of speaks for itself, as do his 0.61 WHIP and .180 BABIP. His initial 2016 returns, purely from a numbers standpoint, plant the idealistic seed that perhaps, just perhaps, Britton is indeed what some would call the “best” closer in baseball.

Can that be perceived as homerism? Sure, but having the pleasure of watching Britton pitch 27 games so far this year has done more to cement the notion than detract it.

Aroldis Chapman has his fastball, Kenley Jansen has his cutter, and Wade Davis has both and some other stuff. All three are sturdy in how they go about their business, and all three have built a style batters can sense, but still can’t hit. But none before are the “best” closer today. Zach Britton is.

Why you ask, why do you say? Why is Britton better than perhaps, Alex Colome? Being nearly unhittable is probably why.

Exhibit A:

Eno Sarris of Fangraphs wrote an article for ESPN late in January, ranking the best pitches in baseball. You have to be an ESPN Insider to read the entirety of his rankings, but the headline spoils the ending where he ranks Britton’s sinker as the best pitch in today’s baseball world.

Sarris’ approval speaks volumes, given his profound want-to as a pitching/grip connoisseur, especially as he continues to travel from team to team politely bugging pitchers to show him their grips.

Even still, one pitch against Josh Rutledge in a one-run game may be all the proof anyone will ever need to cement Britton’s sinking fastball as the nastiest pitch in baseball.

How does he do it? It’s hard to say because we haven’t seen a pitch like his before. The 96+ MPH consistency is now a regular prerequisite to close games, but adding the kind of movement he creates is where the mystery beholds. And we aren’t talking about just right to left fade or vertical sink, we’re looking at a combination of both. That doesn’t happen with fastballs, especially one just south of triple digits.

What does that fastball do? Naturally, a diving fastball that moves down and in to lefties or sinking away from righties creates ground balls, and no one in baseball is better at forcing the ball to his infielders than Britton.

His 80.3 GB% leads the league, and as the reverse dictates, Britton’s fly ball rate of 4.9% is tops as well. In a one run-game, is it harder to string together two or three hits or hope a ball in the air find its way over the fence?

Most closers find themselves in the 9th inning because they typically don’t allow baserunners, but human imperfection is occasionally met with a mistake over the plate. A lot of grounders and a .180 BABIP can do a lot to a psyche, however.

One piece of of Britton’s brilliance is his avoidance of fly balls. Opposing hitters have to hope that his sinker doesn’t sink, and even then, the 95.3 MPH average fastball velocity creates room for error. Though most nights, the sinker does sink, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯.

That pitch is where he separates from the rest of the Joe-Flacco-is-elite closers. It’s hard not to love some like Chapman and his flame-emoji fastball, but a straight 102 MPH fastball is THAT much easier to hit than 96-98 MPH with wicked-hawd tilt. It just so happens the numbers back it up.

In 13 more innings, Britton’s whiff rate of 18.8% (3rd-best in baseball) is slightly ahead Chapman’s 18.1%, while Britton’s 39.7% chase rate outpaces Chapman’s by nearly six percent (34.0%). Though Chapman gets less contact in the strike zone than Britton, Chapman is in the strike zone 16% more often (58.6%) than Britton.

Chapman’s zone percentage leads all closers while Britton’s 40.5% frequency in the zone is 14th-lowest. The numbers help to reassure that Britton excels at creating the illusionary strike, whereas Chapman’s ever-explosive heater stays on the same plane.

Granted, both are phenomenal at what they do, but one dominates by throwing imaginary strikes, rather than having to. Conventional wisdom says you take that guy every time.

Other than Mariano Rivera being a lifetime Yankee, it’s hard to find any fault with the way he operated for 19 seasons, leaning on one primary pitch. From 2009-13 according to PITCHf/x, Rivera threw his cutter 86.2% of the time to the tune of a 2.56 FIP. In comparison with Britton, who throws his sinker 89.8% so far in 2016, is on a three-year pace to an average 89.7% fastball frequency paired with a 2.33 FIP.

As Rivera proved, hitters can know what’s coming and still swing with timidity, and Britton is doing it as well as anyone in today’s era has ever done it.

For a team like the Orioles, a salvageable start can’t be wasted, making Britton just the right kind of hero. As we saw on Monday night, an evening comprised of Chris Tillman dominance, Britton was tasked with coming into the game to record the last five outs.

Despite Hanley Ramirez sneaking a single up the middle to score an inherited run, Britton struck out four of the last five outs, including all three Red Sox in the 9th inning.

The most impressive of the five outs was the first batter he came in to face, David Ortiz. You can be mad at Ortiz for being whatever, or whoever he is, but the dude can still flat-out hit, and it isn’t often guys make him look bad. But most guys aren’t Zach Britton.

There is no person of our same planet that could possibly lay off of that pitch. At 98 MPH, you already have to think “swing” if only to immediately decide otherwise, but Britton creates an ultimatum. You either swing or you don’t and even if his fastball isn’t a strike, more often than not, hitter’s brains convince them to do so. It’s an unintentional byproduct of a pitch that seems to defy gravity.

The numbers are there, and the stuff is too. Maybe its an Orioles thing, us living in our own world believing our favorite players are subjected to an annual lack of diligence, but in Zach Britton’s case, it isn’t farfetched to say the best reliever in baseball is someone most folks couldn’t pick out of a police lineup.

Baltimore Orioles Photo Day Photo by Rob Carr/Getty Images

Well, now you can.