Coming off perhaps the greatest season by a reliever in MLB history, no one’s stock was higher than Zach Britton’s entering the 2017 season. Fresh off of back-to-back-to-back sub-2 ERA seasons as a reliever, Britton looked to pick up right where he left off in the midst of a 49-game streak of converted saves. Unfortunately for the southpaw, his body had other ideas and Britton never found his 2016 form while fighting a multitude of injuries.
Britton’s ailments started way back in spring training and threw off his throwing regimen from the get-go. With less than a week to go before the season, The Baltimore Sun put out this prophetic report to scare pretty much every Orioles fan who read it. Following oblique soreness down in Sarasota, Britton was never was able to amass enough innings to find his release point, and his command suffered.
In his final spring appearance, Britton recorded four outs but surrendered two hits and walked another two batters. After finishing the Grapefruit League with more walks than strikeouts and a WHIP over 2.00, the Orioles were willing to let him figure it out in Baltimore. The season began and Britton was back in the closer role, but his struggles didn’t stay down in Florida.
After the first two weeks of the 2017 regular season, Britton was sitting pretty with six saves in six opportunities. But despite moving into a tie for the second longest save streak in MLB history, it was apparent to anyone watching that something just wasn’t right with the lefty.
Although Britton had an ERA of only 1.29, opposing batters were hitting .346 off of Britton and getting on base more than 40% of the time. Then on April 16th, Britton was put on the 10-day DL with the dreaded “forearm soreness” and his issues began to make some sense.
After two weeks of the Orioles reiterating that Britton was not a candidate for Tommy John surgery, he rejoined the team to start the month of May. After putting the setback behind him, Britton tossed two scoreless appearances before his forearm flared up once again. Less than three weeks after going on the 10-day DL for the first time, Zach was back on the DL again for the same forearm issue, but this time he was gone for much longer.
The Orioles’ closer made it off the 60-day DL in early July, leaving just enough time for a league-wide showcase prior to the trade deadline. Hoping to swap Britton for multiple top prospects similar to the Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller deals in 2016, Duquette and friends quickly found out that the market for Britton wasn’t in the same ballpark.
Even after setting the American League record with his 55th consecutive save, Zach’s July ERA of 4.91 didn’t do much to quell the concerns regarding his forearm injury and the Orioles’ front office wound up nixing their best deal from the Astros. With the proposed return lacking a single top-100 prospect and the team’s control of Britton through 2018, the O’s chose to hang onto the 29-year-old and instead make a halfhearted run at the playoffs in 2017. We all know how that one turned out.
Britton finished out the year in an Orioles uniform while continuing to struggle some with his command. His record-setting streak ended after 704 days with a blown save against the A’s in late August. Soon after, concerns about his knee popped up and a month and another blown save later, Britton was shut down for good to rest his left knee.
Looking back at Britton’s season, it doesn’t appear nearly as bad as it felt watching at the time. His ERA of 2.89 looks solid, he blew only two saves out of 17 opportunities, and his 72.6% groundball rate was only topped by a single pitcher in all of baseball. But for the two-time all-star, it was his lowest season-long groundball percentage as a reliever, and his 2.89 ERA was still more than full two runs higher than in his dominant 2016 campaign.
Heading into next season, Britton will look to finally find that release point again in Sarasota and hope that his command returns with it. His 4.3 BB/9 in 2017 was nearly two full walks higher than his average as a reliever the previous three seasons. When it all comes down to it, Britton’s ball is still sinking as much as ever, he just has to be able to hit his spots.
The Orioles will have an estimated 12.2 million reasons to unload Britton this offseason, but given his 2017 performance, the team will most likely struggle to see their desired returns over the winter meetings. Add that to Angelos’s wishes to go for it one more time in 2018, and Britton is likely to be right back in his familiar closer role come Opening Day.
Hopefully Zach can rediscover the form he showed between 2014 and 2016 to propel the O’s to the postseason one more time. At the very least, it will certainly bump up his asking price come July. The multitude of bullpen implosions this postseason certainly doesn’t hurt.