The truest compliment to how incredible Zach Britton was last season lies in how his early outings in 2017 have seemed like struggles. Everything was stress-free with the Orioles closer last season with his perfect save percentage and miniscule ERA. You hardly had to worry at all.
Things haven’t been so smooth so far in 2017. Although Britton has kept a 0.00 ERA and still is perfect on save chances, there’s been a lot more nail-biting in his outings. It’s early, small sample size and all that, but after last night, Britton has a 1.667 WHIP. His command is off, batted balls are getting through, and every now and again there are even scary fly balls off of his bat.
Thursday night was one of those outings. By creating a mess and getting out of it without incident, Britton lined himself up for another play of the game by our simple metric of whatever single play moves the needle the most on the Fangraphs Win Probability graph.
This play wasn’t the slickest play of the game. That was J.J. Hardy’s awe-inspiring glove flip to start a double play. It wasn’t what turned out to be the decisive run for the Orioles - that was Hardy’s RBI single in the fifth inning. But in crunch time, it was the one that mattered the most.
When Britton took the mound, the Blue Jays had only a 20.6% chance of winning the game. It’s hard to score a run. Harder still after you have one out: The Jays were only at 11.6%. But then a Troy Tulowitzki ground ball snuck into left field (bad batted ball luck) and Russell Martin drew a walk, although in fairness to Britton, he actually struck out Martin and the umpire didn’t call it.
Worse for Britton, he chucked a wild pitch for the first pitch of the next at-bat, advancing the runners. That’s tying run at third base, winning run in scoring position with only one out - a very favorable run environment for teams that aren’t the Orioles. By the graph, the Jays were actually slightly favored to win at 54.7%.
The batter was Kevin Pillar, a jabroni at the plate but a frustrating speed demon in center field against the O’s. So when Pillar hit a slow-developing chopper that snuck past Britton, that was scary.
Fortunately for the Orioles, Tulowitzki didn’t break home on contact, wary of the Orioles drawn-in infield and whether Britton might be able to field the ball. Hardy charged in as the ball got past Britton, fired to first base, and retired Pillar for the second out.
This one play swung the pendulum back in the O’s favor. In one swoop their win chance improved by 30.1%. That’s a very big one. The next biggest was the final out, when birthday boy Steve Pearce lifted a ball to center field that Adam Jones tracked down to take the Jays win chance from 24.6% to 0%.
When the highest pitch Britton throws in an at-bat is at the knees, that’s probably going to be a good at-bat for Britton and in turn for the Orioles.
It didn’t have to be that way, though. You can barely see the first pitch. That’s because it bounced in front of home plate and advanced the two baserunners, nearly setting up for disaster for the Orioles. Yet much like the Monty Python peasant who was turned into a newt, Britton got better.
From there, though, Welington Castillo gives him a low target, like so:
If you’ve seen any of the pre- or post-game stuff from MASN, you’ve probably heard Rick Dempsey praising Castillo. He seriously likes the guy, and praised this particular sequence for Castillo setting a low target, as opposed to some other catcher who was here recently. (He never actually says Matt Wieters’s name.)
It’s easier for Castillo to do since he’s 5’10”, and anyway, throwing to Wieters didn’t exactly go poorly for Britton last year. But let’s roll with it. Who doesn’t want to be excited about a new Oriole?
As you can see on the strike zone map above, Britton hits this target perfectly. Castillo has to reach down a little to catch it, but that meant it was right at the knees when it crossed the plate. Called strike one.
Now, Pillar has to think about Britton painting the low part of the zone on him. He’s got to be ready to swing because he might not get anything better than that. So he swings over a pitch that Castillo nearly catches in the dirt.
Although Britton misses the target towards the outside of the plate with the fourth and final pitch, he still gets Pillar to roll over and get a ground ball that heads to the left side of the infield. That the ball went that way was crucial in freezing Tulowitzki.
Britton reacts to field the ball but he gets out of the way of his three-time Gold Glove-winning shortstop. Hardy throws out Pillar easily. Soon after that, the Orioles were in the win column again. It’s nice having a closer who gets ground balls.
Season Tally (wins)
- 2 - Zach Britton
- 1 - Mark Trumbo, Seth Smith, Hyun Soo Kim, Trey Mancini
Season Tally (losses)
1 - Mychal Givens, Dylan Bundy