This July’s trade season for the Orioles is one that provides some small hope for the future of the team even as they have a 29-73 record. Along with the hope for renewal comes the sad reality that this chance of getting better in the future comes at the expense of trading away the good, longtime Orioles. So it is with Zach Britton, moved on Tuesday night to the Yankees for three minor league pitchers.
Britton came to the Orioles from his high school in Texas, a third round pick all the way back in 2006. He had been around for so long that he was here even before Andy MacPhail came around. His first professional pitches were thrown for the rookie-level Bluefield Orioles, which have not existed since 2010.
After about a year and a half, Britton really started to gain notice as a pitching prospect with solid performance first at Delmarva and then at Frederick. It was enough that, prior to the 2010 season, he started showing up towards the bottom of top 100 prospect lists. A strong 2010 season at Bowie and Norfolk bumped him up even higher before 2011, where Britton was as high as #17 on the Baseball Prospectus list.
That promise led to an MLB debut in April of that season, despite the O’s having spent all of spring training swearing that there was no way they could call up Britton so soon. One injury to Brian Matusz and that was out the window and Britton, at age 23, was thrust into the rotation.
Yet as we know, the path to success for that era of young O’s pitcher was a fraught one, if success was ever reached at all. Britton found that success with the O’s three years later when they decided to move him to the bullpen, and it turns out this was where he was meant to be. Freed from having to pitch six innings and face the same hitters three times a game, he could just throw his sinker and throw it well and no one could do much of anything about it.
The three-year stretch that began with that 2014 conversion to the bullpen are nothing short of incredible, the kind of thing that we may never be fortunate enough to see again from a late-inning Orioles reliever. In that time, Britton pitched in 204 games and collected a save in 120 of these, with a combined 1.38 ERA and 0.909 WHIP. You could put in Britton and the game would be won soon with no drama. That’s just how it was.
This was never more apparent than in the 2016 season when Britton posted a perfect 47-for-47 in save chances. That just doesn’t happen! Bad luck, one bad night, some kind of misfortune will strike even the best closers. Almost 30% of batters struck out against him that year, and of the ones who did put the ball in play, it went on the ground 80% of the time. The only blemish that year was the time that the Orioles rather infamously did not ask him to pitch.
Do you have a particular favorite Britton memory? Out of all of his 139 saves as an Oriole, second-most in club history, it’s one from the playoffs that doesn’t even count in his total that I remember the most:
Buck Showalter ordered the intentional walk right before this that put the tying run on base and the go-ahead run at the plate, then said Britton would throw a double-play and the Orioles would clinch the series. That’s exactly what happened! Buck was a prophet that night. And so the Orioles swept the Tigers in three games where the Tigers starters had all won Cy Youngs: Max Scherzer, Justin Verlander, David Price.
Maybe all of that would have happened without Britton out there in the bullpen, but in a series marked by the meltdowns of the Tigers bullpen, it’s huge that the O’s had a near-flawless closer to lock it down. If some jabroni had blown the game after the Delmon Young double in Game 2, it would not be remembered nearly so fondly. Britton retired the Tigers 1-2-3 and locked in that legend.
Britton was drafted. He pitched. He will always be Birdland. Of the 2014 AL East-winning Orioles, just seven players remain. Of the 2012 wild card squad, for which Britton also pitched, there are only four players left.
I close by borrowing from Jack Black and AC/DC, which played as Britton warmed up in recent years: We roll tonight to the guitar bite! And for those who have rocked, we salute you.