#39 - Zack Britton, LHP (2011 - 2018)
The 2010s could be considered the “Decade of the Reliever” in Major League Baseball. It seemed that everywhere you looked there was a one-inning pitcher who touched triple digits with his fastball and made hitters look silly. While we can argue over which pitcher was the best of the entire era, there is no doubt about who had the best standalone season. It was Zack Britton in 2016.
Of course, it wasn’t always clear that Britton would end up at the back of the Orioles bullpen, or even that his name was spelled with a “K,” but we will get into that later.
The O’s selected Britton in the 3rd round of the 2006 draft out of Weatherford High School in Texas. He would then spend parts of the next six seasons climbing the minor league ladder exclusively as a starting pitcher.
Britton’s first full season of big league action came in 2011. He started all 28 games in which he appeared and posted a 4.61 ERA, 92 ERA+ and struck out 97 batters over 154.1 innings. It wasn’t a Rookie of the Year-worthy performance, but it was serviceable. Although he did hit a home run in a July game against the Braves and still owns a career .625 batting average.
The southpaw’s sophomore season was delayed by injury. A left shoulder impingement kept Britton on the shelf until July 17. But once he did get on the mound he struggled, allowing 21 earned runs in his first 23.1 innings pitched. The 24-year-old was optioned to Triple-A on August 8.
He would later be recalled and pitch much better, especially over a four-start stretch towards the end of August in which he won all four games, struck out 29 batters in 28.2 innings and cut his season ERA in half. It was enough to earn him a spot on the O’s Wild Card roster; however, he was left out of the ALDS set-up.
The 2013 season would see Britton spend most of his time back in Triple-A. He was optioned to the minors and recalled to the majors four different times. By the end of the season, he threw 103.1 innings with Norfolk and just 40 innings with Baltimore. Those 40 big league innings saw him strike out just 18 batters while walking 17 along with the lowest fastball velocity (92.3) of his career.
Britton’s career had reached an impasse. He had just finished up his age-25 season, and he was clearly having trouble sticking in the bigs as a starter. He wasn’t missing enough bats, and the Orioles were competitive for the first time in a generation, which meant that he wasn’t going to have the chance to work on things at the highest level.
Orioles manager Buck Showalter did not assign Britton a particular role during spring training ahead of the 2014 season. But the team did trade away their closer Jim Johnson in the off-season, so there was room in the bullpen, and over Britton’s nine appearances in the Grapefruit League that year none lasted longer than two innings. Oh yeah, he also only allowed three hits all spring and didn’t give up a single run. That earned him a spot on an Opening Day roster for the first time in his career, and he never looked back.
Britton pitched in a team-leading 71 games and took over the closer role from Tommy Hunter at the end of May. The result would be 37 saves in 41 chances, a 1.65 ERA and 0.904 WHIP. He would be on the mound as the O’s swept the Tigers in the ALDS, sending the club to their first ALCS in 16 years.
The difference was a sinking fastball that added 3-4 mph in velocity and stayed frustratingly low in the strike zone. His ground ball rate jumped from 58% in 2013 to 75.3% in 2014. On that same note, his soft contact rate increased from 11.6% to 31.2% and his swinging strike rate ballooned from 6.6% to 13.1%. The move from rotation to bullpen (plus what were likely a few mechanical changes behind the scenes) had made Britton into a much more difficult pitcher to face.
Things only got better for Britton from there. He returned to the Orioles closer role in 2015, earned his first career All-Star appearance, and again filled up the stat sheet with a 1.92 ERA, 36 saves (in 40 chances) and struck out a career-high 10.8 batters per nine innings.
As good as Britton had been, it was nothing compared to what he was about to do in the 2016 season. His presence alone seemingly shortened every Orioles game by an inning, because when the southpaw stepped on the mound the game was over. His 47 saves led the league, and he didn’t blow a single opportunity, while posting a 0.54 ERA.
From May 5 through August 22, Britton appeared in 43 games and pitched 41.1 innings. He did not allow a single earned run, struck out 48, gave up 19 hits, walked 14 and lowered his season ERA from 2.70 to 0.53. Those 43 appearances without allowing an earned run are an MLB record. Depending on which metric you like the most, Britton’s 2016 is the best season ever from a relief pitcher.
His dominant season would earn Britton oodles of accolades, including the Mariano Rivera Award as the best reliever in the American League. He finished fourth in the AL Cy Young voting and 11th in AL MVP voting. However, what he may be most remembered for from that season is something he didn’t do.
The 2016 Orioles traveled to Toronto to take on the Blue Jays in the AL Wild Card game. The game would go 11 innings, and instead of turning to Britton, who was unquestionably the best reliever in the game that entire summer, Showalter went with much-maligned hurler Ubaldo Jimenez against the heart of the Blue Jays order. It went as well as could be expected. Jimenez failed to record an out, gave up three hits, including a game-winning home run off the bat of Edwin Encarnacion, and Britton was left warming up in the bullpen.
It was a sour way to end what had been a sweet season all around for the Orioles at large and Britton in particular.
Hopes were high for the Orioles in 2017. The team was largely unchanged from the previous season. Sure, their rotation was thin, but the elite bullpen, led by Britton, could patch up those holes.
Unfortunately, a left forearm strain lingered for Britton throughout the season. Although he was solid (2.89 ERA, 151 ERA+, 3.40 FIP), Britton was limited to just 38 appearances and 37.1 innings and not nearly as dominant as he had been the previous season.
An Achilles injury following the 2017 season then delayed his 2018 debut until June 12. By that point the Orioles season was already sunk, and they were well on their way to being the worst team in Major League Baseball. Britton, who was due to hit free agency the following off-season, was essentially auditioning for any teams that might be interested in acquiring him via a trade.
That trade came on July 24, when the O’s dealt him to the New York Yankees in exchange for a trio of pitching prospects, Cody Carroll, Dillon Tate and Josh Rogers. Britton’s 12 years in the Orioles organization had come to an end.
The lefty re-signed with New York that off-season on a three-year, $39 million deal, and that is when the world learned that his name was not Zach, but rather Zack, with a “K.”
Breaking News: I will be going by my legal name “Zack” instead of my stage name “Zach”..... everyone continue to breath normally... #beenlivingalie #birthcertfail— Zack Britton (@zbritton) February 7, 2019
Apparently, somewhere along the way, the Orioles screwed up and referred to Britton as “Zach” on a document, and he was too polite to say anything, and just went along for his entire tenure with the club.
Regardless of how you spell his name, Britton has earned his place as one of the best, if not the best, relief pitchers in Orioles history.