Entering the 2015 season, most figured it would be difficult for Zach Britton to match what he did in his first year as Orioles closer.
But a closer look at the numbers indicates he’s been even more dominating in his second year as Baltimore’s ninth-inning man.
Handed the role in mid-May of last season, the left-hander converted 37 of 41 save chances and pitched to a miniscule 1.65 ERA. Consistently using the hard sinker while mixing in a couple sliders here and there, Britton held opponents to a .178 average with a .219 batting average on balls put in play (BABIP) as Orioles infielders consistently gobbled up grounder after grounder on their way to a division title.
Of course, pitching to contact can be a tricky proposition as we saw with former closer Jim Johnson, who held opponents to a .252 BABIP in his 2012 All-Star season before seeing good fortune shift dramatically a year later when opposing hitters posted a .330 BABIP and he blew nine saves. The difference with Britton continuing to thrive, however, is a shift in how he’s retiring hitters in 2015.
Averaging just 7.3 strikeouts and 2.7 walks per nine innings last season, Britton didn’t miss as many bats as the ideal closer and occasionally issued some free passes that got him into trouble. This puts much dependence on the defense and on luck in hoping batted balls don’t find open holes in the defense.
In that way, Britton hasn’t been as fortunate this year as opponents are hitting .227 with a .333 BABIP, which is higher than the major league average of .297. Despite this, his ERA still sits at 1.96 in 23 innings of work.
So, why would I say Britton has been even better in 2015 than he was a year ago?
His strikeouts are way up and his walks are way down, the two biggest outcomes over which a pitcher has full control. Britton is averaging a career-high 11.7 strikeouts and career-low 1.2 free passes per nine innings pitched, which is allowing him to overcome the lack of good fortune. In other words, there are fewer opportunities to experience bad luck when you’re striking out 33 percent of the hitters you’re facing (21.8 percent in 2014) and walking just 3.3 percent (8.1 percent last year).
These factors along with allowing just one home run all season have given Britton a 1.47 fielding independent pitching (FIP) mark, which indicates he’s been even better than his ERA suggests. In contrast, Britton’s 3.13 FIP a season ago reflected his strong dependence on good defense to make plays for him.
Among qualified relief pitchers, Britton ranks 16th in the majors in strikeouts per nine innings pitched in 2015 after ranking 104th in that department a year ago. Yes, we know pitchers don’t need to strike out hitters to be successful, but prosperity is more sustainable when you’re consistently missing bats and walking fewer hitters.
There isn’t anything dramatically different about the way Britton is pitching this year as he’s thrown his sinker a touch less (88.7 percent of the time compared to 89.3 percent last year) and his slider a little more frequently (11 percent to 8.5 percent) — the average velocity of each pitch is virtually identical to last year’s — but it’s been the effectiveness of the latter pitch that appears to have taken him to another level. Of his 30 strikeouts in 2015, 11 have come via the slider compared to just 13 of his 62 punch-outs coming on that secondary pitch last season.
To be clear, Britton is still a ground-ball machine as he ranks third among MLB relievers with a 68.4 percent grounder rate — he led the majors at 75.3 percent last year — but the southpaw is simply taking matters into his own hands more often and relying a little less on pitching to contact than he did in 2014. In crunch time, the grounder-inducing sinker remains his bread and butter, but his ability to strike out more hitters is only helping his cause.
Having converted 15 of his 16 save opportunities so far, Britton hasn’t received quite as many opportunities as you’d like with the Orioles hovering a few games below .500. But manager Buck Showalter has shown great trust in Britton as he’s recorded two four-out saves and a five-out save already this season.
Even if the Orioles have struggled to recapture their winning formula from 2014, Britton is emphatically removing any lingering doubts that he’s the real deal in the ninth inning and solidifying his place as one of the better closers in baseball.