Age: 30 (December, 22, 1987)
Traditional Stats: 2-0, 3.10 ERA, 40.2 IP, 1.230 WHIP, 7.5 K/9, 4.6 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, 7 SV
Advanced Stats: 0.7 bWAR, 0.1 fWAR, 4.22 FIP, 140 ERA+
In a three year period from 2014 to 2016, Zach Britton was one of the most dominant closers in baseball.
Over 204 regular season games, Britton posted a minuscule 1.38 ERA (second-best among relievers), a 2.25 xFIP (fifth-best), and a league best 77.9 percent ground ball rate, which was over ten percent higher than the second best reliever (Brad Ziegler, 66.7%).
Britton, 30, was originally a starting pitcher, as is the case for most relievers. He started 28 games in his rookie season of 2011, posting a 4.61 ERA over 154.1 innings pitched. In 2012, Britton was on the shelf for half the season due to a left shoulder impingement, and posted middling results when he did take the mound as a starter both in the minor and major leagues.
Heading into 2014, the Orioles had a full starting staff and Britton was out of options. If they tried to send him down to continue working as a starter, they risked exposing him to waivers, where another team would surely take a chance on a young, left-handed pitcher.
The Orioles’ staff decided to convert Britton to the pen, hoping that would give him a better chance of making the Opening Day roster while serving as another lefty out of the pen for manager Buck Showalter.
Needless to say, the transition worked out well for the club, but not for opposing hitters late in the game.
Especially in 2016.
That year, Britton led the American League in saves (47), posted the sixth-best swinging strike rate among all qualified relievers (17.2%), and recorded the lowest single-season ERA among all pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched (0.54). He finished fourth in A.L. Cy Young voting and took home the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award.
While Britton’s ’16 season was masterful by all accounts, for many fans – especially of the Orioles – their lasting memory could easily be one where he didn’t pitch. That’s because the most dominating American League closer was not used at all in the extra-inning Wild Card game against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Instead, Ubaldo Jimenez allowed three straight hits, including the walk-off home run to Edwin Encarnacion, to end the Orioles season in the bottom of the eleventh inning in the Rogers Centre.
For the O’s to lose that game while not utilizing a man who allowed a total of FOUR earned runs all season is not only poor managing, it should be punishable in a court of law (kidding, kind of).
After three straight seasons in which Britton appeared in at least 64 games, injury woes riddled the next two. A left forearm strain in ’17 reduced Britton’s workload down to 38 appearances, followed by a ruptured right Achilles tendon he suffered in an offseason workout in December 2017.
Britton didn’t return to action in 2018 until mid-June, where he made 16 appearances before being dealt to the New York Yankees a week before the non-waiver Trade Deadline.
In total, Britton appeared in 41 games between the Orioles and Yankees in ’18, posting a 3.10 ERA, 3.75 xFIP, and 7.5 SO/9. While respectable, they certainly weren’t the eye-popping numbers fans were accustomed to seeing over his dominant three-year stretch.
Diving deeper into his numbers this past season, there are several key issues to keep in mind. While Britton was still inducing a high whiff rate on his sinker – the pitch he relies on over 90 percent of the time – at 31.2%, Britton was not generating the lofty strikeout rates on it that he had in 2015-16 (25.7 and 28.4 percent in ’15 and ’16, compared to 17.6 in ’18).
During his torrid stretch from 2014-16, Britton never posted a BB percentage higher than 8.1 percent. In 2018, Britton posted a career worst 12.4 walk percentage, while recording a 7.7 K-BB rate, which was the 17th lowest among relievers with at least 40 innings pitched (out of 191 relievers).
Britton posted his highest hard hit percentage (28.8) since 2013, and saw his soft hit percentage drop from 30.9 percent in his historic ’16 campaign down to 20.7 percent in ’18.
What Britton still excelled at was his extraordinary ability to draw ground balls, posting a 73 percent rate which was best among all relievers with at least 40 innings pitched, and continuing to throw in the mid-nineties with his sinker.
It’s certainly plausible that the multiple injuries Britton suffered over the past two seasons played a major part in his declining numbers, and that a fully healthy Britton will be able to once again take his place among some of the best closers in the game. He did finish the regular season on a high note, pitching 9.2 scoreless innings in 10 September games, allowing just three hits while striking out nine.
The fact that he’ll be turning 31 in December, is left-handed, still throwing in the mid-90s, and generating an absurd ground ball rate means they’ll be plenty of suitors for Britton’ services this winter.
He’ll certainly be looking for closer’s money, and will likely find a team willing to offer a three or four year deal in the vicinity of around $12-15 million annually.
Teams that could be in on him would include the Red Sox, Twins, Angels, Cardinals, Astros, Cubs, Yankees, and of course, the Mets.
It’s no secret that the Mets are in desperate need to revamp the back end of their bullpen. Many believe, including myself, that they need to go out and sign/trade for at least two viable arms to have any chance to compete in 2019.
The Mets have certainly not hit on many of their free agent reliever signings over the past several seasons (Swarzak, Francisco, Bastardo, Ramirez, Carrasco, etc.). That being said, the club cannot be shopping at the dollar store when they need Saks Fifth Avenue quality.
Britton certainly has the veneer of being a top shelf closer not too long ago. The fact that he generates a ton of ground balls and still throws in the mid-90s on his fastball are certainly enticing to add to the Mets pen. With a plethora of enticing options on the market this year, including Craig Kimbrel, Jeurys Familia, Adam Ottavino, Andrew Miller, Cody Allen, David Robertson, and Britton, the Mets certainly have options and the potential to solidify their late innings.
I think it’s in the Mets’ best interests to check in on all of the premier free agent relievers and gauge where the market is heading. Britton checks off many boxes for this team including experience pitching in high leverage situations (not just the ninth), the ability to miss bats, and keeping the ball out of the air.
I certainly think Britton’s a name we’ll be hearing the Mets connected to as the off-season continues.