The closer is an integral part of any bullpen. Their responsibility of ending a team’s hope in the last inning of a game is given a lot of weight by fans and teams. Sean O’Neill takes a look at the vastly underrated Zach Britton, who may just be the best closer in baseball.
If someone walked up to you on the street and asked you to name the best reliever in Major League Baseball, your first reaction would probably be to stop and stare at them in confusion as your brain tried to process that request. Eventually, a few names would start to trickle in. Craig Kimbrel. Aroldis Chapman. Kenley Jansen. Greg Holland. Maybe even Dellin Betances. However, you probably wouldn’t think of the name Zach Britton, and that’s a shame because that just may be the name they want to hear.
Britton’s progression to relief dominance is a story we have heard before. A starter throughout the minors, Britton peaked as the #28 overall prospect in baseball entering 2011 – according to Baseball America – following a dominant season split between AA and AAA. After a solidly average rookie season in 2011, Britton dealt with shoulder injuries and ineffectiveness for the next two seasons, slipping from roughly league average as a rookie to a well below average 83 ERA+ in 2012 and 2013 combined. Having seen enough, the Orioles made the move to try him as a reliever … and he has certainly taken to the role.
For most pitchers, a shift to the bullpen results in their stuff playing up. They can go full effort every pitch, and they can ditch their less effective pitches and focus on the one or two they throw best. Britton is no exception. As a starter, he threw his sinker just over two out of every three pitches, averaging 92-mph, and generating swings and misses about 12% of the time. Moved to relief, Britton started throwing it about 90% of the time, averaging 95-mph, and saw his whiff rate spike up to a spectacular 28%. According to Harry Pavlidis, when he was writing for The Hardball Times, 12% is an average whiff rate for a sinker. So in his move to the ‘pen, Britton’s sinker has gone from about average to a pitch that generates swings and misses at the rate of the average curveball. Did I mention he throws it 95-mph?
Now, that still leaves one pitch out of every 10, and you might think that is just going to be some “show me” pitch so hitters cannot simply sit on the sinker. Recall that Britton’s sinker generated swings and misses at the rate of the average curve at 28%. The average slider beats that with a swinging strike rate of 33%. Britton’s slider? There is limited data as hitters have only swung at Britton’s slider 40 times in his relief appearances, but they have missed on 29 of those swings (72.5%). Suffice it to say, Britton has some pretty spectacular swing and miss stuff, resulting in the 11th highest swinging strike rate in 2015:
Here is the really incredible part. While those whiff rates are elite and put him with the best relievers in baseball, what separates Britton from almost anyone else is what happens when a hitter does make contact. In 2014, Britton posted the second highest groundball rate of any pitcher who pitched at least 50 IP since the stats inception in 2002. His GB rate in 2015 ranks 13th. Not only can hitters not make contact with Britton’s pitches, when they do, they drive the ball straight into the ground:
Given his sinker/slider combination, it is no surprise that Britton generates grounders by keeping his pitches toward the bottom of the zone. This is the strategy against both righties and lefties with his sinker (the rare misses high in the zone are where hitters do most of their damage against his sinker), and he rarely pitches inside. Batters seem to have difficulty identifying which pitches will stay in the zone, as they swing nearly half the time against pitches below the zone. So far in 2015, Britton has the 3rd highest rate of swings at pitches outside of the zone of any pitcher in the MLB:
Interestingly, Britton does not adjust the placement of his slider based on batter handedness. Instead, pounding it into the bottom left corner against both LHH and RHH (low and inside against righties, low and outside versus lefties). Britton does use the slider about twice as often against lefties as righties (7% of the time against RHH, 13% against LHH), but in both cases he uses the pitch twice as frequently when he’s ahead in the count or with two strikes. Considering the whiff rate over 70% he gets on the pitch, that is a sensible approach:
Overall, Britton’s success is not hard to understand. His sinker is one of the most dominant pitches in the league and batters are largely helpless against it, and when batters make the mistake of swinging at his slider … they miss. The result in 2015 has Britton on pace for the 5th best season ever by SIERA (an advanced pitching metric like FIP that includes a ball in play component, capturing Britton’s exceptional GB ability). So if a stranger asks who the best reliever in baseball is, you might want to say Zach Britton.
Just make sure that’s the question they actually asked, otherwise you’ll end up looking like the weirdo, not them.