For the second time in as many weeks, a long-tenured Oriole, a player who had a huge hand in the team’s run of success from 2012-2016, is getting a proper Eutaw Street Report farewell.
Zach Britton, who took Jim Johnson‘s mantle as Orioles closer (we won’t speak of the Tommy Hunter experiment) in 2014, who made Johnson’s own “bowling ball” sinker look like a duckpin version of the real thing, and who gave me one of my favorite twitter schtick bits of all time:
— Eutaw Street Rebuild (@EutawStReport) October 2, 2016
Zach is now a New York Yankee. Man, it really is a new day at The Warehouse!
As we did with The Pretender by Foo Fighters, it’s now sadly time to retire For Those About to Rock by AC/DC.
It hurts, kids. Not as bad as Manny did (and still does), sure, but it still stings.
Let’s take our customary look back at our departed Bird’s Baltimore career.
23-year-old Zach Britton, an honorary member of “The Cavalry,” (which, in my mind, exclusively consisted of only Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Chris Tillman) made his MLB debut on April 3 (filling in for the injured Matusz), allowing a run and three hits over six innings against Tampa. Zach, the Birds’ 2006 third-round pick, was named as the team’s #2 prospect by Baseball America before the season began.
Britton made 28 starts that season, going 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA, pitching 154.1 innings. However, what many fans will most remember from that season was Zach’s prowess with…the bat? That’s right. He went 5-for-8 in interleague play, including a home run on July 3.
Surprisingly enough, Britton had very little to say during the magical Buckle Up Birds season of 2012. Thanks to a shoulder impingement suffered during Spring Training, he didn’t make his debut until July 17. Zach made just 12 appearances (11 starts) that season, going 5-3 with a 5.07 ERA. He put together a string of four consecutive good-to-sparkling starts from August 18 against the Tigers (7.0 IP, 6 H, 0 ER) through September 4 against the Blue Jays (7.0 IP, 4 H, 0 ER), which also included August 24 against Toronto (6.2 IP, 4 H, 2 ER) and August 30 against the White Sox (8.0 IP, 7 H, 1 ER). However, he allowed 10 ER in just 7.1 IP over his next two starts (which would also be his final two of the campaign).
Zach was left off the postseason roster.
It was another bump in the road for Zach in 2013, as he was called up on April 25 and allowed six runs on 10 hits in 6.0 IP in a start at Seattle before being sent back to Norfolk. He was called up again in June, making three starts for a combined 16.0 innings and 2.81 ERA, but was roughed up again in two starts at the beginning of July (12.0 IP, 7 ER) and was sent back down until rosters expanded in September.
He finished 2013 having made just eight appearances (seven starts) for a 2-3 record and 4.95 ERA.
Now 25 years old, the shine was pretty much off the apple as it pertained to Britton as a starting pitcher. He’d thrown just 100 total innings over 2012-13 since totaling 154 as a rookie.
Britton was slated to make the move to the bullpen heading into the 2014 season, and he did well enough in Sarasota to make the Opening Day roster. In that memorable 2-1 win over Boston, he threw two scoreless innings in relief of Chris Tillman, allowing one hit while recording six groundball outs (and recording the win).
It was a harbinger of things to come.
He allowed just two earned runs in 15.0 IP over 10 appearances out of the ‘pen.
We said we wouldn’t bring up Tommy Hunter, but we kind of have to. If he didn’t fail as a closer early in that 2014 season, we’d have never seen Britton get a chance at the role (or at least would have had to wait a good bit longer). Tommy allowed runs in four straight appearances in early May, including blown saves in the final two.
On May 15, in a post titled “A Closing Argument,” Roch Kubatko of MASN wrote the following:
Manager Buck Showalter didn’t offer a vote of confidence yesterday when asked whether Hunter would be used in a save situation.
“I don’t know yet,” he replied. “We’ll see.”
We never found out, of course. The Orioles trailed by two runs yesterday in the ninth. They didn’t lead.
Fans are offering an assortment of solutions to the closer crisis, mostly starting with Hunter’s exile. Folks, he’s out of minor league options and his stuff is too good to let him go. Teams would pounce on him in a heartbeat if the Orioles designated him for assignment.
Let them pounce? That’s dumb. You don’t just give him away. Try to take the emotion out of it.
Maybe he needs a short break from closing. Maybe he’s better suited as a set-up man. It’s still a relatively small sample size as we sit in the middle of May. But he belongs in this bullpen, so let’s try to eliminate all talk about giving him the Kevin Gregg treatment.
If it’s not Hunter, maybe it’s Zach Britton, whose heavy sink should produce more ground balls. But I’ve got two concerns. He’s never done it, either, and he’s thriving in his current role.
You’re familiar with the whole “robbing Peter to pay Paul” argument, right? Where would the Orioles be without Britton doing his current job?
Later that same day, Zach recorded his first career save against the – ironically (it’s 2014, remember) – Kansas City Royals, thanks to three ground balls.
And just like that, we were off.
Zach notched saves in his first three opportunities, then blew one against the Brewers in his fourth on May 27. He ripped off six more, then blew one against the Yankees on June 20.
He again went on a six-for-six streak before blowing one in Oakland on July 18 (I think we all remember that one…no, I won’t show it here.)
Save opportunities 16 through 33 went off without a hitch (0 runs allowed in any of them) until Zach blew his final save of the year on September 7 in Tampa. He was four-for-four after that, finishing the season with 37 saves in 41 attempts.
Here he is whiffing Derek Jeter on September 23.
Zach’s final regular-season line: 71 G, 76.1 IP, 37/41 Saves, 1.65 ERA, 14 ER, 62 K, 23 BB, 240 ERA+
In the division series against Detroit, Britton locked down games one and two on three grounders and a strikeout (just 0.1 IP in Game 1, 1.0 in Game 2).
In Game 3, things got a little hairy. With the O’s just one inning from a sweep and their first ALCS appearance since 1997, but staring two more games in Detroit in the face, should the Tigers mount a comeback, Zach took the mound with a 2-0 lead.
I don’t know about your house/office, but the seat I’m in just got a bit dusty for some reason.
Alas – and this one admittedly hit me right in the feels when I realized it just now – that would be Britton’s final appearance in an Orioles playoff win.
We won’t waste any time on what happened next in that particular postseason. Moving right along…
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
With the closer’s role locked down heading into the season, Britton hit the ground running. He was 23-for-24 in the first half, earning himself a spot in the All-Star Game for the first time. Here he is sitting ARod down on April 14.
And making a heck of a play in Miami on May 22.
He notched a five-out save in a 1-0 win against Boston on June 9.
Sitting Big Sloppy down on June 22:
At the All-Star Game, he joined the MLB Tonight crew with Darren O’Day…
Then struck out Bryce Harper in the game itself:
Between April 26 and August 13, Britton was 24-for-24 in save chances. He blew one on August 14 against Oakland, August 23 (yup, ruined my birthday – thanks Zach!) against Minnesota, and September 20 against Tampa. That hiccup at Tropicana Field would be his final such game until late in the 2017 season.
Putting a bow on 2015, Britton finished with:
64 G, 65.2 IP, 36/40 Saves, 1.92 ERA, 14 BB, 79 K, 215 ERA+
He was now unquestionably one of the game’s best closers.
However, he was just getting started.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
Zach’s Mona Lisa. It’s hard to choose a starting point when discussing Zach’s incredible, historic 2016 campaign. Let’s just start at the beginning then, to keep things simple. He recorded his first save in his second appearance, on April 6, by striking out the side.
He was six-for-six in April.
On May 18, he entered the game with the bases loaded and one out in the eighth, recorded a five-out save against Seattle, number 11 on the year.
On June 9, he set an Orioles record with his 19th straight successful save opportunity to begin the season.
Zach, of course, had his eye on more…comprehensive record books.
He was 27-for-27 entering the All-Star Break, having converted 29 straight dating back to the end of 2015.
He was an All-Star for the second straight season, and this time, he got the chance to close things out in the Midsummer Classic.
On August 3, Britton converted his 33rd straight to start the season, setting a new record for left-handed closers.
Eight days later, he notched his 39th consecutive relief appearance without allowing a run – a new MLB record. To make things extra dramatic, he loaded the bases with two outs (after an overturned third out call extended things) before doing so.
On August 22, Zach slammed the door on the Nationals, setting a new career high in saves with 38 (out of 38 chances), and set a new MLB record for games by a pitcher without allowing an earned run since earned runs had become a stat in 1913 at 43.
Two days later, he finally allowed a run, but still got the save.
That was Britton’s first earned run allowed since he allowed three back in April, and those four would encompass his TOTAL for the entire 2016 season.
Want to see Big Sloppy ending yet another game as a failure? Of course you do. Here’s save number 42, on September 13:
On September 28, he got his final save opportunity, and converted, capping off his perfect 47-for-47 campaign.
He had just one appearance after that, a non-save situation, pitching 1.2 innings in New York on October 2, giving up two hits and no runs while striking out three.
The final tally for 2016:
69 games, 67.0 IP, 47/47 Saves, 0.54 ERA, 18 BB, 74 K, 803 ERA+.
That’s not a type. 803 ERA+. Mariano Rivera‘s career best? 316. (Basically, 3x better than any other RP. Britton was 8x better than anybody else in 2016.)
The 0.54 ERA was also good for a new single-season record by a pitcher with at least 50 IP. Britton finished 4th in Cy Young voting, and 11th in MVP voting.
Then, of course, all of that good was overshadowed by his manager’s bad, bad decision in the Orioles’ only game of that 2016 postseason. Britton watched from the bullpen as Ubaldo Jimenez was brought in in the 11th inning of a 2-2 Wild Card game in Toronto, and promptly allowed two singles and a walk-off home run to the three batters he faced.
The Birds were eliminated. Britton never got in the game. That decision by Buck Showalter launched a million twitter jokes, 10,000 hot take articles, and – if you believe some reports that have recently leaked out during this current train wreck of a season – lost him the support of many of his players.
It was a crushing way for that record-setting season of Britton’s to end. But it shouldn’t overshadow just how amazing number 53 was for the Birds when given the opportunity to be.
GulfBird Sports/Craig Landefeld
Zach continued to etch his name in the record books to start the following season. He became the fifth pitcher in MLB history to convert 50 straight chances in game two on April 5 against…sigh, of course…the Blue Jays, when he got old buddy Steve Pearce to hit into a double play with the bases loaded.
Two days later, he tied Jim Johnson for the second-most saves in O’s history with 122, in addition to notching his 51st straight to move him into a tie with Jose Valverde for fourth-most all-time.
Zach moved into a tie with Jeurys Familia for third place all-time the next night. This one was not without some butt-clenching.
On April 14, two saves later, he moved into second place all-time on the consecutive saves list with number 54.
Of his five saves to start 2017, four had come with either Pearce or Chris Carter (two each) as the final batter. Weird!
Unfortunately, this is where things started to fall apart a bit for Zach. Not due to poor performance, but due to injury. On April 16, the Birds placed him on the DL with the always ominous “forearm tightness.” He remained on the shelf until May 2, but after just two appearances, was placed back on the DL on May 6. Britton remained sidelined through May and June, finally coming off the DL to get his first save since April on July 23 (he’d pitched in seven games in July prior to this, allowing four earned runs).
This save was number 55 straight, a new AL record and good for second place overall all-time.
First, something fun!
Ok, now highlights of save 55 in a row:
Britton was 11-for-11 to start the season, but it was already August. If he was going to break Eric Gagne‘s MLB record of 84 straight, it probably wouldn’t be until (at least) 2018.
On August 23 (hey, that date again! Remember 2015? Yup…my birthday! And yes, I was there…again), Gagne, somewhere, popped the champagne.
Britton was four-for-five after that to finish the season, but of course the Orioles didn’t give him very many chances down the stretch, collapsing in September and missing the postseason.
Zach’s injury-shorted 2017 stat line looked like this:
38 games, 37.1 IP, 15/17 Saves, 2.89 ERA, 18 BB, 29 K, 151 ERA+
Britton tore his Achilles tendon right before Christmas, putting his 2018 season in doubt from the start, and pretty much nixing any hopes the O’s had of trading him before the season began.
It’s been a bit rocky so far, but that’s to be expected for a guy just half a year or so removed from such a nasty injury. Zach pitched 4.1 scoreless innings over four outings to start his season after coming off the DL in early June. On June 22 in Atlanta, he blew a four-run ninth-inning lead while recording just one out. The next day, he got his first save of the season.
Lately, he’s looked a lot more like himself, with 18 of his 21 outs recorded in July coming via grounder (12) or strikeout (6), and eight straight scoreless appearances going back to June 30.
And thus ends Britton’s O’s career. He finishes with 139 saves as an Oriole, second in franchise history behind Gregg Olson’s 160.
I’m not going to say good luck in New York, Zach, because it’s the Yankees. I will say good luck getting paid (by a non-Yankee/Red Sox team) this offseason.
Thanks for everything, Zach. We salute you.