Despite posting a nearly perfect season in 2016, closer Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles is ready to have an even better 2017.
For Zach Britton of the Baltimore Orioles, 2016 was a magical season. The closer achieved many impressive feats and brought home the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year award. Without such a season, the Baltimore Orioles almost certainly would not have garnered the Wild Card berth they did. Still, Tim Brown of Yahoo Sports wrote that the left is ready to improve even more this year.
In one of most impressive accomplishments, the then 28-year-old completed all 47 save attempts that he inherited. It goes without saying that this was an exceptional performance. No other closer recorded more than two attempts without blowing at least one save. Not only did his perfect record hold such a rare stature last season, but it was just one of three such occurrences in the past decade. Brad Lidge in 2008 and Jose Valverde in 2011 served as the only two closers to manage such a performance.
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Beyond pure saves, Britton posted a mind-bogglingly low earned run average of 0.54. Over the entire season, he only allowed four earned runs despite pitching 67 innings, many of which came in high-leverage situations. Advanced metrics also liked his work, with FIP and SIERA both pegging his run-prevention skills at a sub-two earned run average.
Not only did Zach Britton give the Baltimore Orioles an incredible season in terms of run prevention and successful outcomes, but the manner by which he executed his outings was truly spectacular. He amassed 74 strikeouts in those 67 innings while only allowed 18 walks.
Even if batters managed to get a piece of his pitches, the outcome was rarely good. He held opponents to a paltry .161 batting average, largely due to his insane 80 percent groundball rate. Whether or not batters made contact became largely irrelevant to obtaining an out.
Given the insanity of Britton’s 2016 season, the two natural questions are of sustainability and improvement. Could Zach Britton repeat what he put up last season? In some ways yes, but in others no.
Unfortunately, sustaining a sub-one ERA is highly unlikely. His strikeout, walk, and groundball rates have roughly been the same over the past three seasons. The largest variations have come by the way of home runs, which had previously been an issue for the southpaw. It is a solid bet that Britton will retain his fastball-heavy approach and keep the same underlying statistics, but his earned run average will probably rise back to the twos.
This said, he could improve some aspects of his game. Even though baseball is a game of runs, players have more to their arsenal than just preventing runs. Clearly, a player who prevents baserunners and runs is more valuable than one gives up lots of walks and hits but strands them all.
To be honest, it is hard to pick one area for the reliever to improve. At this level of performance, being able to keep batters on their toes is necessary to sustain greatness. By throwing 90 percent fastballs, batters have a good idea of what is coming. Still, it has not been an issue for the past few years, and Britton could conceivably thrive on one amazing pitch. It has worked before and will likely work in the future.
Even if Zach Britton is unable to give the Baltimore Orioles a more perfect season, perhaps one with no runs allowed, he will still be remembered for the magical 2016 season.