Orioles closer Zach Britton had a season for the ages in 2016.
That's not new information to anyone who follows the Orioles, of course. Still, a trip through the stats is truly impressive. Britton was the only perfect closer in baseball in 2016, successfully converting all 47 of his save opportunities. He racked up nearly twice as many strikeouts (74) as hits allowed (38), and he allowed less than one base runner per inning (0.84 WHIP), holding opposing batters to a microscopic .161 average and .430 OPS.
Some of Britton's numbers were downright historic. His 0.54 ERA was the lowest in major league history for pitchers with at least 65 innings pitched. He became the third pitcher to post an ERA below 1.00 while notching 40 or more saves and the first to do so without blowing a save. And from May to August, Britton pitched 43 consecutive games without allowing an earned run, setting an MLB record.
Britton allowed a grand total of four earned runs during the entire 2016 season, spanning 69 appearances. That's fewer than rookie Parker Bridwell gave up in a two-game stint with the club.
"He's been unbelievable," fellow O's All-Star reliever Brad Brach said of Britton. "It kind of eases everybody's mind when he goes out there because you're pretty sure he's going to get the job done. He's been tremendous, just knowing that if we get a lead late in the game, it's going to be over."
Britton's perfection in the ninth inning was a crucial reason the O's returned to the postseason for the third time during the past five years. Had Britton merely put up a great year instead of an extraordinary one, blowing three or four saves like most closers do, the Birds might've been left out in the cold in October rather than finishing 2.5 games up in the American League Wild Card race.
"He's been huge," catcher Matt Wieters said. "To be able to finish games the way he has, it's a huge lift emotionally when you can get him in a game. We have the utmost confidence that we're going to get the win in that situation. And on top of that, time and time out, he's once again proven to be one of the best closers in the game. You always think every time he goes out there that the game's over."
What Britton accomplished in 2016 was unprecedented in baseball history. But when hardware is handed out in November, will Britton's accomplishments be enough to earn him the AL Cy Young award?
As a reliever, he'll face an uphill battle in garnering enough votes. The Cy Young has almost always been considered a starting pitcher's prize; of the 110 pitchers who have won the award since it was first issued in 1956, only nine have been relievers. The last relief pitcher to win a Cy Young was the Dodgers' Eric Gagne in 2003, when he was 55-for-55 in save opportunities and posted a 1.20 ERA. The drought goes back further in the AL, where no reliever has won since the Athletics' Dennis Eckersley (51 saves, 1.91 ERA) in 1992.
Relievers face a natural disadvantage in they don't spend nearly as much time on the mound as starting pitchers. Britton faced 254 batters this year, while the top 10 starters in the AL all faced at least 800. Similarly, Britton's innings total (67) pales in comparison to top-tier starters who routinely reach 200 or more. It's a gap significant enough to leave some voters opposed to the idea a reliever should be worthy of Cy Young honors.
While Britton hasn't vocally campaigned for himself, he disagreed with the idea only starting pitchers deserve serious consideration for the Cy Young.
"I think it's an old argument," Britton said. "I think there's a lot of data now that's showing how valuable relievers are. All you have to do is watch what the teams did this trade deadline. They traded for Aroldis Chapman, Andrew Miller, [Mark] Melancon. So that just shows you that relievers are the most coveted thing around the All-Star break when teams are trying to win games.
"The game is leaning towards dominant bullpens. There's not as many dominant starters as there used to be. More teams are at least not giving the starters the opportunities to pitch as deep into games anymore, based on the matchups. So I think if that's your argument, that it has to go to a starter, it's kind of an older argument. I think it's all about value. Whether that's a starter or reliever, that's for those people to decide."
Few pitchers, if any, have brought more value to their team than Britton, who made most of his appearances in high-leverage situations where one or two swings could change the outcome. In close games, the Orioles' chances of winning hinged on every batter Britton faced.
Britton's importance is reflected in Win Probability Added (WPA), a statistic that quantifies how much a player's performance helps or hurts his team's chances of winning a given game. This season, Britton led all major league pitchers -- starters included -- with a cumulative 6.14 WPA. By that measure, Britton did more to help his team win than any pitcher in baseball.
Award-worthy or not, it's quite a feat for a pitcher who, three years ago, was on the cusp of losing his spot in the Orioles' organization. Out of options, coming off a left shoulder impingement and owning a career 4.86 ERA as a starter, Britton moved to the bullpen in spring training of 2014 and was an instant success. During the three years since, he's 120-for-128 in save opportunities (94 percent) with a 1.35 ERA.
"I think, in shorter stints, my stuff kind of played up a little bit," Britton said. "It's just kind of been a nice transition. I just got healthy and got confident again and started getting kind of comfortable in that role."
Britton owes his dominance to his power sinker, a nearly unhittable pitch batters constantly beat into the ground, when they're able to make contact at all. Britton racked up 9.9 strikeouts per nine innings this season, and 80 percent of balls put in play against him were grounders -- the highest such total recorded for a pitcher.
"That pitch he throws is incredible," Brach said. "He's good at knowing where he needs to throw it. It's not just a pitch he just throws down the middle. It's a pitch he knows whether to go in or away from guys, when to mix in the slider when he needs to. He's just very prepared for whatever he's facing."
Britton's Cy Young case could be boosted by the fact there wasn't a single dominant starting pitcher in the AL this season. The last 16 pitchers to win the Cy Young all posted an ERA less than 3.00, but no AL starter achieved that feat in 2016. There were different league leaders in ERA (Toronto's Aaron Sanchez, at exactly 3.00), wins (Boston's Rick Porcello with 22) and strikeouts (Detroit's Justin Verlander with 254). Without one starter pulling away from the pack, voters could be more open to considering a reliever.
"There really hasn't been a starter that's dominated that you can say, clear on, that guy should win it," Brach said. "So I think if there's ever a year, this is the year he's got a shot."
Wieters, Britton's longtime battery mate, agreed.
"I think, worst case, he should be in consideration," Wieters said. "Personally, catching him, I don't see anybody with his kind of stuff and really his kind of numbers. The fact that he's a reliever and doesn't get out there that much is probably the only factor that you can have against the guy, because everything else that he's done throughout the course of the year screams Cy Young to me."
Britton, meanwhile, is content to let the chips fall where they may.
"If I win, I do," Britton said. "There's a lot of people I think are for it, and there's people that are against it. I've steered clear of it. I don't have a vote. I don't have a say."
Britton conquered every challenge that came his way in 2016. Earning a Cy Young award, though, may prove to be his toughest task yet.
Issue 226: October 2016