Zach Britton’s days wearing an Orioles uniform are numbered. The longest-tenured player in the organization will likely be traded in the coming weeks – or days – before the July 31 nonwaiver trade deadline.
When Britton, 30, ruptured his Achilles tendon in December, he hoped for a June return so he could be in top form to help the Orioles compete in the second half of his final season before free agency. But after the team quickly fell out of contention, Britton became a trade chip for the Orioles to aid their pending rebuild.
That has made the left-handed closer’s return from injury a showcase. The Orioles would like to show potential trade suitors he’s back to the form of two years ago, when he put together one of the best seasons by a reliever in baseball history, while also proving to clubs his return cut no corners.
Britton’s recovery has been a methodical and sometimes frustrating process. But as his days with the Orioles wind down, Britton and the team have confidence he’s done everything he can to get healthy and productive — and that any contender that deals for him will get a reliever who will continue to get better down the stretch.
“When he first came up, he’d look at the gun,” Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. “He hasn’t looked at it lately. … It’s more about the shape of the pitches. He’s throwing as hard as he ever has. I’m not saying this for posturing: he’s fresh. And somebody is going to get a really good pitcher. He’s going to really impact a team.”
The truth is that while competing, Britton is still regaining the strength he lost from months of inactivity after his December surgery, especially in his lower half, where he draws a lot of his power. Because the injury halted his offseason preparation, he lost significant muscle mass. Britton said he lost 15 pounds, his calf lost 1½ inches in circumference and he endured the same atrophy in his quad muscle.
“We’ve measured and I’m pretty close to getting all the way back, getting all the muscle back and the calf size back,” said Britton, who added he’s still about 8 pounds shy of last year’s playing weight. “We’re still not all the way there, but the gains have been a lot faster now than they were, now that I can do a lot more strength training.”
It is a unique situation for Britton because he’s weight training much more than he ever would during the season. Since he couldn’t work out in weeks leading into spring training and during spring training, he is adding strength while trying to compete.
“There were a lot of different exercises I wasn’t allowed to do, wasn’t able to do, just to protect the Achilles. And even now, I’m still getting the full range of motion back in my Achilles,” Britton said. “I know I’m back pitching, but there’s still little points in my flexibility that I still have to get to. Calf strength, quad strength, there are so many little things that I didn’t realize that you have to go through during the process. You think you just throw your hat out there and you’re going to be who you were.”
When Britton first returned in mid-June, the results weren’t good. He struggled with his command and he didn’t look in sync. Over his first eight outings, Britton had a 7.04 ERA, opponents were hitting .286 off him and he had walked nearly as many batters (six) and he struck out (seven). The low point was a ninth inning at the Atlanta Braves on June 22 when Britton couldn’t hold a four-run lead in the ninth, allowing four runs and hits to five of the six batters he faced.
But over five appearances entering Saturday, Britton found his footing. He allowed just two hits over five scoreless innings and opponents hit just .125 against him.
“He’ll tell you there’s a couple things that still aren’t there,” Showalter said. “His breaking ball’s still not [all the way] there. You can tell from his body language and everything that’s going on. ... But he’s as good as there is. He’s there right now.”
The late break on his sinker is back, and the velocity on his sinker and slider are up 2 mph from last month. Over his five outings going into Saturday, his sinker averaged 95.21 mph, which is still shy of the 97.44 mph he averaged in 2016, but Britton said he’s confident his velocity will continue to increase as he gets stronger.
“It’s been a challenge for me to put back on the 15 pounds that I lost,” Britton said. “And people say, ‘Well maybe that’s the velo, that I have to get all 15 back before I get back there.’ Maybe there’s something to that. The 15 pounds wasn’t just weight. It was strength to me. It was power, so it’s just been a process. It’s been frustrating at times.
“My goal is to never do this again during the season because I’d normally be doing this in the offseason and then by the time you get to spring training, you’re strong, your body’s good and now you’re ready to play baseball. Mine are one in the same now. I have to have a certain level of strength to do what I need to do — to throw hard, to be healthy over the course of the season, to take throwing two or three days in a row, four out of five days. You’ve got to have a base for strength and I had no base after surgery. We’ve been strength training and then competing at the same time. It sucked, to say the least, but I think it’s really showing signs of coming around.”
Britton credits Orioles head athletic trainer Brian Ebel for getting him to a point where he could return from the disabled list, a return that came about three weeks earlier than original projections. He said strength coaches Joe Hogarty and Ryo Naito have helped immensely in the weight room, especially with the Olympic lifting training the Orioles use to build strength. And the nutrition program enacted by vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson has also been important.
Before a recent game in Minnesota, Britton sat at his locker, lowered his sock and ran his finger over the scar on the inside of his ankle, noting that it was almost gone. He hasn’t worn ankle tape for his six appearances going into the weekend. He has some custom insoles he will continue to wear, but that’s the only sign of him protecting his foot less than seven months after surgery.
“I think that the further you get removed from even the stuff I had last year, from being injured or just building up innings, I’m going to get comfortable and just being back to being a healthy pitcher,” Britton said. “The last year and a half have been a challenge. Your mindset is completely different when you’re injured. You’re focused on not injuring yourself. I feel like the further we get away from the surgery, the more I feel like I’m pitching again and getting back to a certain level where I feel like myself.”
Britton could quickly get thrown into a pennant race. He said he feels ready. By the time he returned to the Orioles, they were already well out of contention. He initially pitched in low-leverage situations upon his return — something that might have helped him build up confidence — and even after re-assuming the closer role, the Orioles haven’t had many leads to protect.
“I think initially coming back that you knew there wasn’t a whole lot riding on every pitch I was throwing. I think that was probably good for me mentally,” Britton said. “But then, I’ve noticed the last couple times, getting thrown into more high-intensity situations that it’s helped me get my focus away from mechanics and has just allowed me to compete.
“So I think coming up it was good to not be in those situations, but now it’s almost I’m in a transition period that the more situations I’m in that are similar to what I’ve been through in the past I think the more I feel like myself. I think that comes out in my performance. I come back in and I think, ‘Hey, that was me. I feel like myself.’ A guy gets on and you’re still able to make some pitches. I think our situation has helped in certain aspects and hurt in others.”
Britton usually logs about 12 to 15 innings during spring training to prepare for the season, but he threw just 5 1/3 on his minor league rehabilitation assignment. He entered Saturday with just 12 2/3 major league innings under his belt and is just now reaching the point where he normally would be ready for the regular season.
“I would say that the month of June to me was that whatever happens before then that hopefully by July I’ll start to feel like myself going into the break,” Britton said. “Then feeling good coming back, and that August would be my end of May or June for other guys where I really started to feel good. I think in a perfect world that August would be my month of just really feeling good and having tunnel vision on putting together good stretches of outings.”