Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette and manager Buck Showalter talk about the end of the season and highlights of the season. (Kenneth K. Lam, Baltimore Sun video)
The best example of the impact that pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti had in their three years with the Orioles has to be the development of left-hander Zach Britton into one of the game's best closers.
On Monday, Britton could be named among the three finalists for the American League Cy Young award following a historic season that saw him convert all 47 save opportunities and record a 0.54 ERA. Last week, he was named the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year.
Britton has credited much of his success to working with Wallace and Chiti, who both left the Orioles organization to return to the Atlanta Braves this week. Chiti, who said he wanted to return to the Orioles but never received a contract renewal, will be the Braves' director of pitching, and Wallace, who retired from active major league coaching but expressed interest in remaining in the organization in another role, will be Atlanta's special assistant to pitching.
When both joined the Orioles before the 2014 season, Britton's career was in a much different place. He was a struggling starter who was about to enter the season out of minor league options. And the decision to move Britton to the bullpen – he would eventually take over the closer role that May – was without question the best one for his career.
"The things that really stand out to me is how open-minded they were," Britton said. "They didn't have an ego that they were trying to push on you to get you to buy into them. It was more, 'What do you think you're good at? Here's what we see and let's try to work together to get you successful.' To me, it was a lot of things I had been fighting from previous things or struggles or injuries, and a lot of it was turning the page on that. Hey, let's forget about that stuff and move forward and get you back to being successful."
The news that Orioles bullpen coach Dom Chiti was leaving the club to take a developmental position with the Atlanta Braves was a surprise for many within the organization. That leaves the Orioles in need of not only a replacement for pitching coach Dave Wallace, but also a new bullpen coach.
Britton said from the first time he worked with Wallace and Chiti, when they went to California in the offseason to familiarize themselves and work with a group of Orioles pitchers before spring training began, he could tell both had his best interests at heart. And over time, they preached to Britton how to pitch to his strengths, specifically to have faith in throwing his heavy sinker, which has been the key to his success as a closer.
"Dom had seen me as a scout with Atlanta, so he had seen me before when things were going well," Britton said. "And he brought that to my attention, and that just gave me confidence. There was a lot of effort working with me in that first spring training we had them.
"And the other thing was the tough love. It wasn't just, 'Hey we think you're great,' but there was some tough love in there too. There was a period of, 'You need to be accountable to yourself. You can't just rely on other people all the time. You need to learn to take the reins and figure out what you need to do and go out there and do it well and do it. And don't let anyone sway you one way or another.'
"Sometimes they'd be tough on you when they needed to be and they were also realistic," Britton added. "It wasn't about putting you in your place, but it was about keeping you in check and staying humble. Whether or not you were having success, and I was having success, they taught you how to approach the next day. … They taught that you had to work hard every single day to be successful, and that's what they taught me."
"[He said they] were the best thing that happened to him," Britton said. "And he had a really good career before he had some injuries, and he was right. He was dead on, and that's the same thing I hear about them all the way through. When they were in our organization and other teams, other pitching coaches, asked me how much I loved working with those guys. So they were really respected throughout the game. It wasn't just our pitchers. There were a lot of pitchers throughout the game who respected them and obviously still do. Atlanta's really lucky to get both of those guys back in their organization."
While their titles were different, Britton said that Wallace and Chiti worked together closely on all pitching matters with the entire major league staff, and receiving one cohesive message from both was important. He also said the stability the two provided in those positions – their three years with the club marked the longest tenure in those positions since manager Buck Showalter took over in 2010 – helped both veteran and younger pitchers develop.
"I think it's really important," Britton said. "It's one of those things that people don't notice until you don't have that type of structure and they really brought stability to that role and pitchers knew what to expect year after year after year. The message was the same. You knew how they were going to go about it. And it was nice to not have to worry about that. You just showed up to the park every day very familiar with the pitching coaches and what the message should be and you just get very comfortable with that.
"I think it allows pitchers to settle in and develop, especially younger guys. When you get older, they just help you get back on track. It's not, 'Hey, let's develop you as a pitcher.' You get to a point where you're kind of there, but these guys are there when maybe you hit a little rut and you're trying to figure it out. They've seen you so much that [they notice] just that one little thing [and can say], 'Hey you're not doing this,' and you can get back on track.
"And that's what was great about having those guys for so long," Britton said. "When you have to develop relationships with a new pitching coach who doesn't know you and how you work, it can be a long process. I've been through it quite a bit now. It's not ideal, but it's not my job to make those decisions. I've got to work with whoever is there, but obviously, I would have liked it if Dom was still around."
Now, the Orioles will start over. Interviews for a new pitching coach are continuing, and the new hire will have input on the new bullpen coach. But for the Orioles pitchers, they must now get accustomed to new coaches – different messages and maybe new philosophies -- again during spring training, just as they did back in 2014.