Orioles closer Zach Britton, who in 2016 turned in one of the best single-season performances by a reliever, was named Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year before Game 4 of the World Series on Saturday night.
The Rivera award is given to the league’s top relief pitcher, as selected by a panel of top retired relievers. The Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year, awarded to the NL’s best reliever, was given to Los Angeles Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen.
Britton was a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities in 2016, recording the longest save streak to start a season by a left-handed pitcher in major league history and the third longest all-time for any reliever.
“I think it’s a credit to the teammates around me,” Britton said during a news conference announcing the award at Wrigley Field on Saturday night. “Obviously, you’re only as good as the guys behind you on the field. [With] me relying on ground balls, obviously we have a great defense back there, so a lot of the credit goes to the teammates [for] putting me in situations to be successful, too. The coaching staff, everyone really went out of their way [to] put me in situations to be successful, and that’s really what it comes down to at the end of the day. You’re only as good as the guys around you.”
Like Rivera – who became the game’s all-time saves leader relying on his cutter – Britton has succeeded largely because of one dominant pitch. Utilizing a mid-90s sinking fastball that he threw 92.2 percent of the time, he induced an unheard-of 80 percent ground-ball rate, often inducing weak contact and balls that rarely left the infield.
Britton’s 0.54 ERA led major league relievers and was the lowest in MLB history among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched. The only two other relievers in major league history to post 40 saves and a sub-1.00 ERA were Dennis Eckersley in 1990 (48 saves, 0.61 ERA) and Fernando Rodney in 2012 (48, 0.60).
He allowed earned runs in just four of his 69 appearances on the season, and allowed just one earned run over his last 58 appearances spanning 57 innings, posting a 0.16 ERA from May 5 to the end of the season.
"Zach had an unbelievable year," commissioner Rob Manfred said. "He was 47-for-47 in save opportunities. I had to read this twice. The decimal point is in the right place. His ERA was 0.54. His last 40 games this year he did not give up a run. I mean, just an unbelievable performance and congratulations to you."
The awards are chosen by a vote of on by a nine-member panel that includes Rivera, Hoffman, as well as the four living Hall of Fame relief pitchers – Eckersley, Rollie Fingers, Goose Gossage and Bruce Sutter – and former closers Lee Smith, John Franco and Billy Wagner. The panel includes each of the top six all-time saves leaders.
Based on regular-season performance, the nine panelists submitted their top three relievers and votes are tabulated on a 5-3-1 point system.
"To the panel for the selection, it's such an honor to be considered for an award like this, but to win one is even better," Britton said. "So I want to thank everybody that had a say in the vote. It's just an honor, and I appreciate it."
In 2014, the Rivera and Hoffman awards replaced the Delivery Man of the Year Awards, which were awarded by MLB to the top reliever in both leagues from 2005 to 2013. Britton is the first Oriole to win the award.
The awards are not to be confused with the Rolaids Relief Man of the Year award, which was selected based on a system that awarded points after each save and win and subtracted points for every loss and blown save. Three Orioles won that award in the American League: Lee Smith in 1994, Randy Myers in 1997 and Jim Johnson in 2012, which was the award’s final year.
Earlier this week, Britton was named to the Sporting News AL All-Star team and he could be a finalist for this year's AL Cy Young Award when those are announced next month.