Opposing hitters know it's coming. But when Orioles closer Zach Britton whips his left arm forward — unleashing mid 90s heat toward the plate before it drops off the table — there's not much a batter can do when faced with the uncommon combination of velocity and movement that Britton's power sinker presents.
Mainly utilizing that one pitch, the 28-year-old has gone from struggling starter to one of the best closers in the game. Two seasons ago, he began the year as a long reliever, partially because the team needed to find a way to keep him on the 25-man roster because he was out of minor-league options. Now, he's coming off an All-Star season having converted more than 90 percent of his save opportunities since becoming the team's full-time closer in May 2014.
"Zach's a winning player, and it was always there," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "It was just what role could we find where he could get out, and I'm not that smart. Anybody that sits around and says we thought he was going to be this kind of closer, they're kidding themselves. We were just trying to figure out what role would fit his personality, makeup and so far, so good. He's one of the best in the game."
As good as Britton has been — he converted 36 of 40 save attempts last year while posting a 1.92 ERA and leading the AL with 65 games finished — indications are that Britton is still building off one of the best weapons in the game.
"In danger of being a little bit too dramatic, I think it's the best pitch in baseball," Orioles set-up man Darren O'Day said of Britton's sinker. "It's the best single pitch. I just think hitter know what's coming 98 percent of the time and just the movement and the velocity. It's all the product of having a short, quick arm and he gets inside the ball and makes it move very sharply. … What else does he need? He has a great slider, too, but he just doesn't have to throw it as much."
Keep in mind that Britton is still learning to be a reliever. He had been a starting pitcher for his entire career until two springs ago. The season before, he struggled as a starter, posting a 5.45 ERA in seven starts. Still, the Orioles could see that Britton had an exemplary arm, but they thought making him a reliever, and getting him to rely on his sinker could resurrect his career.
"If anyone's ever told you they thought this was going to happen, I'd think they'd be crazy," Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said. "None of us knew really. It was an opportunity, a guy with great stuff and makeup. He's found a role, or a role has found him, however way you want to put it. He's embraced it. There's a lot disappointments in our end of the game, but once in a while something like this comes along and it's tremendous."
This offseason, Britton arrived in Sarasota a month early and began working with Opening Day starter Chris Tillman and former Orioles starter Miguel Gonzalez. They trained five days a week. Britton started throwing earlier than he did in the previous offseason — he had a larger workload and pitched well into October when the Orioles advanced to the ALCS — and he came into spring training almost season-ready from day one.
That showed throughout the spring as Britton was dominant, allowed just one earned run over eight Grapefruit League innings while striking out 13 and walking just two. He ended the spring having not allowed a hit over his last six outings – each one-inning appearances – and he recorded nine strikeouts over his last four spring appearances spanning four innings.
Showalter expressed openly that Britton was peaking too soon this spring, half-joking on multiple occasions before the games started he wished he could send him home for three weeks and bring him back just before the season began.
"People always talk about peaking too soon," Britton said. "To me, I don't feel like it's a thing. Peaking too soon, I really don't know what that means. For me, I want to be good all the way through. You want to be somewhere. … When I get on the mound, I just can't not be competitive. When I get on the mound, I want to do well. I think sometimes, guys might want to pull the reins back a little bit, but for me, I need that. Every guy's a little different.
"Even though I'm a reliever now, I still train myself like I'm starter.It's a habit I can't break. … But definitely, my first few [spring] outings I felt, 'Hey, this is going to come pretty quick for me.' … As a starter, it takes you a little bit longer to get through the process. … I kind of leave whatever happened in Florida in Florida. The weather is different here. You're facing some different hitters. It's different, so I don't pay too much attention to what I did in Florida, other than the fact that I was healthy and I felt good and now I'm focusing on the regular season."
One of the reasons the Orioles initially placed Britton in the closer's role was because his hard sinker induced weak contact and kept the ball on the ground, allowing the club's exceptional defense to work for him. Britton wasn't concerned about striking batters out, instead trying to pitch to contact and get ground-ball outs early in the count, much like former Orioles closer Jim Johnson did as he posted back-to-back 50-save seasons.
But Britton has evolved into a strikeout pitcher. After averaging 7.3 strikeouts per nine innings in 2014, Britton struck out 10.8 batters per nine innings last season. That spike also coincided with a 2-mph increase in his average sinker velocity between the time he took over the closer role and the end of last season. For most of last season, Britton's sinker averaged 97 mph, compared to the 92-93 mph average his recorded as a starter.
It's the consistency in which he throws that power sinker — and is still able to consistently get hitters out – that is rare. He threw the sinker 91.5 percent of the time in 2014 and 90.2 percent last season. And while he's had great success with just that one pitch, he'd like to continue to incorporate his slider more to keep opposing hitters guessing.
"I think the biggest thing is that everybody tells me if it's not broken don't fix it," Britton said. "And that's true to an extent. As long as I command my sinker down in the zone for strikes, that's going to be a weapon for me. There's going to be a lot of times during the season when I can lean on that, but at the same time, when I don't have that or I have an extended inning or some guys are on base, being able to throw a breaking ball and being confident that I can throw it for a strike and command it is important."
The slider was once one of Britton's most reliable pitches during his starting days, and it can be vicious. Just ask reigning NL MVP Bryce Harper, who went down swinging on a slider out of the zone when he faced Britton in last year's All-Star Game. Even though he rarely threw the slider, it was a strong swing-and-miss pitch for him last season when he chose to use it. But Britton sees more value in throwing the slider for a strike early in counts.
Take his first appearance of the season in Monday's Opening Day game as an example. Britton, who was the game's winning pitcher in the Orioles' 3-2 walk-off win over the Twins after throwing a scoreless ninth, retired all three batters he faced. He started out his first two hitters of the inning with sliders, a first-pitch ball to Kurt Suzuki and a first-pitch called strike to Eduardo Escobar. They drew different calls, but after throwing the slider, Britton was quickly able to get ahead of both hitters by going back to the sinker.
"Throwing it for strikes it one of the harder things to do with the breaking ball," Britton said. "Doing that and having that in my back pocket during the season to get guys off my fastball, it showed me last year when I did have it that it could be a huge weapon. It made the at bat for them much more difficult when I could throw it for strikes. They gave me a defeated look which is obviously a great feeling as a pitcher, so I'd like to have that in my back pocket a little more this year."
Still, Britton's success will revolve around the sinker, which O'Day compares to the cutter that all-time saves leader Mariano Rivera used for years as the most dominating closer in the game for the Yankees.
"It's pretty cool to see it all come full circle," O'Day said. "… And you think about guys who are traditionally one-pitch pitchers and the only guy who's done anything like it is [all-time saves leader] Mariano [Rivera]. … I think right now, [Britton's sinker's] probably the best single pitch in baseball."