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How will Orioles’ Zach Britton be remembered: For how well he pitched or the time he didn’t?

Jon Meoli
Contact ReporterThe Baltimore Sun
Britton's non-use in the wild-card game and his Cy Young snub might have tarnished a memorable '16.

Before his non-use in the Orioles' extra-inning loss in the wild-card game became a tipping point for all of baseball, and before his perfect season was overlooked by Cy Young Award voters, Zach Britton already had an inkling that his most valuable outings weren't his conventional ninth-inning saves.

His favorites of 2016, he said as the regular season wound down, were a five-out save on a warm June night in Boston, and a two-inning stint in Toronto on July 31, when he pitched clean ninth and 10th inning.

That the latter came in almost identical circumstances to the night his season ended — when a controversial decision by manager Buck Showalter to hold him for a save situation as extra innings wore on in Toronto — is happenstance.

But the fact that outings like Britton's personal favorites became common in a postseason perhaps altered by Showalter's decision not to use him that night against the Blue Jays doesn't seem like chance at all. And it has certainly already painted how Britton's 2016 season — one of the best of any pitcher in modern baseball history — will be regarded going forward.

Will the game remember the 47 saves in 47 chances, the 0.54 ERA in 67 innings over 69 games, or his exclusion from the top three vote-getters for the American League Cy Young Award and the immediate — maybe long-term — shift in relief pitching philosophy that was the defining storyline of the playoffs after Showalter didn't use him?

That all depends on who you ask.

"I think there's two answers to that," said Ron Darling, an MLB Network analyst who also called the AL postseason for TBS. "For someone like myself who played and played at a high level at times, the 162-game season of 2016 will not be lost on me, and how great Zach's year was. It will be something that I'll be asked in 20 years from now, 'What's one of the best seasons you've ever witnessed?' I'll say, 'Remember Britton in 2016? Remember [Eric] Gagne? Remember [Dennis] Eckersley? [Mariano] Rivera?'

"He'll be mentioned for people who have followed the game, always, forever. But for the baseball fan — that's why I call it a tipping point — for the baseball fan and the Baltimore Orioles fan, I think there's a lot of people who almost find it inexcusable that Britton was not used in a playoff game."

It's not just Britton's non-use on Oct. 4 in Toronto that changes the context, but how that night impacted the rest of the postseason. Seemingly every television broadcast for the rest of October made mention of Showalter and Britton, mostly because the games dictated that they needed to. Cleveland Indians manager Terry Francona used left-hander Andrew Miller early in close games and for multiple innings. Miller wasn't the Indians closer — Francona had Cody Allen in that role — but the use of the club's best pitcher as early as the fifth inning was noteworthy.

Others throughout the postseason, like Los Angeles Dodgers manager Dave Roberts with closer Kenley Jansen and Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon with closer Aroldis Chapman, aggressively deployed their closers as early as the sixth inning to ensure the biggest outs of the biggest games were handled by their most reliable dominant pitchers.

Showalter couldn't have known what would follow the Orioles' wild-card loss, but some believe it will overshadow Britton's year that preceded it for a long time.

"What's unfortunate is we won't remember his historic season because of what he didn't do," said ESPN analyst Dallas Braden, a former major league pitcher. "He wasn't there in his team's most trying time. We will not reflect upon his absolute dominance — you talk about a pitcher getting 30-35 starts and that's why he should be considered the lead horse in a race for the Cy Young. Well, let's talk about a guy who, 50 times, shut the door. Nailed it. He was perfect every time the team turned to him.

"For me, it's going to be one of those years and season-long performances that gets lost, that we absolutely do not appreciate. This will go underappreciated, if not unappreciated, for a long, long time because of how we saw Andrew Miller perform [in the playoffs] and the credit he and the rest of those guys in the bullpen were given for the Indians' success."

Both lifelong baseball men acknowledge that postseason bullpen management is different from the regular season. While neither discounts or pumps up one or the other, they point out the rigors of managing 162 games in six months and then how it changes with a maximum of 20 games in four weeks. Braden said this postseason, combined with the recent success of the Kansas City Royals, have meant big shifts in perception.

"We have seen it change right before us, the very landscape, the way relievers will be evaluated, the way they'll be deployed and the way they'll be paid has changed over this postseason," Braden said.

When lockdown Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel didn't pitch despite his team having an eighth-inning lead in Game 4 of the 2013 National League Division Series, which the Braves ended up losing, it set off a small firestorm. This was different.

"I don't know if not using Zach is the tipping point for managers, but I do know it's a tipping point for people who view the game," Darling said. "People who have made those decisions have always thought about, or may for many seasons, always thought about keeping your closer and if you took a lead, he'd save it. But the way the game is viewed now by others — I don't even know if it's always the right way — there's very little patience for a manager who doesn't use one of his great weapons in a postseason game. I think that's the prism that we're all looking at it now."

Everything that happened in Toronto and happened since was not available for consideration when the Baseball Writers' Association of America voted for the league's best pitcher, but on the sheer evidence, Britton surely had a case for Cy Young inclusion.

His statistics spoke for themselves, with the lowest ERA among any pitcher with at least 50 innings in baseball history. His 47 consecutive saves to start a season were the third-most in baseball history, and he went 43 straight appearances without allowing an earned run at one point. His sinker is considered one of the best pitches in baseball, and the unheard-of 80 percent ground-ball rate was proof.

But when the votes were tallied, Britton came in behind Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers, Rick Porcello of the Boston Red Sox, Corey Kluber of the Indians, and possibly others, meaning the best he can do is finish fourth when the winner is announced Wednesday.

Britton knew that starters' contributions might be seen as better than his own during the season, though he was quick to rationalize his own impact against that of a front-line starting pitcher.

"It always comes down to impacting games — how many games has one guy impacted compared to the other?" Britton said at the end of the regular season, before a single vote for Cy Young was cast and his superlative season took on a different meaning entirely. "Do you value the innings impacted over the games impacted? I think that's the biggest argument, because just saying starters should only be in consideration for the Cy Young is kind of an old argument.

"Teams have kind of shown you where their value lies, especially in crunch time. Teams went out and traded for Chapman and Miller and [Mark] Melancon, teams that are in the race. They showed you that they value dominant bullpens. Some of those teams already had good starters, too, but it just kind of goes to show that the value of the relievers is maybe not equal to the starters yet, but it's getting there."

Now that what Britton feared at the time has come true — his 67 impeccable innings disqualified him in favor of candidates on the ballots of those who rightfully value a starter's 200-plus innings — there's a feeling among those who have been around the game that he has been wronged. He won the Mariano Rivera AL Reliever of the Year Award, but there's a feeling he deserved more. If nothing else, between how the wild-card game and his Cy Young exclusion have detracted from a record-setting year, he certainly deserved better.

"It's a shame that he's not up for all these major awards because in 1992, I was on the Oakland A's ballclub when Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young and the MVP, and Zach had a better year," Darling said. "That, to me, is how you put it in perspective. He had a better year that I watched with my own eyes — one of the greatest years I've ever seen. Historic, call it whatever you want. I just know that he was dominant against baseball's hitters, and whenever you see someone who's dominant and can't be touched, that's something for a baseball nut like me to find incredibly noteworthy."

"You talk about what the Cy Young Award means and how important it is for starters to be considered — it's a starter's award," Braden said. "You've heard it time and time again. In the day and age of the Andrew Millers being brought in around the fourth inning and sometimes not after the seventh inning, these higher leverage situations, we're now peeling back the layers of the onions of how to get outs in these high-leverage situations. It's all about the man who can answer the bell two out of three days in a row, two-plus innings potentially. And that's who Zach Britton was for the entire baseball season for the Baltimore Orioles. For him to not grace the rubber in the highest leverage game or situation that the Orioles faced all season, that is why it ends with a question mark."

jmeoli@baltsun.com

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