The Orioles have a lot of concerns going into 2015, but closer Zach Britton isn't one of them.
Orioles left-hander Zach Britton's success last season as the team's closer was based on trust — the trust he received from his manager and coaches and, more important, Britton's own trust that his heavy sinking fastball would get major league hitters out.
So much has changed for Britton over the past year. He entered last spring fighting for a roster spot. Since he was out of options, if Britton hadn't made the club, he likely would have started the season with a new organization. He wouldn't have cleared waivers.
But Britton found new life as a reliever, and once he took over as closer in mid-May, he was one of baseball's best turnaround stories, converting 37 of 41 save opportunities, the late-inning hammer the Orioles needed to win their first American League East title in 17 years.
And Britton succeeded, unlike many closers, by throwing his fastball about nine out of every 10 pitches. Britton threw his fastball 91.6 percent of the time last season, a spike from the 67 to 70 percent in his previous years as a starter. Only one closer with at least 35 saves last season relied on his fastball more than Britton: the Los Angeles Dodgers' Kenley Jansen, who threw his fastball 94.1 percent of the time. And in Britton's short bursts working out of the bullpen, his average fastball velocity jumped to 95.1 mph, more than 3 mph faster than during his outings as a starter.
"I think it's really important to stay with what's working," Britton said. "If you're not around the game, it's easy to say, 'Oh, he's throwing too many fastballs. Eventually, guys are going to figure it out.'
"But that's not the case. … Just because they know your fastball's coming, if you can locate it in the bottom of the zone, nine times out of 10, they're going to get out. It was consistent the whole year, so hitters had plenty of time to make an adjustment. You don't have to reinvent yourself because a guy saw you for the whole year."
The kind of fastball Britton throws makes him tough to hit. His hard-sinking pitch comes at a unique angle from the left side and drops to the bottom of the strike zone quickly. It's hard to square Britton up, and it didn't happen often last season, with most hitters pounding the ball into the ground, which played to the Orioles' strength on defense.
"Very quietly, that's about as good as you're going to see that job done" as a closer, Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "The stress part of it, he throws it over, he keeps it in the ballpark, and he engages left-handed hitters and right-handed hitters. … It's not just a velocity pitch. They're dealing with velocity and movement, and that's a lethal combination, and he's left-handed."
As Britton enters the season as the closer for the first time, he will face a new set of challenges. Opponents will get a broader scouting report on him. They know he's not relying on the strikeout, but on keeping the ball in play for his defense. A couple of hits can get him into trouble. And more than anything, they know that sinker is coming more often than not.
So even though Britton plans to stick to his bread-and-butter pitch in 2015, he also is incorporating his slider — which he threw as often as 22 percent of the time as a starter — into his repertoire.
"He's going to be able to pitch without velocity, too," Showalter said. "And the breaking ball's been good this spring. There are times when, in that third [straight] day or three out of five, when he's not carrying the crispness or velocity, that he's going to have some secondary pitches to get the job done. He can do that. I think his background as a starter really helped him."
How much he will use the slider remains to be seen, but Britton said it could only help his arsenal. He sees it as a way to adjust to hitters before they adjust to him.
"It gives me confidence knowing I did it for a whole season, and it was consistent all the way through, so as long as I do what I did last year — and that's command the ball — I'll be fine," Britton said. "That's what it comes down to: proving I can throw it for a strike. Now it's a different story. As long as I command it, the results are going to be there. All of a sudden, you add a little wrinkle in there, and it's even tougher. Now one pitch is good. Now, if I can add another one, it's going to make it tough on hitters."
Britton concedes that there were times last season when he doubted whether he'd be able to survive throwing the sinker so much. One of them came in the first game after the All-Star break. Britton entered in the bottom of the ninth inning against the Oakland Athletics with a two-run lead and having converted 15 of his first 17 save attempts.
An infield single allowed to Yoenis Cespedes was followed by a broken-bat bloop single by Brandon Moss. Both hits were weak, but Britton's first pitch to Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson was hit over the center-field fence, giving Oakland a walk-off victory.
Britton left the field wondering whether hitters were starting to figure him out.
He approached pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti and asked whether he should start throwing fewer fastballs.
"Dave and Dom talked to me the next day," Britton said. "They asked me how I was doing. I said, 'I'm OK, kind of mad.' I started talking about maybe throwing in a breaking ball now and then. They told me: 'Listen, you gave up a 15-hopper, a shattered-bat [single] and a home run. So you're going to reinvent the wheel? Well, no, you're going to go out there and do what you've always done.' ...
"I didn't think of it that way. They said, 'Name another lefty who throws the kind of fastball you do with the velocity and the sink. There's probably not another guy. Your fastball's not a normal fastball.'"
Another critical part of Britton's success was the faith Showalter, Wallace and Chiti put in him. After blowing that save in Oakland, Britton was back in a save situation the next day. He converted that one, starting a string of 18 consecutive saves and 22 of 23 to end the season.
Since committing to Britton as the closer, Showalter repeatedly showed his trust in him. Showalter remembers Britton's second blown save, a walk-off loss to the New York Yankees on June 20 decided by Carlos Beltran's three-run homer. Afterward, Showalter said he thought: "This is going to be good, in a way."
"His next outing, he was nails," he added. "I walked back into the dugout and said, 'We've got something here.' … He can do the job. I think it's a lesson to all of us in evaluating players. They all evolve. There's not some blueprint for when they come."
Maybe the most significant sign of Showalter's commitment to Britton came in Game 3 of the AL Division Series, when Britton entered the game in the bottom of the ninth with a two-run lead. That lead quickly became a one-run lead when Britton allowed back-to-back leadoff doubles. But after Britton recorded a strikeout for the first out, Showalter walked to the mound and told Britton to walk Nick Castellanos intentionally, setting up a possible double play. It would also put the winning run on base.
Two pitches later, Britton's sinker induced a ground ball to third and a game-ending (and series-clinching) double play.
Britton acknowledges disappointment in the way his season ended. He wasn't as sharp in the postseason — he walked five batters in 42/3 innings and posted a 3.86 ERA — but his body of work was a success.
"The postseason, it didn't work out the way I wanted it to, but I don't think it's a drastic overhaul that guys were sitting on fastballs," Britton said.
"You can look at it a bunch of different ways. And I was looking at it that it wasn't as good as I wanted it to be. I wanted it to be better."
The faith, though — that Showalter has in Britton, and that Britton has in himself — remains as strong as ever.
"It's a different gig this year," Showalter said. "You put a lot of guys in a come-to-the-rescue mode, they've got nothing to lose and they let it all hang out. It's where you weren't expected to be able to do this necessarily, even though we knew he could. … Now, all of a sudden, the waters part and the expectations are there. It's a different mentality. But I don't think anybody's had a better spring than Zach Britton. But I do know now that when there's a bump in the road, which there will be, he's not going to pull the dirt in around him and be 'Woe is me.'
"He doesn't have all the answers, but he knows who he is and who he isn't, which is pretty damn good."