Zach Britton on Sinkers, WPA, and the Cy Young

In October 2011, a Q&A titled Zach Britton, Oriole in Progress was published in these pages. Britton had just completed a rookie season in which he went 11-11, with a 4.61 ERA, in 28 starts. He’d thrown his signature pitch 53% of the time.

Fast forward to today. Britton is still in Baltimore, but much has changed. He became a reliever in 2014, and the results have been nothing short of spectacular. Since moving to the bullpen, the 28-year-old southpaw has appeared in 199 games and fashioned a 1.42 ERA. Relying more heavily on his power sinker — he now throws it over 90% of the time — he has the highest ground-ball rate in the game (80.8% this year). He also misses bats. Britton strikes out better than a batter per inning.

This season he’s been next to un-hittable. In 61.1 innings, Britton has allowed just 34 hits. He’s recorded a microscopic 0.59 ERA and has 45 saves in as many chances. As August Fagerstrom wrote last month — many have echoed his opinion since that time — Britton is very much in the mix for this year’s American League Cy Young award.


Britton on his pitch mix and changing roles: “There were a lot more four-seamers back [in 2011]. As a starter, you throw more pitches and mix in different things. It was probably a negative for me that I wasn’t learning how to command the sinker as much as I am now. That was really the big focus when I went to the bullpen — the command of my sinker. The results have been really good once I got that focus.

“It’s hard to say whether you could have done this, or done that. But if I commanded the sinker as well as I have the last few years… I think I definitely could have been successful as a starter. You can throw predominately one pitch out of the rotation, too. You just need to be able to command it to both sides of the plate and have something to take the hitters off of a little bit. It wouldn’t have been 90% sinkers like now, but it definitely would have been a lot of them.”

On saying five years ago he’s “not going to be a guy who strikes out a ton of people”: “It’s different roles, and a lot of times you come into a game needing a strikeout. Big situations with guys on… sometimes you look for that strikeout moreso than I did back then. When I was starting, I was trying to get quick innings and keep my pitch count down. Out of the bullpen, my pitch count is never really going to get elevated. I can use that to my advantage and go for a strikeout if I need one.

“There are situations where you’re trying to miss bats and there are situations where you’re not. If there’s no one on and we have a three-run lead, I’m going to try to get three ground balls right away. That way I’m available the next day and the day after that.

“For me, [inducing contact] is about the strike zone. I’m starting it in the strike zone and finishing in the strike zone. Whether you’re striking guys out with breaking balls or fastballs, the majority of time those pitches are going to go strike to ball. You’ll get strikeouts in the zone — sometimes guys will swing and miss at those — but when you’re looking for a strikeout, you’re usually not finishing in the zone.”

On working inside and elevating: “You’re reading hitters to see if they’re going to cheat to get the outside pitch. You have to know when to pitch a guy inside and kind of refocus him a little bit. Guys pretty much know what I’m going to throw every time they get in there. If I see that a guy is really hanging out over the plate, I need to go inside.

“I work down a lot, but at the same time, in-and-out is huge. And if I can elevate every now and then, that can be huge, too. If guys are fouling off stuff that’s down — stuff they shouldn’t be fouling off — elevating is another weapon for me. Knowing when to elevate is a good weapon to have in my back pocket.”

On going more than one inning: “I did that last year. Maybe not a ton, but I went two innings once and one-plus a few times. It wouldn’t be an issue for me to do that. It’s more about being available. With one-inning outings you can be available more days than you would be with multiple-inning outings. That’s why managers like to limit you to one; they can use you three, four days in a row.

Dennis Eckersley threw [more than one inning] a bunch of times. I’ve looked at his numbers — the outings he had in his fireman role — kind of in awe.”

On reliever value, WPA and the Cy Young award: “You have to look at every role differently. I think the game tells you how relievers are valued nowadays. Relievers are starting to get more money. Good relievers help playoff pushes throughout the season. We don’t throw as many innings, but when every inning you throw is, to an extent, a high-leverage situation, you’re impacting each game from a winning-or-losing standpoint. It’s a challenge. Pretty much every time you get into a game, you’re expected to be perfect.

“I’m not familiar with [Win Probability Added]. I’ll have to look that up. The only [advanced stat] I’m really caught up on is WAR. But when you’re throwing in the later innings, whether it’s me, [Brad] Brach, [Darren] O’Day, [Mychal] Givens — almost all of those innings affect wins and losses. That’s not the case for a starter. I’ve been a starter, and there are probably two or three innings in a seven-inning outing that are stressful — you have to work out of a jam — or where the game is on the line.

“I’ve been asked about the Cy Young a lot. It’s a really hard thing for a reliever to win, although there are opinions on it both ways. There is obviously a lot of value to what starters bring to the table. Is it equal value to relievers? It depends on what the reliever is doing compared to the starter. Like I said, almost every inning you throw can dictate whether your team wins or loses.”

David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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7 years ago

I know that one should not fix what is not broken, but given what Britton has learned about his pitches and command, I wonder how he would look if he transitioned back to starter? I wonder the same thing about turning Chapman back into a starter.

Besides CJ Wilson, can anyone think of good relievers turned starter? There are tons of examples of the opposite.

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Derek Lowe

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Joba Chamberla… Never mind

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Technically John Smoltz would count

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

This idea has come up the last few off seasons, my thought is when you have one part of you staff solid and one shakey there is no reasom to roll the dice and end up with two shakey parts. They don’t really have anyone to replace him an closer and are not going to spend the money to get one.

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Chris Sale never started a game in the minors if you exclude his rehab start in 2014.

7 years ago
Reply to  phoenix2042

Carlos Carrasco
Aaron Sanchez