Rock bottom came on a minor league pitcher’s mound in the summer of 2013. Zach Britton, 25 years old, his status as the one-time future ace of the Baltimore Orioles all but squandered, was pitching with such indifference and such ineffectiveness that the veteran third baseman waved off the pitching coach, who was about to climb the dugout steps, and sauntered over to air out the lefty, right there in front of everybody.
“He was like, ‘I’ve never seen you be okay with not being good. It’s like you’re going through the motions,’ ” Britton recalled. “And I think he [cursed at] me a few times in there.”
The third baseman’s words carried some weight, because he was Zach Britton’s older brother, Buck. Zach had always been the big-time prospect, the third-round draft pick who signed for $435,000 and had already spent parts of two seasons in the big leagues as a starter. Buck, a year and a half older, was the classic grinder, a 35th-rounder who knew he would probably never see the majors. His signing bonus: $1,000.
The same place — a roster spot with the Class AAA Norfolk Tides — that represented rock bottom for Zach was the career high-water mark for Buck. That night, they returned to the one-bedroom apartment they shared in Norfolk — with Zach getting the bedroom, since he was paying the rent, and Buck sleeping on the floor — and the lecture continued.
“I’m living on your floor. I can’t afford my own friggin’ place,” his brother said, as Zach recalled. “I’m going to grind my [tail] off, and I’m going to play well and I’m not going to get a chance at the big leagues. And you’re going to sit there and feel sorry for yourself. I’m never going to get the opportunities that you have. Just — figure it out. You obviously have the ability. Just figure it out.”
He knew his brother was right. And right there, at his lowest point, Zach Britton had what amounted to an epiphany: “I can’t take this for granted,” he told himself. “For [Buck] — at least for him — I can’t throw this away.”
It is instructive to look back at Zach Britton’s low point now, because practically everything that has happened since that day has placed him on a trajectory toward what is now a career high point that keeps getting higher. Britton, 45 for 45 in save attempts and sporting a 0.59 ERA, is in the midst of one of the greatest seasons by a reliever in history, and the Orioles are a half-game behind Toronto atop the American League wild-card standings pending the Blue Jays’ game late Tuesday night in Seattle.
It all happened with remarkable speed from that 2013 nadir: By Opening Day 2014, Britton was back in the big leagues to stay as a reliever. By May 2014, he was closing games, and by October he was closing them in the playoffs (while also becoming a first-time father). By 2015, he was an all-star, and by this November he could very well become the first reliever since Eric Gagne in 2003 to win a Cy Young Award, and the first in the AL since Dennis Eckersley in 1992.
In a year in which only one AL starter — New York’s Masahiro Tanaka (2.97) — carried a sub-3.00 ERA into Tuesday’s play, Cy Young voting may wind up being a referendum on the relative value of 70 or so high-leverage innings as a closer vs. 200 or so innings as a starter. Some advanced stats, such as Win Probability Added, favor Britton by a wide margin over all other AL pitchers; others, such as Wins Above Replacement, do not.
“I think he’s the Cy Young winner, hands down,” Orioles Manager Buck Showalter said. “Not once have we walked into the clubhouse after having a lead and had that feeling of having been so close to something and not being able to finish it off. Think about what that means for a club. Nobody’s meant more to their club than Zach Britton has meant to our club.”
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Britton’s rise is the fact he is doing it, essentially, with one pitch — a bowling-ball sinker that he throws 95-98 mph, to both sides of the plate or in the dirt as a strikeout pitch. Some 92 percent of his overall pitches this season have been the sinker, with the rest a slower breaking ball. It has reminded more than one observer of Mariano Rivera, who relied almost exclusively on one pitch — a cutter — in becoming the greatest reliever in history.
“They need to make him throw from 70 feet,” laughed Tampa Bay right fielder Steven Souza Jr. when asked about facing Britton. “You know what [pitch] you’re getting. But there’s no other pitch that replicates what he does. It’s very hard to react to something with that much velocity and that much movement. If it was 91, it’s a different story. But because it’s on you so fast, it’s impossible.”
Britton was a 19-year-old prospect in 2007, drafted the year before out of Weatherford (Tex.) High, when his pitching coach at short-season Class A tried to teach him the grip for a cutter. But when Britton threw it, the ball sank instead of cut. The coach was dumbfounded. “I don’t know what you’re doing,” he said, “but keep doing it.”
His rise through the minors was swift and seamless. He rose a level in each of his first three professional seasons, then split 2010 between Class AA and AAA. The next spring, Baseball America rated him the 28th-best prospect in the game, and in 2011, at age 23, he made 28 starts as a rookie for the Orioles, going 11-11 with a 4.61 ERA.
But a left shoulder injury in the spring of 2012 halted his development and put him in a downward spiral that culminated on that mound in Norfolk.
“I know what makes him tick. I know what buttons to push,” Buck Britton said. “Everything I know about him, I was able to use. I think I convinced him something’s got to change: ‘This is not the pitcher I know you are.’ I never wanted him to feel sorry for me. But he got to see both sides of it.”
In the spring of 2014, the Orioles told Zach Britton they wanted to pitch him out of the bullpen, and they set about converting him into a reliever. Pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti asked him to abandon his four-pitch arsenal and focus exclusively on his sinker, and they set up a network of strings in the bullpen — an old drill often credited to Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine during their Atlanta days — to get Britton to hone in on an increasingly small target. Eventually, he got to the point where he could hit a square area of roughly six inches per side, set up alternately on either side of the plate, 70 percent of the time.
Britton went 3-0 with a 1.17 ERA over the first month of that season, demonstrating a vastly improved command, and by the middle of May, with veteran Tommy Hunter struggling, Showalter turned to Britton for the ninth inning.
He hasn’t started a game since, converting 118 of 126 save opportunities and pitching to a 1.48 ERA. And while the accolades, awards and milestones have piled up — he went nearly four months this season without allowing an earned run, and his 0.59 ERA would be the lowest in history for a pitcher with at least 50 innings pitched — he still wonders what he could have done as a starting pitcher if the Orioles had stuck with him.
“It wasn’t how I drew it up, that’s for sure. I always dreamed of being Tom Glavine,” Britton said. “There’s always something in the back of my head that’s saying, ‘Man, if I never had some of those injuries, things like that, I wonder how it would have turned out.’”
“The role really fit him,” Showalter said. “You see an arm like that, you’re always going to go down the starter road first. I still have people ask me, ‘What do you think about him starting again?’ I think they underestimate how hard it is to find someone to do what he’s doing.”
People close to Britton characterize him as intensely loyal.
But loyalty has a way of being tested in baseball, a lesson that Britton has come to understand. A client of Scott Boras, the agent notorious for steering his players to free agency, Britton, a free agent after the 2018 season, speaks of his sense of loyalty to the people with whom he shares a clubhouse, while pointedly leaving out any mention of the organization.
“You’re loyal to your teammates and coaches here,” he said. “I think that’s where you’re loyalty is.”
At his lowest points, such as that lost summer in Norfolk, when the business of baseball seemed to be conspiring against him and Britton felt as if the Orioles were giving up on him, the people in his inner circle kept telling him: “Your time will come.”
And now, like a phone ringing in the bullpen, Britton’s time has come — and it has kept coming, and it will keep coming, a few times a week for the rest of this month, and if he’s lucky, well into next month, too, and for years down the road.
It wasn’t how he drew it up as a Texas high schooler, or as a 2006 bonus baby, or even as a struggling prospect in 2013, but by this point even Zach Britton has made peace with the fact his time — if for no other reason than he’s as good at it right now as anyone has ever been — is the ninth inning.