Facing Zach Britton in 2016 was to lose. It was to beat the baseball into the dirt. Or, increasingly, to miss it entirely. In a world-beating season, the Orioles closer sported an 80 percent ground ball rate, and a swinging-strike rate north of 17 percent. Bad things happened to those who swung.
Over the whole season, just 31 plate appearances resulted in a line drive or fly ball. That is actually two more than he allowed in 2015, but the results were superior in 2016.
So what did these mythical creatures — the Britton pitches lofted into the air — look like? Is there anything to learn, to take to the plate in hopes of beating back the doom and gloom of a ninth-inning at bat against Baltimore?
1) Eduardo Escobar, fly out to center.
2) Eduardo Escobar, Twins utility extraordinaire, recorded the first two of these rare bird-like baseball trajectories. He flied out on April 4 before returning to the plate against Britton two days later. On this second occasion, Britton got behind in the count and threw a two-seamer right down the pipe for a called strike. Then he threw another one right down the pipe and Escobar jumped it, smashing it into the left-field power alley for a double.
3) Logan Forsythe hits a 2-2 pitch fairly hard, but directly to right fielder Mark Trumbo.
4) Mookie Betts. Here we reach the early nadir of Britton’s season. At the time, Orioles fans seeking perspective may have thought to themselves, “Well, there is one of the three or four homers Britton usually allows in a season.”
Au contraire! It would be the only home run Britton allowed in 2016.
One strategy against Britton is to increase your odds by seeing a lot of pitches. For most hitters, this becomes hopeless when they see a fastball coming in just above the knees, swing, and then look down to discover a ball bouncing in front of the catcher. Betts managed to work an eight-pitch at bat here, and ultimately force Britton into a 3-2 count.
Britton does not throw the ball in the zone very often — but in this case he needed to make it close to avoid the walk. The pitch probably didn’t break as much as he would have liked, and it ended up flying off Betts’ bat at 108.8 mph, per Statcast, the hardest anyone would hit a Britton pitch all season.
5) Michael Saunders manages to loft an 0-2 pitch to left field, where it is caught by Joey Rickard.
6) While Britton is very capable of throwing pitches down the middle and getting swinging strikes or grounders, this pipeshot to Evan Longoria would probably be categorized as a mistake pitch. It was roped for a single, again in a deep count.
7) Oswaldo Arcia lines out gently to third base on an 0-2 pitch.
8) Justin Upton, down 0-2 himself, and representing the Tigers’ last hope in a 1-0 game, gets a two-seamer that hangs up a bit high on the outside part of the plate. He makes good contact, but it zips right to Trumbo in right, and the game is over.
9) Marlon Byrd singles on a 1-0 pitch.
10) In the same inning, Rajai Davis singles on a 1-0 pitch down the middle. Only three batters managed to lift a ball into the air on 1-0 pitches, and only one more did it on a 2-0 pitch. No one lifted a ball on a 3-0 pitch.
11) Lefty-masher Chris Young bashes a ground rule double on a 3-1 offering left up in the zone.
12) Here’s that 2-0 pitch. Chase Headley got a single out of it.
13) Devon Travis bloops a single to right field.
14) After swinging too eagerly at a 1-1 slider low and away, Brad Miller goes down and gets a two-seamer. It’s the hardest anyone will hit a Britton pitch outside the zone and low all year. It still requires a bit of luck — a misread by Nolan Reimold in left — to turn into a ground-rule double.
15) Justin Turner lifts a two-seamer left up in the nitro zone deep the other way. It’s caught on the warning track. The wind, even, declined to provide help to Britton’s victims in 2016.
16) Adrian Gonzalez, in the 14th inning, lines a low two-seamer just over the shortstop’s head for a double.
17) Andrelton Simmons notches a single on a 2-2 pitch, which gives us occasion to note that 19 of these 31 fateful moments occurred with two strikes. That feels counterintuitive, because hitting Britton should be harder with two strikes. But it also feels logical, because the situation forces the issue.
Sometimes, a two-strike count entices Britton to go close to the zone in hopes of drawing that swing. Sometimes, he misses. Sometimes it forces hitters to swing out of self-preservation. Sometimes, they get lucky.
18) Sometimes they don’t. Geovany Soto flies out to deep center on a 2-2 pitch.
19) The first pitch to Brad Miller (him again!) gets away from Britton and sails over Miller’s head. The next pitch, a slider, gets Miller stepping backwards as it darts to the outside corner for a strike. The next pitch, another slider, gets a twirling swing and miss. Then, another slider, and Miller connects for a high, lofted double.
20) Carlos Beltran lines out to left.
21) Coco Crisp loops an easy out to left.
22) Bryce Harper turns a liner into a single ...
23) And a run. Anthony Rendon mashes an 97 mph two-seamer in outer third of the zone off the wall in the right field power alley. It’s the third-hardest contact Britton will surrender on a fly or liner, after Betts and Escobar’s previously noted hits.
24) Darwin Barney singles.
25) Mookie Betts. Again! It’s an out, but still!
26) Steven Souza flies out.
27) If you are seeking evidence that Britton was more mortal than the numbers suggest — specifically the microscopic and non-existent ERA and blown save numbers, respectively — this is your play. Alexei Ramirez ropes one down the left field line, but the runner that would have tied the game is cut down by a picture-perfect relay.
Presumably, that won’t happen every time.
28) Mookie Betts! Yes, Betts is the only hitter to put three balls in the air against Britton in 2016. Or in the past two seasons combined.
How many times did Betts face Britton in 2016, you ask? Three times. Yes, he put all of them in the air.
This one was also an out, but his relative “success” doing the thing Britton doesn’t want hitters to do is instructive. In each plate appearance against Britton, he saw more than five pitches. In this particular at-bat, he saw seven — working a full count. Now, sure, he’s still facing Britton with two strikes. Not great.
But look at which pitches he put in play.
Those are all the pitches we’re discussing here, and the circled ones are Betts. He put his pitch in play. Now, there are a lot of skills involved in getting to that point. Patience, bat-to-ball skills to fend off unwanted two-strike attacks, pitch recognition.
It’s something, though.
29) David Ortiz singles.
30) Brandon Drury bloops a single into right-center.
31) Kyle Jensen flies out to end a game. It was a loss for his team, of course. But maybe it was a personal victory. He did, after all, put the ball in the air against Zach Britton.
. . .
Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.