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Zach Britton is stumbling

Greatness is hard; sustained greatness is really, really hard, as Britton is discovering. The stalwart Orioles reliever isn’t repeating what he did last season.

Chicago Cubs v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

Zach Britton emerged as a premier closer in 2014. After shifting from the rotation to the ‘pen, Britton immediately found success with his sinker and occasional curveball. Each subsequent season of relief, Britton showed that he was a force to be reckoned with and even improved each year. Now, he may be available on the trade market. But it looks like the injury bug and the regression monster may be rearing their ugly heads.

Zach Britton’s 2016 was insanely good. The lefthander allowed four earned runs all season, with a strikeout rate near 30 percent. On top of that, his hard-hit rate was the lowest in all of baseball, as was his DRA among pitchers with more than 40 innings pitched. All in all, his 2016 was downright historic in its dominance.

But fast forward to this season, and things are not going so well, or well at all. Overall, his current season thus far is not at all comparable to the form he has shown in the past. His time on the DL this season limits the amount of data we have to work with. But even with the small sample we have, every metric is in agreement, and it’s not good.

Britton’s brutal 2017

Year DRA K% BB% Hard Hit % BABIP AVG
Year DRA K% BB% Hard Hit % BABIP AVG
2016 1.72 29.1% 7.1% 14.8% .230 .161
2017 4.88 15.3% 9.7% 29.6% .407 .338

Britton’s drop in strikeout rate is substantial. Almost halving his strikeout rate and bumping his walk rate has ripping effects that can be seen across the board. The spike in hard hit rate bodes extremely poorly for any late inning reliever and not having the strikeouts to compensate leaves him vulnerable to wild innings. This has resulted his average against taking a huge step in the wrong direction. All in all, his DRA shows a once dominant closer shriveling into a husk of his former self.

Britton’s forearm has been a major issue. In early May, he went down with what was described as “a forearm strain,” a phrase that’s a frequent death sentence for any pitcher’s season, as it often precedes UCL tears (and thus Tommy John surgeries). However, Britton got lucky. An MRI revealed no structural damage to his elbow. But even a routine injury still meant that he had to spend a significant chunk of the season on the disabled list. Essentially, he was out from early May until early July.

When looking at Britton’s sinker and its effectiveness, his struggles are not all that surprising. He throws his sinker more than 90 percent of the time, using it the same way Kenley Jansen uses his cutter.

Britton’s sinker

Year Strikes Whiffs
Year Strikes Whiffs
2016 64.95% 17.79%
2017 60.00% 11.25%

Britton is throwing his sinker for fewer strikes, and generating fewer whiffs with it. Meanwhile, his velocity has dipped slightly, despite his spin rate generally holding steady.

The velocity dip may be a product of the forearm issues, and could be a partial cause of the drop in overall effectiveness that Britton has been dealing with.

The injury and decline concerns with Britton look real. Any drop in velocity, especially for a guy who relies on one pitch so heavily, is concerning. Any decline in the effectiveness of Britton’s sinker will permeate through his entire profile. And as with any pitcher, the slightest hint of arm troubles could blossom into a full-blown crisis at any moment.

All that’s bad news for Britton, and for the Orioles. With teams reportedly balking at the chance to acquire Britton, it seems that their concerns are well-founded.

Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score and a Stats Intern at Baseball Prospectus. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.