Baltimore Orioles Zach Britton the Next Mariano Rivera?

Mar 14, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles pitcher Zach Britton (53) pitches in the fourth inning in the spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 14, 2017; Sarasota, FL, USA; Baltimore Orioles pitcher Zach Britton (53) pitches in the fourth inning in the spring training game against the Tampa Bay Rays at Ed Smith Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports /

The Baltimore Orioles Zach Britton was more than likely the best pitcher in baseball in 2016, despite the fact that he didn’t even finish in the top three in the Cy Young voting.

In 2016, the then 28-year-old left-handed closer for the Baltimore Orioles, put up some of the best numbers the game has ever seen.

Britton finished 69 games for the Orioles, ending the season with a record of 2-1 with 47 saves and an unheard of 0.54 ERA allowing just four earned runs in the course of the entire season.

Of course he was also 47-for-47 in save opportunities, not blowing a single one and was a member of the American League All-Star team. It was his second straight all-star appearance.

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In 2015 Britton played almost, but not quite as well, as the amazing year he had in 2016.

Still he finished 58 games for the Orioles that year, going 4-1 with 36 saves in 40 save opportunities. He also posted an incredible ERA of 1.92.

Britton struggled a bit in the first three years of his six-year career, being used primarily as a starter. He posted a 4.77 ERA over those three seasons.

Since being moved to the closer role in 2014 Britton has saved 120 games for the Orioles, while blowing only eight.

His ERA in 2014 was 1.65 and when you combine the past three seasons his overall ERA is 1.38.

He’s been so good since 2014 that he’s been drawing comparisons to the greatest closer to ever step foot on a pitcher’s mound.

Everyone knows his name (there’s a street named after him in New York, if you need a clue) and that he’ll be headed to Cooperstown as soon as he is eligible, likely the first player in MLB history to do so unanimously too.

Of course I’m talking about the last player to ever wear the number 42 and he wore it in pinstripes for his entire 19-year career, the greatest of greats, Mariano Rivera.

It’s not simply Britton’s numbers that are the reasons for the comparison because he’s only going into his seventh big league season so he’ll have to perform this way for another 12 for the numbers to be the only reason.

It’s Britton’s cutter. It’s the same pitch that Rivera used almost every single time he threw the ball during his epic career.

It’s a pitch unlike any other and most baseball experts and fans thought that they would never see anything like it again.

Then Britton came along. He learned to throw the pitch back at age 19, in 2007.

At the time he was struggling with both his ERA and his pitches so much he wasn’t even sure he wanted to pitch professionally anymore.

Baltimore Orioles
Baltimore Orioles /

Baltimore Orioles

Then he threw it. A cutter unlike any other and quite similar to Rivera’s. He threw a cutter that should have cut to the left, like any standard cut-fastball.

Instead his not only cut to the right, it dropped off the plane of existence, as if it had fallen through a trap door.

Well, maybe not existence but at least completely out of the site of any hitter. It was like he threw “a boulder off of a bridge,” writes ESPN’s Jayson Stark, “It was a life changing moment.”

It was a life changing moment for Britton but he didn’t exactly know it, at least not yet.

As previously noted he struggled in his first three seasons with the Baltimore Orioles. He began as a starter and was, over those first three years, slowly transitioned into the bullpen as a reliever.

As the O’s closer he began throwing that magic cutter over 90% of the time. Over the past eight seasons ESPN Stats & Info could find only two pitchers who used the same pitch, during a full season, 92% of the time. One was Britton in 2016 and the other was, of course, Rivera who did so in 2009.

Being compared to the greatest closer of all-time is a bit daunting for Britton who says,

"“That’s pretty tough company to keep, right?"

Despite the fact that Britton will have to keep up this type of play for another 13 seasons to match Mariano’s greatness, Rivera is actually a good reference point when talking about Britton.

For a long time – at least until 2014 – Britton felt like any other pitcher would. He didn’t want to throw his best pitch every single time he picked up the baseball.

It’s not usually what coaches teach players to do, it’s actually the opposite.

However, two of his former pitching coaches convinced him that perhaps he should. Their philosophy was simple.

At its most basic, they told Britton that it didn’t matter if the hitter knew what pitch to expect if there was no way that they would be able to hit it.

It worked. The same was true for Rivera. Batters always knew what was coming but they would swing and miss or hit a weak infield grounder.

Britton’s experience has been the same. He only allowed 13 fly balls all season in 2016. That has never been done before ever, not even by Rivera.

Britton may not have won the Cy Young last year but he did take home the Mariano Rivera Award for being the AL’s best reliever. It was more fitting for him than any pitcher who has ever won it since it’s inception.

Britton’s ERA last season was lower than any pitcher who pitched at least 50 innings in a single season – EVER.

Even Rivera’s lowest single season ERA of his career was, a still unbelievable, 1.40 in 2008, showing just how spectacular Britton was last year and even in 2015.

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It’s pretty crazy to think that there may be another Mariano Rivera in the world.

And while Britton has quite a few years left to pitch to have numbers like the greatest closer the world has ever seen, his season last year will always be one for the history books.

Prior to last season it was ludicrous to say that there might ever be another Mariano Rivera or someone even close.

If you’d told me that I likely would have laughed in your face.

Now it’s a possibility in Britton and despite his 2016 performance it’s still hard to believe but it’s not as impossible as previously believed.

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