Zach Britton talks relief roles, Orioles’ future, Wallace, Chiti and Cy Young Award
With late-inning relievers at the forefront of discussion in the 2016 postseason – Cleveland’s Andrew Miller, Los Angeles’ Kenley Jansen and Chicago’s Aroldis Chapman — I was curious as to what Orioles’ closer Zach Britton thought about the relief trend in these playoffs.
Britton, of course, was also a topic of discussion this postseason – for not pitching in the American League Wild Card game. He talks at length about that topic in this piece from Tuesday.
But while I had him on the phone, I wanted to pick Britton’s brain on some other things, too. Like the roles established closers are filling in this year’s postseason. Jansen was asked to enter in the seventh and pitch into the ninth in the final game of the NLDS versus the Washington Nationals.
And Miller, whom Britton really bonded with during their brief time together with the Orioles in 2014, has been used to attack the opponent’s meat of the order, with little regard to the inning. He’s dominating, and doing it for two innings at a time.
Britton was called on to get more than three outs just seven of his 69 appearances in 2016 and never pitched before the eighth this year. So what does he think of what’s happening in the postseason – and how it is happening?
“It all depends on the type of bullpen you’ve got. You’ve got to have multiple guys in the bullpen you can rely on, because if you are throwing that much all the time, it doesn’t work over the course of 162 games,” Britton said. “You can’t have that workload if you want to keep guys healthy or effective, because eventually you’re going to get tired. But in the playoffs you have off days. You can throw two days in a row and have an off day. You can throw three games in a row and have an off day.”
That’s the key, Britton said. In the regular season, teams sometimes go two weeks without getting a day off. In the playoffs, it’s usually no longer than three days. And managers have learned to take advantage of that gap.
“If you watch the way (Indians manager Terry) Francona is using Miller, that’s exactly what he is doing. He’s using those off days to his advantage,” Britton said. “But, through the course of a regular season, we just don’t get those off days. It’s just not a feasible thing in the regular season. I’m sure somebody eventually will try to find a way to do it. But it’d be more of a challenge to do it in the regular season. Postseason, you can do it all you want because of the built-in off days.”
Even if elite “short” relievers aren’t being stretched out routinely in the regular season, several national baseball writers have proclaimed that the 2016 postseason will ultimately be credited with changing the way relievers are used – that there will be fewer defined roles and more instances of the best pitcher being asked to get the toughest outs, even if it’s not in the ninth.
Britton points out that that’s not exactly new this year: The Kansas City Royals, for instance, juggled their lethal bullpen in the playoffs based on matchups. And Britton speculates that maybe the decision by Orioles manager Buck Showalter not to use him in a tied game during an eventual loss in the AL Wild Card game on Oct. 4 perhaps has prompted other playoff managers to go to their elite weapons earlier this postseason, so they don’t receive the same backlash.
“I think maybe the situation with us in Toronto, the way people were overblowing that, maybe that ending, a little bit, had something to with managers now saying, ‘Hey, I don’t want to be scrutinized for my decision. If we get beat and I throw my best guy out there, then I can be like, well, I had my best guy out there.’ It’s an easy thing to fall back on,” Britton said. “It’s a tougher thing to do what Buck did. ‘You know what? I’m going to go with the way I’ve been handling it all year long and if it doesn’t work out, I can take the blame for it.’ I think maybe that had something to do with (the current relief trend) as well.”
As for whether this postseason will drastically change late-reliever usage next season, Britton isn’t so sure. Obviously, there’s a certain mindset among those who have done it one way for a long time.
But there’s another aspect, too: A financial one.
The bottom line for baseball players is always winning. However, the reality is that this is how these guys make a living. And in baseball’s current financial structure, closers get paid a whole lot more money than middle relievers and set-up men. Mediocre closers generally get paid a lot more than elite set-up men.
Add to that the reality that, in the arbitration process, saves are a major factor in determining the salary of a reliever, and the opportunity to earn huge raises often coincides with the importance put on ninth-inning success. So it’s not going to be easy to convince elite relievers to abandon the primary component of an eventual financial windfall.
“Once the industry catches up and starts paying the (elite) middle relievers the same money as they’re paying elite closers, I think that’s when you’ll see more people just say, ‘OK, just throw me in any situation you want because I know it’s not going to impact how I’m compensated,’” Britton said. “It’s a tough thing to talk about because you don’t want to sound greedy. But at the same time, you have a very small window to play, and if you’re going to be doing something that’s just as tough in one role as it is in another role, but the other role you are compensated at a whole other level, that gives you pause as a player.”
Consider that Britton and his top set-up man from 2016, Brad Brach, had elite seasons, made the All-Star team and both will become free agents after 2018. Britton is projected by mlbtradeumors.com to receive an $11.4 million salary through arbitration in 2017, while Brach is estimated at $2.9 million. Britton had the better year, but is he nearly four times better? No, it’s all about the disparity in the way the roles are valued.
And so any strong reliever is going to aspire to be a closer, especially without having a long-term deal in place, because that’s where the potential for the most money is. There’s more glory in being a closer, too, but what really drives relievers to want to finish games is a combination of competitive fire and the gold at the end of the saving rainbow.
The financial landscape is changing for the non-closing, elite reliever, however. Miller set a record free-agent deal for a non-closer when he inked a four-year, $36 million deal with the New York Yankees in 2014. And set-up man Darren O’Day re-signed with the Orioles for four years and $31 million last offseason.
As the money begins to blur the definitions – and elite relievers are paid for being elite regardless of role – then Britton could see players clinging less and less to a specific role. Until then, though, some may chafe at what they are being asked to do – especially if they lose the “save” category for arbitration purposes.
It’s an interesting take, and I’ll be curious to see if closers throughout baseball are used differently during next year’s regular season – and to analyze the factors that go into those decisions.
I also asked Britton about a few other topics:
The prospect of being traded
Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette was asked earlier this month about dealing Britton or third baseman Manny Machado if extensions can’t be reached this offseason (both are free agents after 2018).
Duquette responded that he wants both of those players on the Orioles. That’s understandable, but the reality is Britton likely will make $11 million or so next year, would bring several prospects in return and is likely at his peak trade value after an historic season.
Britton understands all that – and he remembers that the Orioles traded closer Jim Johnson before the 2014 season because his salary through arbitration would reach $10 million (to be fair, Johnson was coming off a less-than-stellar season when he was dealt).
“You saw it with Jim Johnson, once the salary got up to a certain point, he got traded. I think I’m kind of approaching there. So I don’t know how long I’m going to be here,” Britton said. “You see how many relievers are on the move nowadays. But it’d be nice to stay here.”
The possibility of a contract extension
Yes, he’d like one. But both sides have to be agreeable. And that’ll be up to Orioles’ management and Britton’s agent, Scott Boras. After the season he has had, Britton has major leverage, and the Orioles are often hesitant to agree to a deal after a player’s best year.
“Obviously, the financial stuff, a lot of that is on the team to figure out something along those lines and what they’re comfortable with,” Britton said. “But, as for me, I’ve built some great relationships. Been there since I was 18, so it would definitely be awesome to play my career throughout with Baltimore.”
The departure of pitching coach Dave Wallace
Wallace, who stepped down at the end of the season to spend more time with family and will look for a position that’s less intensive, had been Britton’s pitching coach since 2014. In that span, Britton went from a converted starter fighting for a bullpen job to baseball’s best reliever.
“Dave was a huge part of helping me turn around my career, kind of get it back on the right track,” Britton said. “Him coming out to California in the offseason in 2014 to interact … was refreshing. And it allowed me to get back to being who I wanted to be. … So it is tough to see Dave go.”
The endorsement of Dom Chiti as pitching coach
As tight as Britton was with Wallace, he’s had an even closer relationship with bullpen coach Dom Chiti, who worked in tandem with Wallace but was in the bullpen on a daily basis with Britton. Chiti is considered a candidate for the pitching coach job, but there is no guarantee he’ll get it. Britton, however, would endorse the promotion.
“Dom, hopefully he stays. I think he has a good rapport with everybody,” Britton said. “Great relationships. That’s the thing. You don’t see anybody he didn’t have a great relationship with. And not just with baseball, either.”
The possibility of winning AL Cy Young
If Britton isn’t the leading candidate for the AL Cy Young Award, he certainly is on the short list. He’s up against some top starters such as Cleveland’s Corey Kluber, Detroit’s Justin Verlander and Boston’s Rick Porcello. So when will he start thinking about his chances?
“Once the season is over and the World Series is done and we have a champion, I think maybe. But I think I’m just gonna kind of avoid it for now. I’m sure when the awards (announcements) get closer, I’ll have some friends texting me and some family,” he said. “I try to avoid things that I have no control over and that’s definitely one of those things. You just want to put yourself in a position to be in consideration and I feel like I’ve done that. But I don’t have a vote. The people that do are going to look at so many different things. But it will be an interesting thing to watch.”
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