In 2016, Zach Britton faced 254 batters, and of those, he struck out 74, or 29.1 percent. In those plate appearances, when hitters managed to put the ball in play against him, 80 percent -- four out of every five -- hit the ball on the ground, and 11.3 percent hit line drives, according to data published by FanGraphs. Blake Treinen, property of the Washington Nationals before he was dealt to the Oakland Athletics five days ago, had the next-highest ground ball rate in 2016, at 65.9 percent.
About one of every 12 hitters (8.8 percent) who actually put the ball in play against Britton hit fly balls in 2016. In an era in which batters are working to lift the ball more than ever, he allowed only one homer and eight doubles for a slugging percentage of .209. To put that number into more context: Only four relievers who threw at least 40 innings in 2016 held batters to an on-base percentage of .209 -- and that was the slugging percentage against Britton.
So the left-hander has demonstrated he is capable of the spectacular. The Baltimore Orioles are taking offers for him now, 16 months before he reaches free agency. There are concerns about how healthy he is after he spent time on the DL with an elbow issue; it probably came as some relief to interested teams that Britton’s average fastball velocity in an appearance Tuesday, of 96.3 mph, was his second-highest in any outing this season. He has allowed 20 hits and six walks in 15 innings in 2017, having missed about two months.
But if he’s right, if he’s healthy, Britton could transform bullpens, which is why the Orioles should have some decent offers to sort through from a handful of contenders.
Adding a starting pitcher like Sonny Gray would be helpful, but with a massive lead in the AL West, Houston should be more focused on what could help them in October -- and time and again, history has demonstrated that bullpens are difference-making in the postseason. The Astros already have a really good bullpen, but a healthy and productive Britton could help Houston the way Aroldis Chapman and Andrew Miller helped the Cubs and Indians, respectively, in 2016.
For the team that already has everything, Britton could provide an established dominant lefty who could deal with Daniel Murphy, Bryce Harper, Anthony Rizzo and Jake Lamb in the postseason. If the Dodgers really want Britton as a finishing piece, they probably have the prospect power to crush any other bidder -- but will L.A. pay extra to make a great bullpen a little better? We’ll see.
He is a perfect fit for Chicago in some respects, because Britton could share the late innings with Wade Davis this year and then take over as closer in 2018, if Davis departs as a free agent. But the Cubs would have to outbid other teams to make it happen, and after trades for Chapman last season and Jose Quintana this season, Theo Epstein will have to decide whether he wants to dig into his farm system again.
Boston needs a late-inning help, but in order to land Britton, Boston and Washington would have to hope that Baltimore’s leadership would overlook rivalries to make deals -- for the Red Sox, that means a divisional rivalry; and for the Nationals, a regional rivalry and long-standing legal troubles between the teams. The grown-up choice would be for the Orioles to take offers from the Red Sox and Nationals, just as the Red Sox were willing to swap Andrew Miller to the rival O’s for Eduardo Rodriguez in 2014. The goal, after all, should be to land the best possible player in a trade. But we don’t know if the Orioles are prepared to be as grown-up as they need to be.
The D-Backs have some bullpen questions and Britton could be an upgrade over Fernando Rodney, who has a 5.40 ERA as the Arizona closer -- and no one can doubt whether Arizona’s front office is committed to improvement. Earlier this week, Arizona's new executive Mike Hazen made a deal for lefty crusher J.D. Martinez. But the D-Backs would have to outbid the Dodgers to land Britton.