How Zach Britton Blew His Saves

There were only four of them. Blown saves, that is. I presume you’ve read the title. Zach Britton blew four saves last year, which actually isn’t a particularly noteworthy fact. Britton blew four saves in 40 tries, which is great, but it certainly wasn’t the best, and Britton blew four saves the year before too, in one more try. It’s great but not spectacular, especially relative to Britton’s season as a whole, which was both great and spectacular and plenty of other adjectives like awesome (in the literal sense of actually inspiring awe) or remarkable or astonishing or breathtaking or historic. Britton struck out nearly a third of all batters he faced and posted the highest ground ball rate in history. That’s spectacular. “History” in this case dates back to just 2002, but Britton stands alone at the top by a comfortable margin, 3.5 standard deviations above the mean and a full standard deviation above the guy in third place. History doesn’t reach back super far in this instance, but given the magnitude of his lead, we can expect Britton’s place in history to continue for some time, given Britton doesn’t go and break his own record.

The save is a mostly silly statistic anyway, which by proxy makes it’s cousin, the blown save, equally frivolous. But what if I told you that simply by watching how Zach Britton blew his four saves in 2015, you’d come away knowing more about Zach Britton, more about the nature of saves and blown saves, and maybe more about other things, too? Well, you’d either continue reading the blog post or you wouldn’t. That’s what would happen if I told you what I just told you. I’d prefer that you continue reading the blog post, but let’s be honest it’s 2016 and you’ve probably got a phone to look at, so really you could just scan the moving pictures and get the gist. I’m not gonna lie to you. Just know that my words would feel left out and sad. :(

No. 1

  • Date: 4/25
  • Opponent: Red Sox
  • Situation: at home, leading 3-2, with 2-3-4 (Pedroia, Ortiz, Ramirez) due up

Britton leads off the inning by walking Dustin Pedroia on five pitches. Limiting walks is actually another thing Britton does well — he issued just 14 of them last season, placing him in the top 30 of relievers, but this was one of the 14. Remember, what we’re about to see is, presumably and arbitrarily, Britton at his “worst.” There will be some transgressions.

But then Britton strikes out David Ortiz on five pitches, last of which is a 95-mph sinker in the dirt. Back to normal.

And now, a ball in play, from Hanley Ramirez. The balls in play are what this post is all about. Here’s the first one, from Britton’s first (eventual) blown save (a game the Orioles wound up winning):

It’s a ground ball up the middle, and with a good enough play, it could’ve been the end of the game and save No. 5 for Britton, but Everth Cabrera‘s flip to J.J. Hardy isn’t as smooth as his catch, and rather than two outs, Britton earns zero. He’s able to retrieve the ball himself, because it never left the infield.

Up to the plate comes Mike Napoli:

It’s a weak chopper up the middle, but it bounces juuust high enough to be out of Britton’s reach. None of the following sentence is true: the exit velocity on this chopper was 67 mph (made up) and, when Britton allowed batted balls slower than 70 mph this year, batters hit just .096 (made up). Lies, all lies! But I bet I’m not far off. Except for this one. Britton got Napoli to hit poorly, except for the part where it allowed him to reach base. Hardy was able to simply place the ball back in Britton’s outstretched palm (not pictured), because the ball never left the infield.

Next up was Pablo Sandoval:

It’s a ground ball, and it’s hit right at Manny Machado, who might be the game’s best defensive third baseman. For the second time this inning, Britton’s got himself a game-ending double play with good enough defense, and this one’s got a much higher success rate than the first. Except, after stepping on third base for the first out, Machado makes a rare mistake and throws it away. The ball leaves the infield, only because Manny Machado made it do so, and Zach Britton has blown a save. All his fault!

No. 2

  • Date: 8/14
  • Opponent: Athletics
  • Situation: at home, leading 6-4, with 9-1-2 (Semien, Burns, Canha) due up

It’s been nearly four months since Britton’s last blown save, and, c’mon, that one was pretty weak. Britton’s basically 29-for-29 at this point.

Marcus Semien leads off the inning, and once Britton gets two strikes on him, he spots a 97-mph sinker on the low and outside corner. It’s about as close to unhittable as it gets, but Semien hits it in the only way batters are able to hit unhittable 97-mph sinkers spotted perfectly on the low/outside corner:

The ball comes dangerously close to leaving the infield, both on the hit and the throw, but alas.

Now it’s Billy Burns‘ turn:

It’s a cornucopia of futility. On the part of Burns, by hitting the ball exceptionally poorly. On the part of Britton, by making us momentarily wonder whether he actually has a maximum vertical leap of 2.7 inches (made up). On the part of Hardy, for even trying what he tried to do, really. And on the part of second baseman Jonathan Schoop, for making a super sweet catch and tag that totally wasn’t embarrassing at all.

We only see Billy Burns doing it, but actually everyone on the field made this face at the same time:

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.17.07 PM

As Schoop walks toward the slowly rolling ball, hoping that nobody saw that (they did), the second base umpire has to move out of the way, because the ball never left the infield. Two on, no outs.

Let’s see what Mark Canha‘s got:

It’s an out! It’s a productive out, but it’s also an easy out, because, you see, the ball never left the infield. But now the tying run is in scoring position and here comes Josh Phegley and…

Manny Machado! Insane play! Out! Run! Baseball! …never left the infield! One run game!

How dare Britton let Danny Valencia poke an opposite field ground ball past the diving, outstretched arms of Jonathan Rufino Jezus Schoop (not made up!) and into the outfield grass to score the tying run. Save: blown. Do better next time, Zach.

No. 3

  • Date: 8/23
  • Opponent: Twins
  • Situation: at home, leading 3-2, with 2-3-4 (Dozier, Mauer, Sano) due up

*sigh*

“cool, cool, hitting my spots, keeping it on the ground, limiting hard contact”

*strikes out Sano*

Screen Shot 2016-01-11 at 11.17.07 PM

No. 4

  • Date: 9/20
  • Opponent: Rays
  • Situation: on the road, leading 6-4, with 1-2-3 (Guyer, Souza, Longoria) due up

TO BE FAIR, Britton did allow a leadoff homer to Brandon Guyer here, which he shouldn’t have done, and that’s what actually blew it, so this one counts as a Real Blown Save. And then he also shouldn’t have allowed a hit and a walk and an intentional walk to load the bases and put the winning run at third, either. This wasn’t a good outing in any way, but it also comes with the most fitting of endings:

The key is to just never let a ball in play. My advice to Zach Britton, if he doesn’t want to blow any more saves, is to add 68.8 percentage points to his strikeout rate next season.



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August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.


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egschurk
Member
egschurk
4 months 13 days ago

Really Great Article.

The SS from blown save #1 was in fact O’s savvy pickup Everth Cabrera.

Kvn
Member
Kvn
4 months 13 days ago

Thank you for making me relive that Red Sox gamme…

In all honestly, though, great article. As someone who watched a lot of O’s games, sometimes you feel like with Britton on the mound they’re better off playing the infield in all the time.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
4 months 13 days ago

When would there have been a better time to use the phrase “Baltimore chop”? I am disappoint.

James
Member
James
4 months 13 days ago

Even after knowing what the outcomes were going to be (due to reading the title) this still drove me crazy.

Cool article. Just curious, do you note these things during the season, or were you doing some digging around and came across it?

Kallamez
Member
Kallamez
4 months 12 days ago

Ahem,

P.Kramer11
Member
P.Kramer11
4 months 12 days ago

That play with Brian Dozier was pretty funny cause for whatever reason they kept replaying it throughout the season.

tzuk
Member
tzuk
4 months 12 days ago

This might be a rules question, but could the Orioles prevent these blown saves from happening by adding a fifth infielder (and playing two OFers) when Britton pitches? Seems the odds of two batters hitting fly balls is rarer than two batters getting on after swinging bunts.

formerly matt w
Member
formerly matt w
4 months 12 days ago

Nothing in the rules to prevent the Orioles from bringing an outfielder in to stand on the infield dirt. (At least, not until the malcontent teams succeed in outlawing infield shifts, because we can’t have nice things.) I’m sure I’ve seen it done occasionally.

I’m not entirely sure how much it would help, though; most of those hits seemed less like “there’s no infielder there to field the ball” than “the ball takes so long to come down to the infielder that he doesn’t have time to make the play.”

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