In the grand scheme of things, not many big league players stick around for over a decade, and even fewer can lay claim to one of the game’s most dominant seasons. After 12 mostly excellent seasons, left-handed reliever Zack Britton has decided to retire from baseball. He spent parts of eight seasons with the Orioles, before being traded to the Yankees, and ultimately playing out the rest of his career over four and a half seasons in the Bronx. As far as relievers go, Britton made a significant impact on his teams and the game’s history, over what was a very nice career in the big leagues.
Britton was drafted in the third round of the 2006 MLB draft by Baltimore, and made his debut in 2011. He originally came up as a starting pitching prospect (alongside Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman), and had a solid debut season posting a 4.00 FIP across 28 starts and 154.1 innings. His next two seasons were not so fruitful, as he pitched just 100.1 innings between 2012 and ‘13, with an ERA north of 5.00. The result was a move to the bullpen for Britton, a shift that would pay off huge for both he and the Orioles.
As the O’s new closer between 2014-15, Britton worked 142 innings with a stingy 1.77 ERA, while saving 73 games for Baltimore. The 2014 campaign was the closest Baltimore has come to a World Series in the past 25 years, as they won the AL East and swept the Tigers in the ALDS before having the tables turned on them by Kansas City in the ALCS. Britton’s move was a resounding success, as he immediately became one of the games best relief pitchers, relying mostly on his fantastic sinker. But this only set the stage for what Britton’s career should be most-remembered for: his 2016 season.
The then-28-year-old tossed 67 innings out of the ‘pen that season, and (this is not a typo) maintained a 0.54 ERA. Among pitchers with at least 50 innings pitched, Britton’s 0.54 mark is the lowest single-season ERA among all pitchers in the history of Major League Baseball. I love when a stat feels impossible, and his season came with an alien 804 ERA+, where of course, 100 is league-average. He also went a perfect 47-for-47 in save opportunities, and finished fourth in Cy Young voting.
Although one of the more memorable parts of this season was Britton’s non-appearance in that year’s doomed Wild Card Game against the Blue Jays, it was a campaign to remember. It takes some squinting and some qualifiers, but there is an argument that it was one of the greatest single-season performances ever.
After missing some time with various injuries in 2017 and ‘18, as well as depleted (but still solid) production, Britton was traded to the Yankees in the middle of the 2018 season. Across 25 innings in his first year in the Bronx, he was still effective with a 2.88 ERA, but a less pleasing 4.08 FIP and significantly diminished strikeout rate. Despite this, Britton returned mostly to form the next year in his first full-season chance with the Bombers on a new contract.
In 61.1 innings, the most he had pitched since 2016, Britton posted yet another sub-2 ERA, and though his FIP sat nearly two runs higher, he remained an excellent run preventer. He did the same across 19 innings in the shortened 2020 season, but injuries began to catchup to Britton. He also pitched 18.1 postseason inning for the Yanks from 2018-20, and maintained a respectable 3.27 ERA on the game’s biggest stages.
Britton would pitch just 18.1 innings in 2021 for the Yankees, in the second-to-last year of what was ultimately a four-year, $53 million contract with the team, eventually needing Tommy John surgery in September. He would return briefly and rather unsuccessfully at the very end of the 2022 season, recording just two outs across three appearances in what would be his final MLB outings. The rush back from Tommy John surgery just didn’t work out.
Britton retires with a 3.13 ERA and 154 saves over 641 innings of work, with a peak that, in a way, no one has ever reached. He was a two-time All-Star, and was one of the game’s better relievers for half a decade.
Really appreciative of the responses. I was just a kid that wanted to play baseball but to know how much support I had from so many people, many I don’t know. Means a lot. Thank you all.— Zack Britton (@zbritton) November 20, 2023