Dominant Britton gives O's one clear Wild Card edge
Everyone has struggled vs. closer this year -- including Toronto
By Matt Kelly
The biggest news to come out of Monday's workout day in Toronto was that the Orioles' Chris Tillman would be opposing the Blue Jays' Marcus Stroman to begin the American League Wild Card Game on Tuesday (TBS and Sportsnet, 8 p.m. ET). But one could argue that just as much attention should be paid to who will be on the mound at the end of the game.
That's because the Orioles may have a serious advantage if they're able to trot out their best pitcher to close out the game.
Starting pitchers averaged just 5 2/3 innings per game this season, and bullpens have meant more than ever in the Wild Card Game era. Relief pitchers have won 41.3 percent of postseason games played since 2012.
With that in mind, closer Zach Britton could be critical to the Orioles' chances on Tuesday and potentially beyond. Britton unequivocally enjoyed one of the best seasons we've ever seen from a reliever, and has a legitimate case to become the first relief pitcher to win a Cy Young Award since Eric Gagne in 2003. That's fitting, seeing how Britton just joined Gagne in some exclusive company.
.@zbritton finished the regular season in record-breaking style.
Britton's 0.54 ERA (four earned runs allowed over 67 innings pitched) is the lowest of any pitcher to ever throw at least 65 innings in a season. Britton's ERA- (a stat measuring how a pitcher's ERA compares to the league average, where 100 is average) was a microscopic 12, way lower than second-place Andrew Miller's 34. And for those who question how much value a reliever can contribute as opposed to starters, Britton's 6.14 win probability added again far outpaces second-place Miller (4.79), along with starters Jon Lester (4.56) and Clayton Kershaw (4.19).
A total of 254 batters came up to the plate against Britton, and only 38 were able to get a hit off him. Those who did make contact weren't able to do much damage, either: The Orioles closer allowed just one home run all season (to Boston's Mookie Betts way back on April 11 -- Britton's fourth appearance of the year), and a total of nine extra-base hits.
As if those numbers aren't enough to give a pitcher confidence, Britton's been particularly dominant against the Blue Jays. Toronto is one of 16 teams who failed to score an earned run on Britton's watch, and out of 28 Blue Jays batters who came to the plate, only five managed to even make it to first base against the left-hander via a single or a walk.
Britton solidified himself as a household name in 2016, but he's far from a one-year wonder. After bottoming out as a starter in 2013, Britton's 1.38 ERA is the lowest of any pitcher who's tossed at least 200 innings since the start of the 2014 season. The Blue Jays have hit just .182 (14-for-77), scored a total of three earned runs and hit just two doubles in 24 innings against Britton since he moved to the bullpen full-time.
And if Britton goes more than one inning, as he may very well be asked to do Tuesday, history shows he's been just as dominant. The southpaw has exceeded an inning on the mound 23 times over the last three years, allowing just two runs (only one of them earned) on 18 hits.
Tillman will try to overcome a career 5.44 ERA against Toronto, and Stroman has been far from the dominant ace many expected him to be in 2016. That means Tuesday's AL Wild Card, like many playoff games in recent years, could come down to a battle of bullpens. If it does, the Orioles have a serious ace in the hole.
Matt Kelly is a reporter for MLB.com based in New York. Follow him on Twitter at @mattkellyMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.