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Reliever: The 2016 All-MLB Team

He might not strike you out, but he will get you out.

Last week I asked you to imagine a scenario in which you are the General Manager of a new MLB expansion team, and you can pick one player from all of baseball for each position. This is obviously pure fiction; in real expansion scenarios, existing teams can “protect” 10–15 players from the expansion’s supplemental draft, meaning that the expansion team can’t choose any real all-stars, and instead has to go bargain hunting among benchwarmers. But the Nashville Ninjas don’t belong in the real universe, so I’m lifting those restrictions and assembling what is essentially an all-MLB team. Last week, I explained it this way: The folks I’ve chosen aren’t necessarily the best at their position, but they are high-ceiling guys who are young (for the most part) and are likely to provide their franchises with the most value at their position — both in wins and in fans — over the next decade or so.

Last week I drafted Noah Syndergaard to anchor the rotation; this week we need a closer. The names at the top of this list should be obvious: Chapman, Miller, Betances, Jansen. But after a breakout season in 2016, I’m going to draft Zach Britton, last year’s AL leader in Saves (47).

Zach Britton, the Orioles’ resident Mariano Rivera impersonator.

The twenty-nine year old has been in the Orioles organization since 2006, when he recorded four losses with a worrisome 5.29 ERA in 34 innings as a starter for the Rookie Leauge Bluefield Orioles. Although his numbers (mostly) steadily improved, it wasn’t until his move to the bullpen in the spring of 2014 that Britton was actually good. And in 2016, Britton’s performance was eye-popping enough to warrant discussions about the Cy Young Award.

Can you tell when Britton moved to the bullpen?

It’s understandable why he’d be in the conversation. He allowed four earned runs across 67 innings of work — by far the lowest in baseball among relievers with at least 50 IP. Chapman’s 10 earned runs trail Britton’s at a distant second, and those runs happened in only 58 innings. Britton was the only qualified reliever to post an ERA less than one (0.54). This is even more impressive considering that only 8 other relievers posted an ERA less than two, and the closest of those to Britton was Andrew Miller at 1.45. The argument against Britton here is that he benefited at least some from good defensive luck, but even his FIP of 1.94 is elite, behind only Chapman (1.42), Jansen (1.44), Miller (1.68), and Betances (1.78).

Britton’s FIP has been declining while the rest of baseball’s is going up.

In fact, the only reason that Britton’s FIP isn’t the best in baseball — although it has been steadily improving while the MLB average has been deteriorating — is because of his low strikeout numbers. But Britton isn’t a strikeout artist. He doesn’t have Chapman’s triple digit numbers or Miller’s absurd horizontal slider movement. He doesn’t win pitching battles by blowing a ball by a batter or making it appear invisible. Instead, his skill is one that — as Mariano Rivera’s career would suggest — is less prone to fatigue: the ability to induce ground balls. Since 2014, Britton’s ground ball inducement rate has never been lower than 75%, and in 2016 it was a league-leading 80%. To put that in perspective, Dellin Betances’ rate is 53.9%. Britton’s Line Drive inducement rate (11.3%) also leads relievers, as does his fly ball rate (8.8%). And when opponents hit fly balls, they don’t leave the park — he was one of only five relievers last year to pitch at least 50 innings and allow only one home run.

Zach Britton is by far the best pitcher in baseball at getting batters to hit ground balls.

These incredible metrics are due to the success of his sinker, which he throws 92.2% of the time at an average velocity of 96.3 miles per hour. It’s been ranked as one of the best pitches in baseball, and with good reason. In the clip below, watch how the ball comes out of the high release point and then plunges south just as it crosses the plate. It’s really impressive.

So Zach Britton is my chosen reliever for the Nashville Ninjas. He’s done a great job at transitioning to a new role mid-career (not the first time he’s had a comeback story), and it’s worked for him for the last three years. Although he doesn’t throw high heat, his reliance on a Rivera-like approach makes me excited about his longevity. After all, the kid’s only 29. He has time to get even better.

Honorable Mentions:

Aroldis Chapman: I wouldn’t want him in my clubhouse on character issues alone. But Chapman is also overly reliant on a pitch that is overly reliant on his elbow and shoulder health. He turns 29 next month, and you can only throw 103-mph pitches for so long. Ask Kyle Farnsworth how his career went after he turned 29.

Andrew Miller: I love the Andrew Miller slider almost as much as I love the Zach Britton sinker. But at the end of the day, I don’t want a reliever who will give up 8 home runs in 74 innings of work. I want a high-leverage guy who will need to get beaten base by base, not by a single hit that clears the bleachers.

Kenley Jansen: There’s a lot to love about Jansen, and I think there’s even a case to be made for him being the best reliever in all of baseball. In 2016, his 104 Ks were fourth in baseball, his FIP (1.44) was second, and his batting average allowed (.150) was second. He tied Zach Britton for Saves (47) and trailed only Jeurys Familia in the National League. But Britton’s just more interesting to me.

Many thanks to the folks at Fangraphs and Baseball Reference for making all of the data available.

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Zac Crippen

Zac Crippen

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I’m interested in telling stories about people and baseball. Host of @VernacularPod, and Lead Writer at @3rdStringPod.