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Zach Britton and the luck factor

Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

Baltimore Orioles closer Zach Britton is having a face-melting season, to put it mildly. Britton has been one of the most dominant relievers since his permanent move to the bullpen in 2014, posting Deserved Run Average marks of 2.31, 1.55 and 2.24 in each of those three seasons, respectively.

To say that his 2016 campaign has been surprising would be a stretch, but he appears to be on another level.

Britton has posted an inhuman 0.57 ERA to go along with the 2.24 DRA in 47 innings of work. Pair that with a 32 percent strikeout rate and only one home run given up so far, and you’re looking at an absolute monster on the hill.

Everyone knows how Britton does it. He throws sinker after sinker after sinker, generating oodles of ground balls. One would assume that a pitcher with such a profile must generate weak contact. According to Baseball Info Solutions’ data, Britton has generated 32.4 percent of soft contact on balls in play this season, tops in all of baseball. That squares with our assumptions.

Here’s the thing, though: BIS is wrong. How do we know? Statcast.

Statcast is the tracking system installed in all 30 ballparks, tasked with gathering precise information on everything that happens on the field, from how hard a ball is hit to the vertical angle that it comes off the bat. When you hear about exit velocity or launch angle on baseball broadcasts, that information is coming from Statcast.

Statcast is by no means perfect–it combines radar and optical tracking systems, rather than using a full radar system. We know that optical systems can be less precise, and can occasionally lead to inaccurate data points. Furthermore, park effects actually seem to be stronger with regard to exit velocity than one might assume. So we have to take Statcast data with a grain of salt. Zach Britton’s batted ball data seems to be too consistent to discount it, however.

Hitters have put 62 of Britton’s pitches into play this year. Of those balls, more than 48 percent of them clocked an exit velocity above 95 miles per hour. That’s a lot! Hitters are averaging 92.6 miles per hour on balls in play against Britton. That’s one of the highest in the majors.

I generously set a parameter of 80 miles per hour or lower to determine softly hit balls. Britton’s rate of those balls in play is only 19.4 percent, a much narrower rate than the 32.4 percent that BIS claims.

You might think that hard-hit fly balls and line drives may be skewing that figure. Indeed, Britton is a ground ball machine. No one has given up more ground balls in baseball than Britton since 2014. Yet, Britton’s average exit velocity on ground balls is 90.2 miles per hour, one of the worst marks in baseball.

If Britton is allowing much more hard contact than we think, then we could be excused for thinking that he may be getting lucky when the ball is put into play. An 0.57 ERA is ridiculously low, and given how many ground balls Britton generates, his defense could be bailing him out. Manny Machado, Jonathan Schoop and Chris Davis are no slouches with the gloves, and J.J. Hardy holds his own at shortstop.

We can push that further with Britton’s closest ground ball comp, Hector Rondon of the Cubs. Rondon has had a great year, but he doesn’t carry Britton’s reputation. Yet, Rondon is in many ways the same pitcher as Britton.

Rondon’s average exit velocity on ground balls is 90.3 miles per hour, essentially equal to Britton. Britton gives up a .180 batting average on balls in play with ground balls. Rondon has given up a .163 BABIP on grounders. Rondon generates fewer grounders than Britton (everybody does), but it doesn’t appear that Britton has any unique contact suppression skill on that batted ball type. Rondon has equaled Britton’s strikeout rate while beating his walk rate by almost five percent in a comparable amount of innings. Maybe Britton is just getting lucky. Maybe, just maybe, Rondon is having the better season.

Nope. Rondon is no Zach Britton. Britton generates more ground balls than anyone in baseball. Ground ball volume has value, because more outs can be made. Britton’s ground balls aren’t just anyone’s ground balls, though. Britton’s average launch angle sits at -1.8 degrees this year. Only Jarred Cosart and Jeurys Familia sport lower numbers. By contrast, Rondon is averaging a 13.2-degree launch angle this year, and as such, he’s let four balls go over the fence. Britton mitigates all that hard contact, then, by making sure hitters literally drive the ball straight into the ground. Those extreme launch angles seem are neutralizing how hard he’s getting hit.

The only question with Britton becomes whether he can sustain these kinds of extremes. I would offer a hesitant yes, especially since his strikeout rate is so good. Britton has been the best ground ball pitcher in baseball for almost three years running, and that lethal sinker can ring guys up, too. We don’t yet have a full grasp of launch angle as a skill, but what is clear is that if you sit at the top of the pile, it doesn’t much matter how hard guys hit you. They’re still going to lose.

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