Zach Britton is officially retiring from baseball after a 12-year big league career, the 35-year-old pitcher told The Athletic in an exclusive interview earlier this month. Britton was a two-time All-Star with three 30-save seasons, including an American League-leading season in 2016. He spent seven and a half seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and the next four and a half with the New. York Yankees. The left-hander would finish his career with 154 career saves, a 35-26 record and a 3.13 ERA in 442 games (641 innings).
After rushing back from Tommy John rehab in 2022 and trying to help the Yankees in the playoffs, Britton said he began to think about a career decline. Britton appeared in three regular season games and recorded just two hits. He left his final appearance on September 30 with arm strain and was placed back on the injured list the following day. He won’t throw another big-league pitch.
“My last game was against the Orioles. I threw a ball as a backstop in the final push; “I think about that and it’s really bad,” Britton said, citing his desire to spend more time with his four children as the reason for his retirement. “It may not be perfect from a career standpoint or a high level, but it’s not always a choice. On the other hand, my gut was telling me it was time to see what life was like.”
Britton, a third-round draft pick by Baltimore in 2006, credits hard work and opportunity to his longevity in the MLB. Asked what he would tell his 18-year-old self about the journey, Britton said: “It’s going to be harder than I thought to play in the majors for a long time. Whether it’s injuries or mental episodes, it’s been 12 months out of the year, working, playing, trying to keep your edge on the guys who come after you.
“I[say to myself]it really eats away at your friendships and your family. Everyone talks about the money and obviously, the reward is worth it because you start playing at a young age and take care of your family and your parents. (This does not mean) that it was not difficult. I think the best thing that’s happened to me is having (my wife) Courtney, even though I struggle mentally to be present and I don’t think about baseball all the time. The most important part is the people you surround yourself with away from the game because this sport can be brutally honest.”
He and Courtney met when they were in elementary school. In the year She graduated from Southern Methodist University with a law degree in 2012 and helped out in support during Britton’s time in the minor leagues. She gave up her career and worked until they had children so that Zach could pursue him. Their four children are now 9, 7, 4 and 2 years old.
“(Hearing) got things done and got me a seat all these years,” Britton said. “My personality, I couldn’t imagine doing that to someone, it’s so selfless to drop everything and let them continue their work. She gets no appreciation, no one writes about her. Sometimes I thought I was making too many sacrifices, but what she did for me, do I have a (perspective)? If I had five lifetimes, I couldn’t repay her.”
Outside of his family, Britton credits the Orioles’ minor leagues as a player and person moving around small towns, staying with host families and seeing different parts of the country. Minor-league managers Lenny Johnston and Kenny Steenstra were two of his mentors—as a young father himself, Steenstra served as an example to Britton of what it was like to be a good father in the game. “If there was one person who had a big influence on me, it was him,” Britton said.
In the year Former Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace and former Orioles bullpen coach Dom Chitty, who worked extensively with Britton in their first year together in 2014 — when he moved to the bullpen and became one of the game’s premier arms — also hold special places. Britton still talks to both of them and remembers the first offseason trip the coaches took to meet in California when he was out of options and unsure if the job would take off.
Former Orioles executive Brady Anderson encouraged Britton to adopt a “this is your job” mentality. Take responsibility for it,” Britton said, adding that he never worked harder than he did in spring training that winter and then going into that 2014 season. He hoped some team would roll the dice if he didn’t make the Orioles out of camp. Courtney was pregnant and Britton knew he had to go all out on his career. He succeeded: He made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster and recorded his first save on May 15. He earned a pair of postseason saves in the O’s AL by using a devastating dive to convert 37 of his 41 saves, the team’s first in the season. Detroit Tigers Division Series Sweep.
“Playing for the Yankees was special, being able to take my family to all-star games was great,” Britton said. “But when I look back on my career, I’m most proud of that season and how I spent the offseason.”
Britton He was an All-Star in 2015 and finished third in AL saves. The following season, he allowed just four runs in 67 innings (69 games), breaking the MLB record for lowest single-season ERA (0.54) by a pitcher (minimum 50 innings). Britton went 43 games without giving up an earned run and continued his save streak dating back to September 2015, converting 47 innings with a 0.836 WHIP. His successful savings journey ended at 60 in August 2017. Later that season, Britton tore his Achilles and was sidelined until mid-June. The Yankees took a chance at the July trade deadline in exchange for Dillon Tate, Cody Carroll and Josh Rodgers. Britton re-signed to a three-year deal with an option before 2019, in part because of general manager Brian Cashman’s belief in a midseason deal. The other part was that Britton wanted more rings if he wanted to pad his savings numbers, so he took the opportunity to close New York’s offer elsewhere.
“When you put on that uniform and walk into the clubhouse, his story hits you,” Britton said of playing in pinstripes. “The whole experience of being a Yankee is amazing. One of the most famous sports teams in the world is playing; The way they treat you and the things you experience – I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I wish I could have won the World Series there. I wouldn’t have hurt as much as I did. That was special.
Britton had a sub-2 ERA in 19 starts and his streak was brief in 2020 before injuries became a problem. In the year He underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in March 2021. Six months later, after struggling with a 5.89 ERA in 18 1/3 innings, Britton underwent season-ending Tommy John surgery. In the interim, he had the lowest moment of his career: a walk-off save in the Field of Dreams game at Iowa.
“I remember breaking my iPad,” Britton said. “I wasn’t playing well, I know I want Tommy John and you want to compete for your team. (Former Orioles manager) Buck (Showalter) used to say, ‘You’re never defined at your worst,’ and I thought about that the next day. If it was my worst season in the big leagues, I had a pretty damn good career. That quote has always stuck with me. I don’t think Buck’s (managerial job) should be defined by not giving in a game (in the Orioles’ 2016 AL Wild Card loss to Toronto). I have a lot of respect for Buck and that quote really helped me get through it.
Britton — who spent years as part of the Players’ Union executive subcommittee — likes learning about other parts of the game. He asks a lot of questions of front office members and says being part of the union and collective bargaining has exposed him to the larger baseball ecosystem. Asked how to fix a fourth-place Yankees team that hasn’t won a World Series since 2009, Britton said New York needs to get its aura back.
“When I was with the Orioles, you threatened to play them. They had a lot of talent. You didn’t want to go to New York the way they carried themselves because they were so intimidating, and I feel like we lost a little bit of that when I was there,” Britton said. “How do you go back there? To me, with the Yankees budget, they should get the best players. To some extent, they are building power plants to make it a place where people want to play. I remember hearing people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to New York,’ and it just blew my mind.
“It was very eye-opening, talking to the opposing players and saying, ‘It’s not the same going in there; It’s not intimidating as a place.’ When I was a young player, the highlight was playing for the Yankees because they were so good. I don’t know one thing to answer them, but those (old) teams would beat you in many ways. They were very well rounded. It wasn’t, ‘Oh, let’s just put it in the ball.’ They can walk you alone to death. I think they have to find a way to get back there.
Britton hasn’t ruled out a future in baseball one day — perhaps in the front office — but now he’s waiting for his break. The kids seemed happy with him in Texas, Courtney told him, and that helped him make peace with his decision. As a free agent last spring, Britton worked out for several teams. He had a few offers but his heart wasn’t 100 percent in it. He chatted with his agent, Scott Boras, who aired things in March.
“You’ll never regret spending more time with your kids,” Scott said. And that really hit home,” Britton said. “I came away from it thinking, ‘Wow, OK, maybe the things I’m feeling are good things. I did everything I wanted to do in the game, except win the World Series. I played more than I thought I would. A lot of it is luck, let’s be honest. There are a lot of talented guys who can’t play for 12 years. So I’m very grateful for that. The trip was, to be honest, special. I’ve never been good at two things and now it’s time to be all-rounder in my family.”
(Top photo: by Elsa / Getty Images)