Zack 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 under his belt, including an American League-leading season in 2016. He spent seven and a half seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and the following four and a half with the New York Yankees. The left-hander finishes his career with 154 career saves, a 35-26 record and 3.13 ERA in 442 games (641 innings).
Britton said he started to think about his career winding down in 2022 after he rushed back from Tommy John rehab to try to help the Yankees in the playoffs. Britton appeared in three regular-season games and recorded just two outs. He exited his final appearance on Sept. 30 with arm fatigue and was put back on the injured list the following day. He wouldn’t throw another big-league pitch.
“My last outing was against the Orioles. I threw a ball to the backstop as my last pitch; I think about that and it sucks,” said Britton, who cited a desire to spend more time with his four children as a reason for his retirement. “It might not have been perfect from a career standpoint or going out on a high note, but you don’t always get to pick. My gut was telling me it was time to see what life was like on the other side.”
Britton, a third-round pick draft pick by Baltimore in 2006, credited hard work and luck for his longevity in MLB. Asked what he would tell his 18-year-old self about the journey, Britton said: “It’s going to be way harder than I thought to play a long time in the majors. Whether it’s injuries or the mental component, it was 12 months out of the year, working out, playing, trying to keep your edge on guys who are coming after your job.
“I would (tell 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 get to be done playing young and take care of your family and parents. (But that) doesn’t mean it wasn’t difficult. I think the best thing that happened to me was having (my wife) Courtney, even though I struggled mentally to be present and not 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. She graduated from Southern Methodist University with a law degree in 2012 and helped support Britton while he was in the minor leagues. She worked until they had kids, giving up her career to let Zack chase his. Their four children are now ages 9, 7, 4 and 2.
“(Courtney) had accomplished things and took a backseat to me for all these years,” Britton said. “My personality, I couldn’t imagine doing that for somebody, giving up everything so they can pursue their career is really selfless. She doesn’t get accolades, there’s no one writing about her. I thought at times I was sacrificing a lot, but (having the) perspective of what she’s done for me? I couldn’t repay her if I had five lifetimes.”
Outside of his family, Britton credits the Orioles minor leagues with helping him mature as a player and a person while traveling through the small towns, staying with host families and seeing different parts of the country. Minor-league managers Lenny Johnston and Kennie Steenstra were two of his mentors — as a young father himself, Steenstra served as an example to Britton on what being a good dad in the game could look like. “If there was one guy who had the biggest impact on me, it was him,” Britton said.
Former Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace and former Orioles bullpen coach Dom Chiti, who worked extensively with Britton in their first year together in 2014 — when he would move to the bullpen and become one of the game’s most dominant arms — also hold a special place. Britton still talks to both and remembers the coaches’ first offseason trip to meet him in California when he was out of options and uncertain if his career would ever take off.
Former Orioles executive Brady Anderson encouraged Britton to take the mindset of “This is your career; take responsibility for it.” Britton says he never put in more work than during that winter and subsequent spring training heading into that 2014 season. If he didn’t make the Orioles out of camp, he hoped some team would roll the dice on him. Courtney was pregnant and Britton knew he had to go all-in on his career. It worked out: he made the Orioles’ Opening Day roster and recorded his first save on May 15. Using a devastating sinker, he converted 37 of 41 saves as the team’s primary closer that season and earned a pair of postseason saves in the O’s AL Division Series sweep of the Detroit Tigers.
“Playing for the Yankees was special, being able to take my family to All-Star Games was really cool, too,” Britton said. “But when I look back at my career, I think what I’m most proud of is that offseason and how I handled a time that was make-or-break for me.”
Britton was an All-Star in 2015 and finished third in the AL in saves. The following season, he allowed a mere four earned runs over 67 innings (69 games) which broke the MLB record for lowest-single season ERA (0.54) by a pitcher (minimum 50 innings). Britton went 43 outings without giving up an earned run and continued a consecutive save streak that dated back to September 2015 in converting all 47 chances with a 0.836 WHIP. His successful save streak ended at 60 in August of 2017. That offseason, Britton ruptured his Achilles which kept him out until mid-June. The Yankees took a chance on him anyway, acquiring him at July’s trade deadline in exchange for Dillon Tate, Cody Carroll and Josh Rogers. Britton re-signed a three-year deal with an option prior to 2019, in part because of general manager Brian Cashman’s faith in him in the midseason deal. The other part was Britton wanted a ring more than he wanted to pad his save numbers, so he took New York’s offer over chances to close elsewhere.
“Putting on that uniform and walking into the clubhouse, the history of it hits you,” Britton said of playing in pinstripes. “The whole experience of being a Yankee is impressive. You are playing for one of the most recognized sports teams in the world; the way they treat you, and the things you get — I wouldn’t trade that experience for the world. I wish I had won a World Series there. I wish I hadn’t been injured as much as I had. That was special.”
Britton had a sub-2 ERA in ’19 and a pandemic-shortened 2020 before injuries became an issue. He went underwent arthroscopic elbow surgery in March of 2021. Six months later, after struggling to the tune of 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 blown save in the Field of Dreams game played in Iowa.
“I remember smashing my iPad,” Britton said. “I wasn’t pitching well, I knew I needed Tommy John and you just want to step up for your team. (Former Orioles manager) Buck (Showalter) used to say, ‘You are never defined by your worst moment,’ and I thought about that the next day. If that’s my worst moment in the big leagues, I had a pretty damn good career. That quote always stuck with me. I don’t think Buck’s (managing career) should be defined by me not pitching in a game (in the Orioles’ 2016 AL Wild Card loss in Toronto). I have a lot of respect for Buck and that quote really helped me get over (that) blown save.”
Britton — who spent years as part of the players union’s executive subcommittee — loves learning about other parts of the game. He asks a lot of questions of front office members and said that being part of the union and collective bargaining exposed him to the larger ecosystem of baseball. Asked how he would fix a fourth-place Yankees team that hasn’t won a World Series since 2009, Britton said New York has to get its aura back.
“When I was with the Orioles, you were intimidated to play them. They had so much talent. The way they carried themselves, you didn’t want to go to New York because they were so imposing and I feel like we lost a little of that when I was there,” Britton said. “How do you get back to that? For me, with the Yankees’ budget, they should get the best players. They have, to some extent, but really building powerhouses to make it a place people want to play. I remember hearing people say, ‘Oh, I don’t want to go to New York,’ and it blew my mind.
“That was the most eye-opening thing, talking to opposing players and them saying, ‘It’s not the same coming in there; it’s not as intimidating as a place.’ When I was a young player, the pinnacle was to play for the Yankees because they were so good. I don’t know the one thing to get them back but those (older) teams used to beat you in so many ways. They were so well-rounded. It wasn’t ‘Oh, let’s just keep it in the ballpark.’ They could single you to death, steal a base, walk. I think they’ve got to find a way to get back to that.”
Britton hasn’t ruled out a future in baseball someday — perhaps in the front office — but for now, he’s looking forward to the break. His kids seem happier with him at home in Texas, Courtney told him, and that has helped him be at peace with the decision. This past spring as a free agent, Britton worked out for several teams. He had a few offers, but his heart wasn’t 100 percent into it. In March, he had a talk with his agent, Scott Boras, that sealed things.
“Scott said, ‘You will never regret spending more time with your kids.’ And that really hit home,” Britton said. “Coming from him, I was like, ‘Wow, OK, maybe the things I’m feeling are good things. I’ve done everything I wanted to do in the game, other than win a World Series. I played a lot longer than I thought. A lot of it is luck, let’s be honest. There’s a lot of talented guys who don’t get to play for 12 years. So I’m very grateful for that. It was the journey, honestly, that was special. I was never great at being good at two things and now it’s time to be all-in on my family.”
(Top photo: by Elsa / Getty Images)