Zach Britton was supposed to be the Fourth Horseman. He was supposed to combine with Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta, and Chris Tillman to form a stalwart rotation able enough to take down the AL East superpowers. TINSTAAPP rules, of course, then took effect. Matusz is now in the bullpen. Arrieta is back in Triple-A, and he may end up in the bullpen. Tillman lost his velocity and his spot in the rotation, and then, out of nowhere, he re-found his velocity and a spot in the rotation … for now. Britton’s career has been just as adventurous.
Britton debuted on April 3, 2011. He had been a Top-100 prospect for two years, and Baseball America had just named him the 28th-best prospect in baseball. That first season went fairly smoothly at the beginning. His strikeout and walk rates were below-average – 15% and 9%, respectively – but his groundball rate of 1.86 was enough to make him basically a league-average pitcher over 154 innings, netting him 2 wins of value that season. The trouble, however, started toward the middle of the season as rumors of shoulder issues began to surface.
Britton would begin 2012 on the disabled list, and he wouldn’t make his debut until the middle of July. His strikeout rate rose to 20%, but his walk rose to 12%. It didn’t help that his home run rate jumped to 14%, but even if you try to remove the variance in home run rates, Britton’s xFIP had risen from 4.00 to 4.32 and was no longer a league-average pitcher. When 2013 rolled around, he was optioned to Triple-A to start the season.
I took in one of the left-hander’s starts last night as Norfolk played Louisville, and I was curious to see how he looked. The delivery was nothing different from his days in the majors. He starts off in a standard motion from the left side of the rubber (catcher’s perspective), but he takes a short stride slightly toward the first base line. The short stride indicates that he’s not using his muscular legs as much as he probably should, and throwing across his body likely helped contribute toward his shoulder issues from 2011-2012. The arm motion is also a little stiff, and there’s not much of a follow-through. These factors combine to make one worry about his control and his future health.
The shoulder and the stuff, however, appear very healthy at the moment. The sinker that made Britton a household name sat in the low-90s and touched 93 a few times with excellent sink, getting him ten groundouts to two flyouts in the game. Britton added a slider in the low-80s, and while he failed to finish a few of them, the pitch generally had excellent downward movement and missed a few bats. The only problem was that he didn’t always locate the pitch particularly well, but he was able to throw it for strikes for most of the evening. To the fastball and slider, he added a change-up that sat 84 mph-to-86 mph with solid sink and tail, but he threw it only a handful of times and didn’t locate it well at all.
Overall, Britton threw three average-or-better pitches in terms of pure stuff, but his location – always a problem – remains an issue, although he did command the fastball well in this one. So far in 2013, the walk rate suggests that the control has been a problem throughout the season as his walk rate sits at 10%. During last night’s game, Britton didn’t walk a batter, but he seemed to focus on commanding the sinker against a poor Bats offense that couldn’t make solid contact. Britton still has control issues at age-25, and it is hard to see where he’s going to make significant strides if he hasn’t already.
Getting back to the question that inspired this article, can Britton get back to performing at least capably in the majors? I believe the answer is yes, but I do wonder about the role. The positive from this evening was that the stuff remains intact. He still has that power sinker and a breaking ball that can get swings-and-misses. But the control can be a problem when he can’t just throw sinkers all the time. I’d hate to move a guy with three pitches from the rotation, especially when he’s maintaining his velocity.
The walks and the delivery do concern me, though, and I can see a Jim Johnson-like reliever – just a left-handed version – as an alternative path without the same injury risk. Britton can get groundballs and might see his walk rate decrease if he can focus on just the sinker and slider. Zach Britton is 25, and while it’s too early to give up on the idea of him as a starter because the Orioles do need starting pitching, that moment is rapidly approaching.
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