Zach Britton’s rookie season was both predictable and surprising. The 23-year-old left-hander went 11-11 and 4.61, in 28 starts — numbers that could reasonably be expected from a highly regarded first-year hurler competing in baseball’s toughest division. How he arrived at them was the unexpected part.
Britton went into the year rated as the Orioles’ top pitching prospect, thanks in part to a power sinker that was lauded as “the best in the minor leagues” and a slider that graded out as plus. His 2.8 GB/FB rate in 2010 complemented his scouting report, and his 2.43 K/BB was rock solid.
In his first season in Baltimore, Britton wasn’t nearly the same pitcher. He more than held his own against big-league hitters, but in a different way. In the future, that’s probably a good thing — but only if he can recapture the worm-killing magic that led to the hype.
David Laurila: How would you describe your rookie season?
Zach Britton: It’s been a big learning experience with a lot of ups and a lot of downs. Going forward, I need to find a way to be more consistent with everything. Being able to go deeper into games is a big thing for me, and next year I’d like to go into the seventh or eighth inning every time out.
DL: What has surprised you?
ZB: I’d say it’s the grind — how tough the innings are compared to the minor leagues. You don’t realize — until you get here — just how tough each inning is at this level. Everyone in the lineup, for the most part, is a very good hitter. There are no letups, whereas in the minors you might have a good one-through-four and after that you’ll face a fill-in guy here and there. You kind of have a little bit of wiggle room to make mistakes. Up here you don’t, especially in this division.
DL: Is some of that a psychological grind? As a rookie pitcher, have you felt an added sense of pressure facing big-league lineups?
ZB: I know what you’re saying, but it’s not necessarily pressure. It’s probably the need to focus, more than anything. You have to make sure that you’re focused for every single hitter and in every situation.
DL: At what point of the season did the game slow down for you?
ZB: In my first 12 to 14 starts, the game didn’t really speed up on me at all. I think that facing the same teams a couple of times kind of sped it up for me, but it really hasn’t gotten out of control except for those few occasions. Overall, I feel that I’ve been able to slow the game down.
DL: Your BABiP is right around league average. Are your overall numbers pretty indicative of how you’ve pitched?
ZB: I haven’t stared too much at them, but I’d say that they’re pretty true, for the most part. I’d also say that some them are inflated from two outings. Against New York and Boston, I couldn’t get out of the first inning. If you take away those games, I think I’ve had a pretty solid year. That’s the way I’m looking at it, and I think the staff is as well. You obviously can’t take those two starts out of the equation, but if you do, I’ve been fine.
DL: How concerned are you with your [1.56] BB/K rate?
ZB: I know that it could be better, obviously. I’m not going to be a guy who strikes out a ton of people; I’ll never lead the league in strikeouts. And with the movement I have, I’m going to walk guys. That’s something I can improve upon as I get older and more experienced, though. I can learn to make better adjustments.
DL: Why do you feel you won’t log a lot of strikeouts?
ZB: Because I pitch to contact. If I get a guy 0-2, I’m not necessarily looking to strike him out; I’m looking to get him to hit a ground ball. It’s a mindset. I’m not a huge believer in having to strike guys out in order to be successful. I’d rather keep my defense on their toes and get outs. Most times, when I strike guys out, it’s not on three or four pitches; it usually takes five, six or seven. Pitching to contact allows me to be more efficient.
DL: Do you feel a need to expand your repertoire when hitters work long at bats against you?
ZB: Not always. It depends on the hitter and the situation. For the most part, I continue to go after them with my fastball. I’m pretty confident sticking with my fastball, because if I locate it, I know I’m going to be successful.
DL: Your ground-ball rate is 53%. Are you satisfied with that?
ZB: I think it could be better. I think it will be better. I kind of went through a stretch where I lost a little bit of feel for my sinker. Not necessarily the movement, but my command, so I went away from it and started throwing more four-seam fastballs.
Up here, it’s crucial to stay ahead of hitters. Once they know you’re not going to throw a certain pitch in the strike zone, they’re going to lay off of it. I had to go to my four-seam fastball more often — maybe a four-game stretch — and I got a lot of fly ball outs. Once I fine-tune the command of my sinker, that number should get better.
DL: According to Pitch-FX, you’ve thrown your two-seamer 52.9% of the time this season. I assume that’s low for you?
ZB: It’s very low. In the minors it was probably close to 80%. This year, there are a lot of different things I’ve done and I think I just kind of lost the feel for it a little bit. I need to focus on getting that back this off-season. Like I said, I’ve gone to a lot more four-seams, but I think that is actually going to benefit me. Having a pitch that’s straighter than my sinker gives me two different looks. I’ve also got my four up to 96 mph this year, and I obviously don’t get the sinker that high.
DL: Some hitters are less-effective against high fastballs than pitches down in the zone. Does that influence your approach?
ZB: That’s something I’ve learned, too. You can go to your strengths against a guy’s strengths as much as you want, but there comes a time where you have to make an adjustment. I’ve started pitching up in the zone a little bit more, which could have resulted me getting more fly ball outs. It’s a different look for me. I want to get the ball down in the zone, and get ground balls, so if I’m able to pitch up — show them pitches up — it will help me get them off that low pitch.
DL: When a batter steps to the plate, do you know if he’s a high-ball hitter or a low-ball hitter?
ZB: For the most part, I know the guy’s tendencies. I know what they do, but that doesn’t necessarily dictate what I’m going to do. My whole philosophy of pitching is to go to my strengths, rather than thinking too much about their strengths. As a pitcher, you have the odds in your favor. You’re going to beat their strengths 99% of the time if you execute. It all comes back to the execution. But, like I said, in the at bat, if I feel that he’s done a good job of battling the pitches down, I’ll elevate.
DL: Does the need to elevate mostly go out the window if you have great command of your sinker?
ZB; Definitely. It all depends on what you have that day, and how to make those adjustments is something I’m learning. The ability to make in-game adjustments is very important, especially up here. With as good as these hitters are, you’re not going to last very long if you can’t do that.
DL: Outside of going with more four-seamers, what kind of adjustments can you make when your sinker is moving too much to keep in the zone?
ZB: You can change a few things. You can change your sight. But, for me — it might be different for other guys who throw a sinker — when it’s moving a lot, it’s very tough even to change the sights on it, because it just continues to move. For me, it’s more about just establishing the four-seam for strikes. I’m not shying away from the sinker, but rather mostly just using it when I’m ahead in the count.
DL: Why does it move so much at times? Is it a matter of how you’re gripping it?
ZB: I know that I throw it with a unique grip. I’ve had other people try the grip and it’s never moved for them.… For some guys it has a little bit. I think it’s just the way I throw it, along with my arm action.
Most people think it looks like a curveball grip — a traditional curveball grip. I show it to them and they say, “Is that a curveball?” I say, “No, it’s my sinker.” If you talk to a lot of pitchers, they’ll say that a grip simply works for them. It may look funky to everybody else, but it just depends on what works for you.
DL: According to PitchFX, you’re throwing your changeup 15% of the time and your slider 11%. Does that sound about right?
ZB: I don’t think so. I don’t know the percentages, but throughout a game, I throw a lot of changeups to go with my fastball. Whether I throw a lot of sliders depends on the situation, but that’s also a pitch I haven’t had a great feel for this year. I’ve mostly been throwing a lot of fastballs and changeups.
[A pitch] can kind of look like anything. If you’re not here charting, or even if you are, unless you know exactly what a pitch is doing.… I don’t have a 20-mph difference on my changeup, so I guess people might mix that [up] with anything.
DL: The average speed on your changeup has been 86 mph. Are you throwing it too hard?
ZB: No, I don’t think so. I think the hitters will tell you if you’re throwing it too hard, and I still get a lot of out-front swings. That’s something I talk to [pitching coach] Rick Adair about. Even Jim Palmer. I said, “I think my changeup is too hard,” and he said, ‘What are you talking about? Guys are swinging and missing, and hitting it off the end of the bat.”
It comes down to your arm action and what the hitters are doing. If they’re squaring it up, that tells you that it’s too hard, and I haven’t had that problem. Like they say, “Don’t mess with it if it’s not broken.” Maybe there have been a few times where I’ve throw it too hard, but overall I think the speed difference is fine.
DL: Is it your second-best pitch right now?
ZB; Definitely. It’s got good action — like my sinker — and I’ve gotten good results with it, especially in situations where there are men on base and I need an out.
DL: Has not having a great feel for your slider had a notable impact on your performance? Is it an important pitch for you?
ZB; I don’t think it’s that important to me. The most important thing to me is fastball command. Like I said, overall the year has been good. The two outings inflate everything — and those games were a good learning experience — but otherwise I’ve done pretty well and it all comes down to fastball command. That said, the slider is going to be big for me, eventually, when I can get the feel back for it.
DL: What have your conversations with Matt Wieters tended to focus on?
ZB: We talk a lot about pitching, obviously, primarily about what I’m learning. He’s told me about his first year. For the most part, everyone is going to go through struggles in their first year. Very few guys just breeze through it. He wants to make sure I’m learning as much as I can and that I’m not getting too high or too low.
DL: You came into the season highly regarded and proceeded to pitch well in your first couple starts. Did that impact you psychologically?
ZB: At the beginning of the season, it almost seemed like everyone thought I was going to win every single game and have a sub-2.00 ERA. That was obviously unrealistic. You go through a really good stretch and everybody has these really high expectations, but they need to understand that there are going to be struggles — especially in this division. Maybe I kind of bought into those expectations a little bit.
Once I had my first back-to-back tough games, it was almost like a two-face, where people seemed to think, “You suck,” or, “He’s not as good as everyone thought he was.” It was a humbling experience. You have to stay on an even keel. If you have a couple of good starts, people think you’re great. And if you have a couple of bad starts, they think you’re terrible.
It’s been a good learning experience. Buck [Showalter] has really helped me. He’s said things like, “Hey, you’re not going to win them all and you have to understand that. We understand that. Don’t read too much into what other people expect from you.” I think I’ve done a pretty good job of heeding his advice.
DL: Despite a solid debut season, you’re not going to win the American League Rookie-of-the-Year Award. Who should?
ZB: I think it should be Jeremy Hellickson. In my mind, he really deserves it. I know there are some guys who have done very well offensively. [Mark] Trumbo has done well. [Eric] Hosmer has done well. But Hellickson has also done very well, and he’s done it in the American League East. He has a sub-.3.00 ERA and a bunch of wins. To me, he deserves it more than anyone else.