Zach Britton Still Injured, O’s Revamping Pitching Philosophy

Nobody was expecting the Baltimore Orioles to instantly become playoff contenders in 2012, but today’s news out of Birdland is still depressing. According to Jim Duquette, Zach Britton‘s shoulder injury from late last season is “still lingering” and will limit his workload during spring training. Britton was rated as the Orioles’ top pitching prospect coming into the 2011 season, and he was arguably the O’s best pitcher for the first half of the season before slumping badly down the stretch.

Britton is hardly the first Orioles’ pitcher to have injury troubles. Heck, at this point, Orioles fans probably expect the team’s best pitching prospects to either get injured or flop at the major-league level. Brian Matusz looked like he was off to a spectacular young career, before getting injured and failing to regain his velocity or control. Jake Arrietta and Chris Tillman used to be considered the future of the franchise, but neither has been able to successfully transition to the majors. Also, while not a highly rated prospect, Brad Bergesen flashed some promise in 2009, but has since had injury issues and trouble striking out major-league hitters.

So while this news about Britton shouldn’t be too surprising, it makes me wonder: how much of the Orioles’ struggles to develop good, young pitchers is a result of organization philosophy and management, and how much is just plain bad luck?

Pitching prospects flame out at a terrifyingly high rate, so it could be that the Orioles have done everything they could possibly do in these instances, yet have been stuck on Lady Luck’s bad side. That may not be the most satisfying answer, but when evaluating the success of pitching prospects, it’s important not to be drawn into the narrative.

That said, it appears that the Orioles have made revamping their organization’s approach to pitching a priority. New GM Dan Duquette has  brought in a number of new arms this off-season, including Dana Eveland, Jason Hammel, and two international signings in Wei-Yin Chen and Tsuyoshi Wada (both of whom could make their way into the 2012 rotation). But if you believe that the Orioles’ pitching problem has been the result of an organizational philosophy, then Duquette’s most important move of the off-season was in hiring Rick Peterson and Chris Correnti.

Peterson has worked as the pitching coach for a number of major-league teams, and he’s a big proponent of using psychology and biomechanics to help pitchers stay healthy. He’s been given the role of overseeing the Orioles’ minor-league pitchers and helping them develop properly. Meanwhile, Chris Correnti will serve as a “performance consultant”, and he’s expected to work with injured pitchers to help them get better, and to create a year-long conditioning program for the O’s pitching staff. Correnti worked in a similar role with the Red Sox from 1994-2005.

Will Peterson and Correnti be able to help the O’s? Will their pitching staff stop getting hit by the injury bug? That all remains to be seen, but in the wake of Britton’s injury, it seems like a good time to note that the Orioles are heading off in a new direction. I just hope it’s not too late for Matusz and Britton.

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Steve is the editor-in-chief of DRaysBay and the keeper of the FanGraphs Library. You can follow him on Twitter at @steveslow.

15 Responses to “Zach Britton Still Injured, O’s Revamping Pitching Philosophy”

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  1. byron says:

    I think Keith Law has said that Orioles pitching prospects are suddenly losing velocity for no apparent reason. That’s a bit different than the way most pitching prospects flame out, so I think it’s less likely this has just been bad luck.

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    • This is generally my opinion too…I think this is more “what the hell have the O’s been doing?” than getting screwed over by luck. Bad luck surely plays into it, but it seems like a much more systemic problem.

      Hopefully this is a step in the right direction. But still, poor Britton.

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  2. Pants says:

    I definitely agree with byron.

    If you look at how stacked prospect lists had the O’s minor league pitching over the last few years, then consider that not one of those pitchers has panned out, I think it indicates a larger problem. I’m sure that luck has had a little to do with it, but you’ve seen a consistent history of arm injuries throughout the pitching staff for a lot of years. They didn’t even catch Dennis Sarfate pitching with a BROKEN COLLAR BONE for an entire season in ’09. How does a professional medical team and coaching staff allow that?

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  3. geo says:

    I don’t remember a Matusz injury; I just thought all of a sudden he lost velocity and effectiveness. What was the injury?

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    • From what I can tell, it was a “strained intercostal muscle” that had him miss two months in the beginning of last season.

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      • Stacey says:

        Yeah, he pulled a muscle twisting out of the way of a line drive during ST last year and started the year on the DL. But he has since admitted that he wasn’t in shape when he got to ST in the first place, so I’m sure that affected his recovery time and is subsequent poor performance.

        As an Orioles fan, you pretty much just wait for bad news and then when it arrives, wonder what took it so long.

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      • BringBackTriandos says:

        Matusz had a wart removed in mid-March. Didn’t pitch well after that. I think he turned into a frog. Or am I mixing up the fairy tale references?

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  4. Big Jgke says:

    I don’t like to laugh at the misfortune of others. Specifically. But I think that, in general, the O’s level of truly terrible organizational management is hilarious. They are the worst. At Everything. They make the Mets and Cleveland Browns’ medical staffs look like Banting and Best.

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  5. Louis says:

    The Os :-(

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  6. dave in glen burnie says:

    I’ve followed the Orioles closely for the past 5 years now, and one of the major things that concerned me even then was the major mishandling of pitching prospects. When Andy MacPhail was hired as GM back in ’07, he came in with a philosophy to build a young core from within, strong defense, and (in hindsight) a gimmicky catch-phrase “grow the arms, buy the bats”.

    In ’09, MacPhail had a very talented pitching core in the minors with Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez, and later on Zach Britton. But the biggest problem with the Orioles pitching staff was an opening day staff that consisted of duds and retreads such as Rich Hill, Mark Hendrickson, Adam Eaton and Alfredo Simon.

    With an amazing lack of depth, the Orioles called up Bergesen (due to the Simon injury) with only 11 IP in Triple A. He showed a promising start, but a line drive to the shin caused a season ending injury, plus he tore his rotater cuff in a commercial shoot for MASN and hasn’t put it together since.

    Later in season (I think late July), 21 year old Chris Tillman was called up. His numbers in AAA looked promising, but was overmatched in MLB. He clearly wasn’t ready yet, and in my opinion was rushed due to desperation.

    Brian Matusz, who was in his 1st year of professional baseball in ’09, had only 46 IP above Single A. He was actually quite impressive in his 8 starts, walking just under 3.00/IP and a 4.63 ERA. In his ’10 sefason, I honestly can’t say that I was too impressed with the first 4 months of his season. He put together a 1.44 WHIP and a 4.77 ERA through July. He seemed to begin to put it together in his final 11 starts, but I guess he became complacent during the ’11 offseason which didn’t help him.

    Other rookie pitchers used in the rotation was David Hernandez and Jason Berken who were mediocre at best or ineffective. Koji Uehara also started 12 games, but was often injured.

    One the biggest problems with the Orioles is every “can’t miss” prospect they’ve had in the past decade, they always rush the player through the system and it almost always results in failure because of injury or destroying confidence in the player (with the expection of Roberts, Markakis, and Wieters). Most of the time it’s because of the lack of depth on ML team because they’re in constant rebuild mode. And they always hinge the teams hopes on these prospects with absolutely no depth at the top.

    After watching this team, I can’t say its a player development “problem”, because the Orioles never give their players any time to develop anyway. It’s an organizational problem that starts from the very top, and it rolls down hill like a domino effect.

    Zach Britton showed promise in Double A, pitched 1 game in Triple A, gets called up the 2nd week of April and gets injured.

    Sounds like more of the same in Birdland.

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    • Chris in Hawaii says:

      You make it seem like these injuries happened as soon as they got called up as far as Britton and Bergesen. Bergesen was called up in April (I was at that game against the White Sox) and didn’t go down from the LD to the shin until about August.

      And Britton didn’t get called up in the 2nd week of the season in 2011 and get immediately hurt as you make it seem. He actually started with the team (I believe he pitched the 2nd or 3rd game of the opening series in Tampa). He was sent down to AA in June/July after a couple rough outings (and to perserve his innings) and i t wasn’t until August that he ended up injured.

      I’m with you on the main argument that these guys were rushed and then jerked around, due to a lack of ML depth, but it is improtant to convey what happened with accuracy if you want your argument to be strong.

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  7. Bbboston says:

    Dave of gb: luv to hear your thoughts on arietta. Seems like a guy who could really surprise this year.

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    • dave in glen burnie says:

      Arrieta is OK. His problem is his career 4.38 BB/9, and a 4.45 BB/9 last year. Cut that down by 1 and you’re probably looking at a middle rotation pitcher. He has the stuff.

      So does Matusz, don’t get me wrong. If he can come back healthy, he could put aside a lot of doubt.

      But talent alone doesn’t excuse the Orioles player nondevelopment

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  8. ben says:

    Matusz is said to have had an incredibly lazy off-season last year (following up his spectacular last two months in 2010), so there’s an enormous range in terms of expectations for him this year, though motivational issues and a 90mph fastball–on his good days–do not an ace make. Nobody talks about Adam Loewen anymore, but there’s another left-handed big-time prospect (#4 in his draft class, just like Matusz) whose career ended in early injury, after a promising start. Hobgood, a bad pick at #5, but still presumably some sort of prospect in his draft class, has had an injury-plagued minor league career. Bedard, another Orioles farmhand, has had an injury-plagued career. Bergesen’s injuries have been flukes, however (the line drive off the shin, and a shoulder strain–or something similar–during a spring photo session). But all of these injuries certainly point to a situation that should be/already have been addressed, and hopefully Peterson is the man for the job.

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  9. Matt says:

    Matusz, I believe, pitches up in the zone far too much to be effective given that:

    a) he pitches in Camden yards, a HR friendly park
    b) he pitches in the AL East against some powerful lineups
    c) his fastball is not lights out fast (95+) but just average fast (90)

    Unless he changes his approach, I just don’t see any opportunity for sustained success at the major league level.

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