SARASOTA, Fla.—Zach Britton stepped into the hallway outside the visiting clubhouse at Bright House Field in Clearwater, smiled at the five reporters waiting to interview him and mentioned the elephant in the room.
“Could you tell how nervous I was?” he asked, knowing that everyone in the ballpark saw Britton fight himself as much as he did the Phillies. “I have no idea what happened out there today.”
Britton could be excused for having a short memory and a case of the jitters. The Orioles’ young lefthander was making his first start in a major league camp, and it happened to come against the National League favorites.
For a few brief moments, you’re reminded that Britton, with his boyish face and wide eyes, is 23 and not far removed from Double-A competition. Then you watch him take the mound again and also are reminded why he’s one of baseball’s top pitching prospects.
Britton strung together nine scoreless innings in his first three Grapefruit League appearances, including two against the Phillies despite his nerves, and three against the Yankees in a televised game at sold-out Ed Smith Stadium in Sarasota. He figured to be assigned to Triple-A Norfolk before the Orioles head to St. Petersburg to open their season against the Rays on April 1, but he was giving manager Buck Showalter plenty to consider.
“Talking to people, they said I should just go out there and make the decision tough,” Britton said. “Whether they have their mind made up or not, it doesn’t affect the way I go out and pitch. I think I’m getting opportunities to start games and go deep into games, which is nice. Just try to work on things, but have good outings. Just give them things to think about.”
Britton followed his Yankees start with four scoreless innings against the Astros in Kissimmee. His fastball hit 94 mph in each inning, and it had the usual movement, which means nobody—including Britton and his catcher—know exactly where it’s going.
“His fastball’s unbelievable,” catcher Craig Tatum said. “He throws hard and the ball moves. He’s got really good sink on the ball, keeps the ball down, goes right after hitters. He says his changeup’s his third-best pitch, but with his fastball, he doesn’t really need to throw too many off-speed pitches because his ball moves so much. When he figures it out with the slider, he’s going to be good.”
“The ceiling is sky high,” Norfolk pitching coach Mike Griffin said. “I still think there’s more in there from him that we can still see from Zach. I don’t think he’s reached his ability yet. He’s still got a ways to go to improve and get better and be even better than he was when he was with me last year. The fastball has great life. Not good life, great life. And it’s late and it’s hard. He’s learned to spot it up, have better command of it. The slider has come a long way from when I first saw it. It’s a little bit quicker now, little bit sharper, little bit more depth to it. We’ve made a lot of progress trying to get him to backleg it to righthanded hitters.
“The changeup, he’s still working on it. He’s still trying to get consistent command on it. But what impressed me last year was, he was still working on it, but in his last two starts he threw changeups on 3-2 counts and got hitters to swing and miss at it. That tells me the kid has gained a lot of confidence in that pitch.”
Britton induced lot of ground balls last summer while going a combined 10-7, 2.70, with 51 walks and 124 strikeouts in 153 innings at Norfolk and Double-A Bowie. The pattern has continued this spring. Only one out against the Astros came on a fly ball, to the last batter he faced in the fourth inning.
“He keeps the ball down,” Tatum said. “He’ll be like, ‘I didn’t hit my location that time,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t care where the ball is if they keep beating it into the ground.’ I just like the way he attacks hitters. And once he gets the feel of his slider better, he’s going to be good. I’m glad we have him in our organization, because I don’t want to face him.”
The Orioles selected Britton in the third round of the 2006 draft out of Weatherford (Texas) High. Four years later, he had posted a 37-28 record in the minors and won the organization’s pitcher of the year award.
“As far as pure stuff, he’s up there,” said former Orioles outfielder Brady Anderson, a camp instructor this spring. “You have to wait for players’ careers to unfold to see what they’re going to be, but he will be a quality starter for a long time. He has an idea what he’s doing out there. I’ve seen him in Triple-A when things didn’t go his way and he never got rattled, stayed poised, and obviously he’s got the stuff to back it up. He can go after both sides of the plate. He’s a real talent.
“He just has a really live arm. Seems like there’s an effortlessness to the way he throws. Certain guys just have the look and stuff about them. You know they’re a little different.”
A reporter asked Showalter whether he’s seen a progression in Britton since camp opened.
“No,” Showalter replied. “He was pretty good when he got here.”
Showalter hasn’t shielded Britton from the game’s best hitters. Britton struck out Ryan Howard, and he retired Derek Jeter, Robinson Cano and Mark Teixeira on three ground balls in the first inning. “I want to see how they’re going to handle each step, and this is another part of it,” Showalter said. “He pitched in Bowie and Norfolk, and now he’s pitching in a big league game in spring training. It’s part of the process . . . Instead of keeping him from that, I want to expose him to it and see how they’re going to handle it.
“I appreciate that he knows it’s a nice opportunity. I think it’s a great evaluation tool, too. It doesn’t mean if he does well or bad that we’re going to make a decision at the end of it, but it’s another part of the evaluation. I’m not a big believer in hiding them from stuff like that. Have an intrasquad game on Field 74? You can’t keep masking reality. I think the sooner you hit them in the face with it, the better off you are.”
Britton has spent part of his time gleaning information from veteran teammates like reliever Michael Gonzalez, understanding the proper way to go about his job and “keep your mouth shut,” he said.
“It’s really learning stuff that I can take out of it, and the experience of facing major league hitters,” Britton said.
“I know at least a couple times I haven’t had a full lineup of major leaguers or regulars, but just getting experience against some of the bigger names, like with the Yankees, I think that’s something I can take with me going into the season. Whenever I get up there, having faced them now, it won’t be like, ‘Oh my God, here’s Jeter, here’s A-Rod.’ I got that out of the way. I think just being around the guys, the atmosphere in the big leagues, I’m like, ‘This is where I want to be, this is what I worked forever to be.’ “
He’s inching closer. The Orioles likely would prefer to keep Britton from attaining Super 2 status, but he figures to pitch in Baltimore at some point this summer. And sooner rather than later.
“He could pitch right now in the big leagues,” said veteran utility player Jake Fox, who caught Britton in Clearwater. “Do I think there’s room for improvement? Yes. There’s room for improvement with everybody. But he’s got great stuff. Now, it’s just a matter of learning what he’s doing with it and learning how to pitch with it.
“Against the Phillies, we just came out and were pumping fastballs at everybody. We mixed in a few sliders, but basically it was just pumping fastballs, and that shows you how good his fastball is when those guys still can’t hit it. Imagine that kind of stuff and mixing in a second and third pitch. I mean, that’s going to be devastating. So he could pitch now, but his ceiling is higher than most guys. He just has to reach it.”
And stay relaxed, which never was a problem for Britton in the minors or during the Futures Game, and which has become much easier since that afternoon in Clearwater, when Fox joked that the lefty was throwing “100 mph” in the bullpen.
At one point, Britton crossed up Fox with a pitch, leading to a mound conference. “He was like, ‘What’s going on out here?’ ” Britton recalled, “and I said, ‘I have no idea.’ “
Fox intended to counsel Britton by offering “something important and serious,” but he improvised after looking at the kid’s face.
“I knew that nothing was going to register because he was all jittery,” Fox recalled. “I just told him a joke to see if it would loosen him up a little bit. It was a dumb one, but it was the only one I came up with off the top of my head.
“I walked out and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got a joke for you.’ He looked at me all serious, and I go, ‘A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, ‘I’m sorry, we don’t serve food here.’ Nothing. It was crickets. I was like, ‘All right man, just come on, let’s get this guy out.’ “
Maybe it’s the opponents who should be nervous.