Britton flying under the radar with quality stuff
FREDERICK, MD—By now most people who follow minor league baseball are aware that the Orioles are considered a team to watch in the next few years.
Camden Yards is experiencing an influx of young talent that either began the season in Baltimore (outfielders Nick Markakis and Adam Jones) or is starting to arrive (outfielder Nolan Reimold, catcher Matt Wieters and righthander Chris Tillman and lefthander Brian Matusz).
And there is still more to come.
Besides having righthander Jake Arrieta and lefthander Troy Patton in Triple-A Norfolk, very quietly lefthander Zach Britton has been making a name for himself in the Carolina League.
Britton, a 2006 third-round pick out of Weatherford High in suburban Fort Worth, Texas, was 8-6, 2.71 with 114 strikeouts and 50 walks in 126 innings with Frederick. He was second in the league in strikeouts (114) and ERA through 21 starts.
It certainly must not be easy for a pitcher having such a brilliant season to be overlooked regardless of the talent in the system.
"I would be lying if I said I didn't (mind), but at the same time the Orioles know that I am here, and what is important is to impress them," Britton said. "The guys that have gotten the attention certainly deserve it, but on the other hand it's OK to fly under the radar because you don't have all the pressure."
Sinker Keeps Britton Rising
The 6-foot-3, 190-pound Britton throws a four-seam fastball, changeup and slider. His out pitch has been an exceptional sinker.
"It's not a two-seam grip, its an actual sinker grip which I learned from (Scott McGregor) our pitching coach in (short-season) Aberdeen," Britton said. "I kind of throw it with a type of curveball grip, which gives it a little more sink and gets more ground balls. I throw it about 50 percent of the time when I'm throwing fastballs."
Velocity is what separates Britton, 21, from other sinkerball pitchers. He was clocked around 96 mph in high school but saw it drop to 87-91 mph in recent years as he focused on his offspeed pitches. This season Britton has jumped back up to 90-94 mph.
"The last few years I've been really working on my offspeed pitches because I didn't have a lot of confidence in them. I was kind of babying them," Britton said. "Now that I have been throwing them better and have more confidence in them, I knew the velocity would come back from before."
Frederick catcher Caleb Joseph acknowledges that Britton's sinker is his best pitch, but also credits the development of his four-seam fastball as helping Britton transform into a more complete pitcher.
"Particularly to righthand hitters when he can throw (a four-seam fastball) inside when they are starting to lean over the plate for the sinker, it has really been effective for him," Joseph said. "His mental approach has been so solid this year and he's really begun to develop into a major league pitcher."
Britton was teamed with Matusz for the first half of the season. Before the Orioles 2008 first-round pick began his ascent to the big leagues, Matusz helped Britton perfect a changeup.
"I picked his brain all about it, because he has a phenomenal one," Britton said. "He changed my grip around on it a little bit and helped me to throw it in a way that made it look a lot like my sinker. Since then I've seen a lot of improvement with the control of it and in the results."
There is little comparison between Matusz and Britton beyond them both being lefthanded and having played for the same team.
"They are really two different pitchers in that Zach is a sinkerballer and Brian was just your typical all-American with four quality pitches," Joseph said. "Zach is more of a power guy—power sinker, power slider. But he doesn't get as many strikeouts because batters are hitting the top of the baseball on his sinker and slider, but when his changeup improves a little more they will (strikeout more often)."
"He can stay sinker/slider and he would be fine. But as his changeup starts to develop, he will separate himself from the rest."
Frederick pitching coach Kennie Steenstra, who was with Britton last year at low Class A Delmarva, has also seen the pitcher's progress.
"He has improved his velocity from last year, and he is still a young kid, that is just starting to get comfortable with his body and delivery. He's topping out around 94 with his sinker between 88-92, which is plenty of stuff for a lefthander."
"He's been right as rain all year long. He's given us a chance to win every night he's been on the mound."
Britton believes his improvement this year has been due to his improved four-seam fastball and changeup.
"I think my command has really improved which allows me to go right after guys and not nibble. That, and the development of my change has really helped me this year."
Britton also said that Joseph's role, especially for a sinker/slider pitcher, cannot be emphasized enough. Joseph has been one of the Keys' offensive leaders, but also a defensive stalwart behind the plate.
"It is just so important to a guy like me that throws so many pitches low, to know that if I execute the pitch, Caleb is going to be there.
"It just gives you so much more confidence."
John Conniff is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.