2011 Orioles Retrospective: Zach Britton

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Zach Britton. I had the groundball machine as the O’s top prospects going back a couple years, and his success last year and in Spring Training left me excited to see how he would do at the major league level in 2011… in June or so, when he was called up. Worrying about the Super Two deadline for pitchers doesn’t always make sense – who cares about the extra arbitration year when there’s a good chance the pitcher won’t even be in baseball 6-7 years down the line – but for a team not really playing for anything why take the risk?

When Brian Matusz wasn’t healthy enough to make his first start of the season (or many thereafter), it was Britton who got the call to start the O’s third game of the year in Tampa Bay. He was probably (marginally) the best option as far as winning games goes - and the Quest for .500 was still in full swing at that point – but the move seemed short-sighted. Though Britton did go down to the minors for a stretch in July (after a horrendous start in Boston; 8 runs allowed, 2 outs recorded), he was up shortly (to make an even more horrendous start in New York; 9 runs allowed, 1 out recorded). The 159 total days of major league service time accrued will almost surely push Britton into Super Two status, perhaps costing the Orioles upwards of $20 M*.

* The extra arbitration year means that Britton would get a second “third” year of what’s usually the 80% rate (the arbitration rates tend to be something like 40-60-80% of free agent value in the three years). If he’s even a 2 win player then, he’ll cost around $10 M (includes salary inflation but also discounting to 2011 value). At 4 wins (a good but not great pitcher) he’ll cost around $20 M. Given that Britton came in around 2.5 fWAR in 2011 – production worth ~$11 M – keeping him out for a third of the year would have deprived the O’s of a bit less than $4 M in value. So not even accounting for the possibility that the team might want the extra money later when they’re (hopefully) trying to compete, the Orioles only break even if Britton ends up not doing much in the majors by that point (less than 1 win) but could end up as much as $15-20 M in the hole if he turns into a top starter.

Anyway, Britton pitched 154.1 surprisingly good innings for the Orioles in 2011. His control was occasionally spotty (3.6 BB/9) and he didn’t miss many bats (5.7 K/9), but he kept the ball on the ground enough to make up for that (53% GB rate). His 4.61 ERA was not as indicative* of how he pitched (4.00 FIP, 4.12 xFIP). The .304 BABIP allowed was a touch high, but not as much as I expected given that Britton is left-handed and the O’s had Mark Reynolds at third most of the year (JJ Hardy at short probably helped some). To hold your own in the AL East as a rookie is impressive, and there’s still a lot of upside there.

* With men in scoring position, his BABIP against was .347! That’ll happen with groundball pitchers sometimes, but at least some of that is bad luck (with runners on base overall it was .308). He also gave up home runs more often with men in scoring position, but his xFIP was only 4.32 in those situations so I wouldn’t expect the issue to persist.

Britton sat at 92 with both his four-seamer and his two-seamer. The former was generally thrown away from lefties and got some swings and miss (9% whiff rate), but ended up in the middle of the plate more to righties who tended not to miss (5% whiff rate) and put the ball in play more. The two-seamer I expected to be a real sinker given Britton’s awesome minor league groundball rates, but it didn’t seem to drop so much and instead had a great amount of tail to it. Like with the four-seamer, righties (8% whiff rate) handled it better than lefties (11% whiff rate).

The change-up, on the other hand, had both tail and sink – and was pretty hard, at 86 mph. It was Britton’s primary off-speed pitch to righties, and they didn’t have an easy time putting the bat on it (29% whiff rate) - though, neither did lefties when they offered (33% whiff rate). The slider wasn’t as hard – around 83 mph - but didn’t have a tremendous amount of break despite that (the velocity maybe put it more in slurve territory, but the movement surely didn’t). It was thrown more to the southpaws, and gave them fits; they whiffed an awesome 50% of the time that they offered at the pitch (they generally let it go by down and away for a ball). Righties chased the pitch a little more often, but with only marginally more success (47% whiff rate). With effective secondary offerings, it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see Britton up his strike-out some going forward (I’d be surprised to see it go too far above 7 K/9, but a league average* rate combined with a ton of groundballs is pretty darn good).

* Fun fact; on 0-2, 1-2, and 2-2 counts, Britton struck out the batter 42% of the time in 2011. The AL average was 42%. The problem was that the average AL pitcher got to a two-strike count 49% of the time, while Britton did only 41% of the time.

Opposite-handed batters’ ability to get to the fastball kept Britton from striking them out too often, but because his walk rate was just about the same to hitter from either side of the plate his platoon splits weren’t huge; 3.94 FIP vs. RHH, 4.17 FIP vs. LHH and 4.33 xFIP vs. RHH, 3.58 xFIP vs. LHH.

While the sky might not be the limit – I don’t think anyone’s expecting him to turn into an Ace – there’s a decent chance of Zach Britton becoming a good #2 type starter. A few more K’s, some improved control, and a higher groundball rate (even if it doesn’t approach his 65% from the minors) – plus a non-terrible defensive unit behind him – and Britton could certainly post some low-3 ERAs in his career.