Zach Britton Announces his Presence With Authority


On Sunday afternoon the Baltimore Orioles completed a sweep of the Tampa Bay Rays in large part to the impressive major league debut of left handed pitcher, Zach Britton. The sinkerballer went six innings  and gave up a run on three hits and three walks while striking out six batters. Britton is a twenty-three year old who the Orioles selected in the third round of the 2006 draft and was ranked as the twenty-eighth best prospect entering the 2011 season by Baseball America. His debut was impressive even without the Rays Evan Longoria in the lineup to face him.

Britton started off in double-A last season where he posted a 3.30 FIP with a 64.9 percent groundball rate on his balls in play,according to StatCorner, over fourteen starts and 87 innings of work. He carried on in much the same fashion upon reaching triple-A, taking the ball another dozen times, all starts, and pitching 66 innings with a 3.18 FIP and a 61.7 percent groundball rate. As effective as Britton was on Sunday he did so without getting all that many groundballs, just four of his thirteen balls in play were grounders.

Using Pitch F/X data for one start, especially this early in the season with a rookie pitcher, can be tricky. The pitch algorithm “learns”, if you will, to better identify pitch types as the season goes on and as each specific pitcher makes more appearances. The perfect example of this is that Brooks Baseball classified 17 of Britton’s pitches as a slider and none as a curveball, while Texas Leaguers classified 17 of his pitches as a curveball. Whatever Britton calls his off-speed pitch, it looked much closer to a slider than a curve for much of his outing on Sunday.

Luckily, the fastball is what we want to take a look at today, Britton turned to it 67 times on Sunday out of his 96 pitches thrown. His fastball averaged 92.5 mph and topped out at 95 mph. Britton did a decent job staying away from the inner half of the plate with the fastball to right handers but still threw eight of his twenty in-zone fastballs to righties on the inner half.

When throwing the fastball to lefties he had more success staying away from the inner half of the plate. Just two of his seventeen in-zone fastballs were on the inner half. Perhaps the reason Britton only got four groundballs was due to the fact that although he was able to stay away to either sided hitter, he didn’t keep the ball down in the zone all that often. There’s no data available for his minor league work but, generally, a sinking fastball like Britton’s is more effective when it’s both away and down to the hitter. The chart below shows his fastball location to lefties and again we see he stayed away from them well but couldn’t get it down all too often.

To get a closer look at how Britton went about attacking both sided hitters in this outing we’ll turn to his back to back strikeouts in the second inning, the first coming against the right handed hitting, Sean Rodriquez. Britton went all fastballs in this five pitch at-bat, staying away from Rodriquez on all five and managing to stay away and down on four of the pitches. Have a look below, note that the pitches are numbered in the order that they were thrown.

Britton started off Rodriquez middle, away and got a called first strike. He then never came back in to the zone and got Rodriquez to swing and miss on the second pitch that was down below the zone. Rodriquez then laid off the next two pitches, both down and out of the zone, before dealing the fifth pitch just wide of the zone, but too close for Rodriquez to take. He swung and missed, at-bat over. Even on a pitch that didn’t result in a groundout, this one at-bat shows the potential of his fastball when kept both down and away, he came in the strike zone once in five pitches and still got Rodriquez to swing and miss twice.

The next batter was left hander, Dan Johnson, who came up with two outs and nobody on for the Rays. Britton only got one of his five pitches to Johnson down but kept the first four pitches, all fastballs, away from Johnson before coming inside to finish him off with a slider(according to Brooks, and that is what it looked like). Take a gander, again, noting the pitch sequence.

After Johnson took the first two pitches, he managed to force Britton to come back inside but as you can see, Britton didn’t give in all that much to Johnson. He went down and in to get a swinging strike on the third pitch, then elevated a bit on the fourth pitch which Johnson fouled off. At that point Britton had Johnson in a 2-2 count and had now thrown nine straight fastballs between the last two at-bats, all away. Britton then froze Johnson with a slider on the inner half for a called third strike and completed his 1-2-3 inning in impressive style.

Johnson faced just seventeen lefties last season but Britton set him up wonderfully by pounding away with fastballs and then moving inside with an off-speed offering to set him down. The most impressive thing here is that despite getting behind 0-2, Britton didn’t give in totally to Johnson and leave a fastball over the middle, he gave in just enough and came back to get his man.

Britton also dealt nicely with Manny Ramirez retiring the right handed slugger all three times he faced him, including the last two at-bats where Britton got Manny to pop out in foul territory. The Orioles starting pitchers as a whole dealt with the Rays quite well over the weekend, Britton’s one run allowed was the only one allowed all weekend by an Orioles starter. This could just be a case of the Rays batters getting off to a slow start, but it’s clear that the Orioles definitely have something special in Zach Britton.

Sincerely like to thank both Brooks Baseball and Texas Leaguers for providing all the fantastic Pitch F/X data that they do and allowing someone like me to reuse their charts and info elsewhere. Both are fantastic sites that are indispensable for this kind of analysis.