• May

    Zach Britton -The Brave Work in Progress

    One of the hardest things to get a minor league player to do is try something different. This is especially hard when a player is experiencing success with what they are currently doing. Time after time I’ve seen guys in the minor leagues have success but knew they would not have success in the major leagues doing the same thing.

    A few guys jump into mind when I think about this fact. Jeff Fiorentino was a 22-year old who hit 22 home runs in Frederick in 455 PA. However, Fiorentino was generating his power by crowding the plate and looking fastball in since he knew A-Ball pitchers would want to get in on his hands. He was generating pull power but once he got to more advanced pitchers, they just started to pitch him away with soft stuff and his power numbers shrunk up. From what I heard, the Orioles tried to work with him to change his approach but Fiorentino did not want to change. He’s now playing in Japan and has a career .324 SLG in 483 major league PAs.

    Pitcher-wise, I’ve seen numerous pitchers come through the system having success by being a two-pitch pitcher or by throwing curveballs in the dirt or taking a fastball up the ladder. In AA, this approach will work if the stuff is decent. Unfortunately, when they reach the big leagues they find out that big league batters don’t chase too many curveballs in the dirt nor are they fooled by fastball up in the zone.

    However, there’s a conundrum for the minor league player. You have to put up numbers to get promoted, but working on a new pitch or grip during a game most likely is not the best way to put up those gaudy stats that get people to notice you.

    Case in point, Zach Britton had a tremendous year last year at Frederick where is was the Carolina League pitcher of the year after putting up a 2.70 ERA while striking out 131 batters in 140 innings while getting 3.38 ground outs to every air out.

    By all accounts it was a dominant year. It was a year he established his hard 89-92 MPH sinker as a dominant pitch as well as establishing his slider as an out pitch at times. By his own accounts he said he probably threw 80-85% sinkers in most starts last year with a mixture of four-seamers and sliders making up the bulk of the other 15-20%. He threw very few changeups even though the Orioles were harping on him to include more changeups. He just never had the confidence or comfort ability in a changeup grip and besides, he didn’t need it to get A-ball hitters out last year.

    This spring, Britton went up to his friend Brian Matusz in Sarasota and said, “I’ll teach you my sinker grip if you teach me your changeup grip.” So with that, Britton began working on the Matusz changeup grip in an attempt to find a grip he can become comfortable with. Just as a side-note, according to Britton, Matusz took to the sinker grip while they played catch but I’ll need to check with Matusz to see if it’s something he’s included into his loaded arsenal this season.

    The conundrum hit again once the season started at Double-A. Wanting to get off to a good start and to see how his sinker-slider combo worked against Double-A hitters, Britton used that combo almost exclusively through his first two starts. It was clear to him that combo was going to be very effective against Double-A hitters so he decided it was time to pull out that changeup and start using it game situations.

    His last five starts have been a mix bag of results as he tries to find the right time to use that changeup as well as find the command of the pitch. He’s left the pitch up and out over the plate several times including the three-run homer hit off him in his last start. That home run particularly troubled Britton since it was on a 1-2 count and his instincts told him to throw the sinker. That thought process is all part of the developmental process. Picking his spots better on when to throw the changeup and obviously command of the pitch remains a work in progress.

    Although some fans who just look at the boxscores and don’t see last year’s dominance have begun to get worried, I’m actually even more impressed that he’s willing to work on his changeup now instead of getting to the big leagues as a two-pitch guy. Trust me, Britton could go back to his two-pitch repertoire (three-pitch if you count the occasional four-seam fastball) and reach the major leagues, but he knows in order to maximize his potential he’ll need that changeup.

    Right now, with Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman ahead of him on the minor league depth chart, the chances of him seeing Camden Yards this season is pretty slim. The Orioles know what they have in Zach Britton and they know what he’s working on. Regardless, it takes a brave guy to work on things outside of his comfort level when you get as close Double-A. Afterall, all the players know that once they reach Double-A they are just a phone call away, so they all want to be on that hot streak.

    So when you look at those boxscores, remember Britton is working on the things that will enable him to stay in the big leagues once he gets there. Don’t be discouraged by his lack of dominant numbers and be impressed that we have a young hurler with the confidence and bravery to work on things now instead of when he reaches the big leagues.

    Despite working on things, his numbers are not that bad and some bad luck has also made his stats look a little worse than they really are.

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Tony Pente

Tony has owned and operated Orioles Hangout since 1996 and is well known for his knowledge of the Baltimore Orioles organization from top to bottom. He's a frequent guest on Baltimore-area sports radio stations and can be heard regularly on the 105.7 FM The Fan. His knowledge and contacts within the Orioles minor league system and the major league baseball scouting industry is unparalleled in the Baltimore media and is known as an expert on the Orioles prospects.