10 April 2011

Two completely different Zach Brittons

Sunday morning Buster Olney tweeted this:
Zach Britton has a chance to become what Stephen Strasburg was last year: Must-see TV. He is a very rare lefty with veering 95 mph fastball.
As you probably know, I have always been a bit shy when it comes to predicting success for Zach Britton over the years.  He is a pitcher who does best by inducing poor contact (e.g. ground balls).  In the minors, you typically see a reduction in ground ball rates as you move up the ladder.  If I remember correctly, a league average pitcher will typically see a decrease in grounders about 10%.  In other words, if a pitcher was inducing 50% ground balls in low-A then the average result would be a 45% line in AAA.  These lost grounders are thought to be diverted into balls and line drives.  This is thought to mostly be a product of more polished hitters higher in the minors who lay off the low pitches or can square up the ball low in the zone or get around on high velocity pitches.

As such, I have tempered my expectations of Britton.  I put him in a category of pitchers who need to prove himself at each and every level because so much depend on inducing poor contacts.  The fear being that more polished hitters will lay off his sinking fastballs that fall out of the zone or guys would be able to square up on them at a higher rate.  Tony Pente was the first person I read who pushed all in on Britton as a future star.  He was doing that three or four years ago.  At times, he has mentioned Britton as being better than Brian Matusz.  Keith Law began beating the drum two years ago, but still considers Matusz the better pitcher.  I am still in a holding pattern waiting to see where Britton falls in the 2-4 range.

What has impressed me so far though through these two games (remember: small sample size) was how different the two outings were.  The first time Britton went out, he ditched his two-seamer and lived off his four-seamer with a mix of changeups and sliders.  On Saturday, he fully embraced the two seamer and casually threw his other pitches.  It was stunning.  Both pitchers looked quite effective with last night more so.  What this does for me is indicate that there is a broad set of skills in Zach Britton.  I find his two-seamer as his only exceptional pitch, but he can also effectively use his other offerings to get by.  That makes me optimistic that when the league starts adjusting to him, he will be able to keep up and change himself.

That being said . . . I saw Stephen Strasburg and this was no Stephen Strasburg.  However, it is still pretty amazing.  I hope Britton continues to surprise me.  Maybe next game he will break out a knuckle ball and an Eephus Pitch and no hit the Yankees.

Continue reading to see a comparison of the two Britton outings from Pitch f/x data.

Pitch Count and Distribution

Not much to add here to the above graph (click on it to make it larger).  Britton was throwing several four seamers and mixing in changeups and sliders on his first outing.  His second outing was a full plate of two seamers with a few sprinkles of four seamers and off speed pitches.  One thing to notice here is that Pitch f/x is saying Britton threw a split finger fastball on his debut.  I do not believe it.  Looking at the data, it appears to be a mischaracteried changeup.  Similarly, his 4-seamer is getting more run than I would expect it to get.  There may be some confusion with a few of Britton's 2-seamers being marked up as 4-seamers.  That might be the case as a poor 2-seamer may get some run, but not the optimal drop.  As you can imagine, Pitch f/x is a great tool, but calibration helps.

Four Seam Fastball
There seems to be a bit of an issue here.  I'm not sure if there is a calibration error or some two- seamer were misidentified as four-seamer by the system.  It will be good to see some more data points as the year goes on.  At this point, the pitches look wildly different.  The vertical drop and velocity makes sense here, but the horizontal run does not for me.

Two Seam Fastball (Sinker)
 In his debut, the few two seamers he threw were pretty flat.  On Saturday, he had a much greater range in movement.  That 3.3" standard deviation in vertical movement means that he was able to take advantage of varying levels of drop in his pitch and that some of his offerings had exceptional movement.  The standard deviation gives a much better view of how different those pitches are.

Change Up
I'm not sure if the horizontal movement is affected by calibration errors.  What can be seen here is that Britton was more consistent in the movement of his change up.  If there are no errors here, he got a lot more movement on it in his debut.  He only throws this pitch about 8-10% of the time.  It is more or less a change of pace pitch.  The change up and the slider are two pitches he has been working hard on developing for the Majors.

There is no standard deviation around the 04/09 data point because he had only one pitch.  In that, it is difficult to say much here comparing the two days.  However, in general we can say that the movement in this pitch is nothing special.  He seems to have good command of the pitch and the difference in speed from his fastball helps.  When his two seemer is working though, he likes to use it as sparingly as possible.

We can make a few broad statements.  Britton has been able to be effective using two completely different pitch distributions.  He has a nice hard four seemer that may, at times, bore in a little.  His two seamer is not entirely consistent, but he is able to place it well.  It is his most useful pitch and why he is in the majors.  His change up and slider, at this point, are change of pace, show-me pitches.

After watching these two games . . . I am much more optimistic that Britton can be a 2-slot pitcher.  I'm holding off on calling him having ace potential.

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