18 May 2013

Zach Britton's Start of May 14, 2013

In the 2010-2011 offseason, left-handed starting pitcher Zach Britton was hot. He had split 2010 between AA Bowie and AAA Norfolk, and had pitched 153 innings with a 2.70 ERA. Baseball America rated him the 28th-best prospect in baseball. The 2010 Orioles' starting rotation was shaky, and while most thought he would benefit from more minor-league seasoning, he was still a candidate for the 2011 Orioles' rotation. Chris Tillman pitched poorly, Brian Matusz got hurtm and Britton pitched well in spring training, Britton earned that rotation spot and survived all season.

Unfortunately for him, 2012 didn't go as well. He began the year injured and didn't make his 2012 debut until the end of May, and that in the minors. With the Orioles playing well, there wasn't a need to rush him back to the majors, and he didn't make his 2012 major-league debut until July. He was promoted for good in August, and didn't pitch well. Before 2013, he was considered one of the longer shots for a spot in the Orioles' rotation, both because he hadn't pitched as well as Miguel Gonzalez or Chris Tillman and because he had minor-league optional assignments remaining.

Today, the Orioles starting rotation is once again unsettled. Orioles fans a wondering if Zach Britton can return to the Orioles and take his place in their rotation. I've seen Britton make two starts at Norfolk this season. He had a blister on a finger on his throwing hand during his April 7 start and was consequently unable to control his pitches. The start that I saw second was last Tuesday, May 14; and I'll look at Britton's performance in this article.

A summary: Britton pitched 5 1/3 innings, giving up seven runs (six earned) on twelve hits. He struck out three and walked none. He didn't have much defensive support. L.J. Hoes made a fairly long run to get to a fly ball in right field, then dropped it for an error. Danny Valencia made the single dumbest defensive decision I've seen in 2013; with a two-run lead and a runner on third base, he moved to his left to field a ground ball and then decided to throw home; the runner was safe and the batter-runner later scored. Trayvon Robinson in left field arguably cost his team two outs with hesitant decision-making on throws. On the other hand, most of the base hits Britton allowed were on balls hit harder than average. While this was bad game for Britton, it wasn't an atypically bad outlier.

Let's look first of all at his pitches:

Called Balls: 31
Called Strikes: 12
Swinging Strikes: 8
Fouls: 22
Put in Play: 24

There weren't any, but if there had been any foul fly outs, they would be counted as a ball put in play. Also, foul tips (foul balls which went directly in the catcher's mitt and remained caught, and count as swinging strikes for all purposes) are recorded as swinging strikes.

Batters swung at 55.6% of Britton's pitches, and when they did swing, they made contact 85.2% of the time. That's not really surprising; Britton has a reputation as a pitch-to-contact pitcher and he has neither an overpowering fastball nor deceptive movement on his pitches. And when they didn't swing, the umpire called the pitch a ball 72% of the time. This is entirely in keeping with Britton's reputation; he's not an overpowering pitcher and to succeed he must induce weak contact.

To some degree he was successful at that. Of the 24 balls put in play, 16 were ground balls, 5 were line drives, and 3 were fly balls. A ground ball is any ball which, if hit directly at an infielder, would have hit the ground before it reached him; there is a subjective component between "line drive" and "fly ball" which I can't really explain. The good news is that for a pitcher of Britton's type to succeed, he must get ground balls. He did. He also must avoid walks. He did. He also needs a good infield defense; in this game, he didn't. Third baseman Valencia isn't bad, but shortstop Brandon Wood, second baseman Buck Britton, and first basemen Russ Canzler and Chris Robinson were being stretched.

Britton was working neither notably ahead of or behind hitters. The list below shows the number of times the opposing batter had a specific pitch count; the numbers won't add up because of two-strike fouls.

0-0: 27
1-0: 11
0-1: 12
2-0: 4
1-1: 10
0-2: 6
3-0: 1
2-1: 4
1-2: 8
3-1: 1
2-2: 12
3-2: 1

He made 26 pitches when he was ahead of the hitter; 49 when the count was even; and 18 when he was behind the hitter. Other than the obvious -- he wasn't consistently behind the hitters -- I don't know enough to judge this. (As a contrast, the next day Lehigh Valley relief pitcher Cesar Jimenez made twenty pitches in which he was behind in the count to 14 batters.)

Finally, let's look at how quickly Britton was able to deal with hitters. The average batter saw 3 1/2 pitches before a result. Below is the number of at-bats in which the batter saw a given number of pitches:

1 pitch: 4
2 pitches: 4
3 pitches: 6
4 pitches: 7
5 pitches: 2
6 pitches: 3
7 pitches: 2

Here, too, I don't know enough to draw any conclusions or to make any judgement.

It seems clear that Zach Britton is a young pitcher who gets ground balls and has good control. Generally, pitchers of this type don't really achieve their peak until they're in their thirties, although they can be successful in their twenties. I think Britton is a better option than Freddy Garcia, and I'd rather give him a chance than Jake Arrieta. The Orioles do have a good infield defense, which will help him. The problem is that Britton might very well struggle in his first few starts until he gets acclimated, and if he does struggle he's going to be really bad. So even if the Orioles turn to Britton, they may give up on him before he has a chance to establish himself.

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