Few hurdles left for Britton before joining O's
Development of changeup has helped lefty prospect thrive
BALTIMORE -- Zach Britton could always throw the ball hard. He could throw it over the plate. He could throw it with sink. He could throw it 90-100 times a game.
Those skills, combined with his mental toughness, got him drafted by the Orioles in the third round of the 2006 First-Year Player Draft. Those skills helped him advance steadily through the farm system until a breakout season (9-6, 2.70 ERA) with Class A Frederick in 2009, when he was named Carolina League Pitcher of the Year.
Sporting a 2.62 ERA with Double-A Bowie, Britton is doing more than just throwing.
"I'm learning how to pitch," he said.
"It's the easiest way to put it," added Caleb Joseph, Britton's primary catcher for the last year and a half. "He is pitching now instead of throwing."
That means improving his placement. It means thinking more about pitch selection. It's pushing and pulling hitters on and off the plate, setting them up to slam his sinker into the dirt or chase his slider out of the zone.
In short, it's Britton's last big step before the big leagues. And with fellow prospects Brian Matusz, Jake Arrieta and Chris Tillman all at the Major League level, there are high hopes for the most highly touted pitcher left in the Orioles' system and the last in a promising young core.
The key for Britton -- the one major improvement that has helped his whole game come together at Bowie -- is the confidence he's developed in his changeup. He had been working on it all season, even a little bit last year at Frederick, knowing the importance of having that third pitch. His coaches insisted it was farther along than he thought it was, but until recently he didn't have the consistency he needed to trust it in any situation.
"It kind of just clicked one start against Erie here," Britton said. "The grip has always been something that kind of felt uncomfortable for me and now it's starting to feel really nice, real natural. I was able to see good action, and it was consistent. That's kind of something that I've been struggling to get it to -- I'd throw like two good ones and then I couldn't find it for about an inning. Now I'm at the point where I can throw it over the middle, and I know what it's going to do and I know I can throw it for strikes."
That start against Erie on June 5 was the longest of Britton's season: 7 1/3 innings, allowing seven hits and no earned runs. It may have been his best overall outing until he threw a two-hit shutout through six innings on Friday against Harrisburg.
Finding that "click" required patience. It meant taking a step back while testing a pitch-in-progress so he could take a bigger step forward when it was ready. And it meant dealing with the growing pains, including a number of early-season homers off hanging changeups. Along the way, Britton sought the guidance of Matusz, a friend, a former teammate at Frederick and a fellow lefty with a wicked changeup.
"He's just gifted," Britton said. "For most people like myself, it takes a while to get used to [the changeup]. ... There were games where it wasn't very good and then I wouldn't throw it for a couple outings, and he'd be like, 'You should still throw it -- you just got to have confidence. If they hit it, they hit it. It's all about developing a pitch.'"
|"He's a guy that's been striving to get better since the first day I met him."|
|-- Bowie pitching coach Kennie Steenstra, on Zach Britton|
"I'm not going to say he was a two-pitch guy, but when you can really only work sinker-slider with really good command, guys can eliminate pitches," Joseph said. "But now pushing and pulling them off and on the plate with that changeup, it really throws their approach out of whack. And that's every starter in the big leagues. That's why starters are starters, because they can command those four pitches. ... It's completely turned his game around and the numbers reflect it."
While Britton maintains a nearly identical ERA and WHIP compared to last year, his walks are down from 3.53 per nine innings to 3.01 with Bowie. And while his strikeout rates are slightly down, he said that might be a good thing. Since he can induce a ground-ball out with one or two pitches but usually needs at least double that for a strikeout, decreasing his K's helps him manage his pitch count and stay in games longer. He's averaged almost an inning more per start in 2010, and he has gone at least six in his last six outings.
"Actually they talked to me this year about not striking out as many guys, because I wasn't going deep into games," Britton said. "If I can strike out guys in situations where I need a strikeout, I'll take it. But for the most part, they really want me getting those ground balls earlier [in the count]."
A new pitch. A better approach. Longer outings. And Britton is by no means done improving. He is also working on throwing high in the zone to keep hitters honest against his sinker, and he's talked to Arrieta, who has a good high fastball, about where to look when throwing that pitch. Beyond that, he is just sharpening all of his pitches, making sure he is as polished as possible when he gets his chance in the Majors.
"He's a guy that's been striving to get better since the first day I met him," said Bowie pitching coach Kennie Steenstra, who also had Britton in Class A Delmarva and Frederick. "He wants the ball every five days and wants to get out there as much as he can and do well. Most guys are like that, but I think he lives it out on the mound a little bit more than some other guys."
As for when Britton will get the opportunity to live it out on a Major League mound, the 22-year-old lefty thinks he could get a call from the Orioles later this season. He had a meeting during Spring Training with director of player development John Stockstill, assistant director of player development Tripp Norton, Minor League pitching coordinator Dave Schmidt and director of international scouting Dave Stockstill. Britton told them he understands the philosophy behind developing him at every level every year, but said "I feel like I'm ready to get pushed a little bit."
"They told me if I get the changeup to where I need to and develop my pitches that I'd probably get an opportunity at some point this year," Britton said. "Sometimes those things have to work themselves out before you get an opportunity, and I perfectly understand that. ... Unfortunately we're having a terrible year, so I think I'm going to get an opportunity at some point. I've just got to keep pitching well, and at the end of the day, I think from what they've told me that I'll get a chance if I pitch to the caliber that I am so far."
Even then, Britton won't be done working.
"Everything can improve, but you can improve in the big leagues as well," he said. "That's really the big test."
Noah Rosenstein is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.