Britton beats the odds, boosts O's
Young southpaw off to impressive start in rookie campaign
NEW YORK -- The way Bowen Field in Bluefield, W.Va., is situated, fans who to come to see the games are up above home plate, looking down -- almost as if they are in a tower.
The view is an odd one, but the Appalachian League -- an advanced Rookie League that currently operates as a 10-team, two-division circuit -- has its quirks.
So did the 18-year-old kid on the mound. Zach Britton, the Orioles' 2006 third-round Draft pick, was pitching as if he had some kind of neckache, with his eyes inexplicably glued to the very top of the backstop. Gary Allenson, the Bluefield Orioles' manager, kept watching his young pitcher from the dugout and couldn't figure it out. What on earth was this kid doing?
It was still the first inning when Allenson, now with Triple-A Norfolk, had seen enough. He came out of the home dugout and immediately realized what was going on. Up in the stands -- to capture every moment -- were Britton's parents and his girlfriend, along with a handheld video camera. The device and its owners had all of Britton's attention that day as he paraded around on the hill with his only pitch: a neck-high, mid-80s fastball.
"He's so distracted, he's actually so focused on the taping of this whole thing that he can't even pitch," Allenson said of Britton, the heralded Orioles rookie who is now 2-0 with a 0.66 ERA after having shut down the Tampa Bay Rays and Texas Rangers in his first two Major League starts.
"Obviously, he's come a long way since then."
Five years later, Britton, who boasts a power sinker in an increasingly devastating four-pitch arsenal, is by no means a finished product. But the 23-year-old's development from a self-described "depressed" teenager at Bluefield -- where he would throw a fit following every start in a winless 11-game season -- to one of baseball's most electric new arms has been astonishing.
"He's gotten much better the last few years at controlling his emotions," said Kennie Steenstra, the pitching coach at Double-A Bowie, who had Britton at three different levels and admitted at times the young lefty -- who truly believed no one should ever get a hit off him -- was a little extreme.
"But we knew we had something special a couple years ago," Steenstra said of Britton, who was tabbed as the organization's Minor League Pitcher of the Year last season. "I think it just took a little longer for scouts and other baseball people to kind of catch up."
Most of Britton's early days on the mound, while frequently filmed by his dad, were hardly highlight-reel worthy.
An all-state outfielder at Weatherford (Texas) High School, Britton didn't expect to be drafted, particularly as a pitcher. He was recruited by Texas A&M head coach Rob Childress after the coach watched Britton play catch in the outfield with current Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, who Britton had planned on living with in the dorms. The Aggies were going to let Britton play the outfield and do a little pitching. It was going to be the perfect setup.
About a week before the Draft, Britton realized he might have a shot at going pro. The Nationals were apparently considering taking him in the first few rounds. It was the first time Britton -- who had noticed Orioles scouting director Joe Jordan at nearly every one of his games -- had heard he might be that high on someone's list.
Teams will tell you that come Draft time, any recent major injury raises some concerns, and Britton was a bona fide red flag. "Any breaks in the past five years?" the prospective Draftee form read. Just a fractured skull, fractured collarbone and bleeding in the brain, the result of a two-day trip to the intensive care unit after Britton -- then a freshman at Canyon High School -- dove headfirst to catch a foul popup and was greeted by a concrete light fixture.
Britton still can't remember the sequence clearly, just patches of consciousness: his right arm twisted behind his back, the ambulance loading him up, and his friend crying when he opened his eyes in a tangled heap at the fixture's base.
"It was a disaster," Britton's brother, Buck, said of the incident. It was also only a practice. But there was no telling Zach, the youngest of three brothers, to ease up. He would drive people off of the family's homemade dirt-bike course, built on the nearly five acres of land the Brittons had in California. Everything with the Brittons -- Buck, who is currently a prospect in the Orioles' system, Zach, and oldest brother Clay, who was drafted by Detroit but never signed -- was a competition.
It is little surprise then, that Britton -- who has a scar above his left eyebrow from splitting his head open while jumping off a bed -- points out that he made that catch before slamming into the concrete.
"He would give you everything he had," said Jason Lee, the assistant baseball coach at Weatherford, who coached Britton when his family relocated to Texas. It didn't matter if Britton had pitched the night before, he would still approach his coaches during the next afternoon's game just to let them know he was available to throw again.
"He would give up a home run to a guy and we would still win the game, but Zach would be talking about that home run," Lee said. "He would be happy we won, but he'd be like, 'When I see that guy next, he's not going to beat me.' He was fixated on constantly improving."
Going from a high school standout to a failure in Bluefield who frequently exited to boos didn't sit well with Britton, who lived alone in a dormitory, hours away from his family and friends. He called home nearly every day that season, and by the time Britton was done, he was 0-4 with a 5.29 ERA in 11 games. It got worse when polished college arms Jake Arrieta and Brian Matusz entered the Orioles' system, in 2007 and '08, respectively.
"People were like, 'This guy's great.' And I'd be like, 'Why can't I be like that? I don't see why he's the best thing. I can do that,'" said Britton, who was already familiar with the Texas native Arrieta.
"I'd watch him pitch and be like, 'Hey, I want to be like that. I want to do that. What do I got to do to be like that?,'" Britton said. "When Brian came, it was the same thing. I feel like being the underdog has helped me stay focused. My goal was to get in the big leagues, it was not to toy around in the Minors forever."
His ticket out was an accident, a botched attempt at learning a cut fastball from Aberdeen's pitching coach, and former O's arm, Calvin Maduro midway through the 2007 season. The story goes that Britton's first few attempts kept sinking downward, resulting in a low-80s pitch with some serious movement.
Finally, catcher Justin Johnson spoke up: "Is this what was supposed to happen?"
"No," Maduro said, before turning to Britton.
"Whatever you did on that, throw it a few times next time out," he advised. "Let's see what happens."
What happened was the ground balls just started coming, right as Britton's velocity started increasing. He went 2-1 in his final five starts at short-season Aberdeen, lowering his ERA by nearly half a run (3.38) from the previous 10. Britton's power sinker -- a grip he has since relaxed, preferring to hold it deeper in his hand -- allowed him to dominate Minor League hitters, who couldn't square the pitch or get any lift under the ball.
"This is pretty cool," Britton thought initially.
It sure beat the line drives and home runs he was used to giving up. His ERA at Aberdeen, a combined 3.68, dropped steadily in each of the next three levels as Britton's ground ball rate started to soar. He added an offspeed pitch, and was later tasked with developing his changeup, but Britton's sinker has been the one pitch -- ever since that fateful day with Maduro -- that his game has revolved around.
It was also the one pitch that was not working on April 3 at Tropicana Field. It was his first big league start after a dominating spring -- and a last-minute promotion due to an injury to Matusz -- and Britton was on the mound and so amped up that he couldn't sink the ball. There had been times before where he couldn't locate his sinker, or it wasn't getting the usual amount of movement, but never could Britton recall a time when he had absolutely no feel for the pitch.
"Last year, he probably would keep throwing it and throwing it," Steenstra said of Britton, who leaned on catcher Matt Wieters and instead used a steady diet of offspeed pitches to limit the Rays to one run in six innings.
"He wouldn't have done that a year ago," Steenstra added. "It was good to hear that, whether it was his call initially or Wieters, it was good to see that progression."
There were about 20 of Britton's family members and close friends in attendance in St. Petersburg that Sunday, but there was only one name on his mind as he walked out of the tunnel to warm up on the field.
"This is for Sandi," Britton texted to his mother before the biggest moment of his professional career, "She will be on my back."
Sandi Stephens was killed by a drunk driver on May 28, 2007. The 22-year-old, who was pregnant, pulled over because there was something wrong with her car. Stephens got out of the vehicle to check things out and was hit, dying instantly, along with her unborn child. A close family friend who grew up with the Brittons before moving to Oklahoma, Stephens' death left Zach searching for a way to honor the girl who was "like a sister" to him.
He found it in baseball, as Zach -- along with Buck -- each had several Under Armour shirts made up with Stephens' initials, along with her date of birth and passing, emblazoned on the back.
"I didn't know how to handle it, those emotions and stuff after her funeral," Britton said. "The only way I felt like I could honor her was through baseball. That's why I've worn the shirt, and that's why hopefully I'm able to do a lot of things in her name, [both] me and Buck."
Britton has worn the shirt under his uniform every start since her death, paying a visiting Triple-A clubhouse attendant $100 last year to ship one of the shirts after it got misplaced in one of the visiting clubhouses.
"I know this may sound cheesy, but I feel like I've done really well since I've worn that shirt," he said. "It's really weird how I feel so much more confident since I put that shirt on. I know it sounds strange. But that's how I feel, and I felt that in Tampa, too."
"[He's] a real caring, real emotional guy. I know it doesn't really come out," Buck said of his younger brother, who he exchanged a tearful hug with that Saturday night in Sarasota, Fla., when Zach first received news of his promotion.
"He cares deeply about everything that he does," Buck added. "He's going to continue to get better [at pitching]. And God willing, as long as he stays healthy, it's going to be something that Baltimore really gets to see."
Britton's first act, during which he has allowed one run in 13 2/3 innings, has exceeded all reasonable expectations for a rookie in the American League East. It has given him confidence, but it hasn't changed his opinion of life in the Major Leagues: It is a long, arduous learning process.
"I have been surprised with how well the results have been," said Britton, who has tried to remain even-keeled despite the onslaught of national media attention.
"I've gotten some messages from people who feel like I'm going to go undefeated the whole year and put up like this [sub-1.00] ERA," he said. "It's nice that people feel like I can do that, but I know that these are the best hitters in the world and they are here for a reason."
"I had bad starts in high [Class] A, I had bad starts in low [Class] A, Double-A, Triple-A -- it's going to happen, and I fully expect to have a bad outing here [in the Majors]," Britton added. "But I think it's what you do after you have those bad starts, especially at this level, that separates you from the pack."
Brittany Ghiroli is a reporter for MLB.com. Read her blog, Britt's Bird Watch, and follow her on Twitter @britt_ghiroli. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.