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April 4, 2011

Painting the Black

Dissecting Britton's Debut

by R.J. Anderson

Brian Matusz is one of my favorite young pitchers to watch, so the news that he was starting the season on the disabled list came as a disappointment. Jeremy Guthrie’s entrenchment as Opening Day starter forced Andy MacPhail and Buck Showalter to flip the rotation to cover for Matusz’s scheduled start on Saturday. They did so by moving Chris Tillman up a day, but rather than advancing Jake Arrieta or Brad Bergesen accordingly, the Orioles chose to give their fan base a glimpse of the future by promoting top pitching prospect Zachary Britton.

Before Britton took the mound, the Orioles’ rotation had already made headlines. On Friday night, Guthrie pitched the game of his life, going eight innings without allowing a run. Tillman started on Saturday and outdueled James Shields, holding the Rays hitless through six before being lifted over pitch count concerns. The bar was already high for Britton based on his pedigree, but his rotation mates did him no favors heading into his big-league debut.

The Rays lineup may have lost Carlos Pena and Carl Crawford, but it’s still a considerable threat. Fortunately for Britton, Evan Longoria exited Saturday’s game with a strained oblique (and has since hit the disabled list) and Johnny Damon was a late scratch on Sunday thanks to turf-related soreness. These health concerns left the Rays with a lineup including Sam Fuld, Elliot Johnson, and Matt Joyce—an underrated basher of right-handed pitching, albeit one who struggles mightily against southpaws. Opposing Britton was Wade Davis, a talented young pitcher in his own right. This game, like the others in the series, would come down to mistakes.

For his part, Britton appeared poised. I loathe using the phrase, “Looked like he belonged,” but there were no awkward movements or outward signs of nervousness. Yes, the game took place within an air-conditioned dome, but if Dewon Brazelton accomplished nothing else, he proved that The Trop does not restrict perspiration. Britton also looked like a big-league pitcher in size and shape.

In the lead-up to the game, I read over Kevin Goldstein’s write-up on Britton. Within, Goldstein passed along a comment from a scout who compared Britton to a left-handed Brandon Webb, which is to say an extreme groundballer with decent strikeout rates. I’m not sure if that’s a perfect comparison or not, as Britton has more velocity than the pre-surgical Webb, but I am curious as to whether the progression of Britton’s strikeout and walk rates in the majors will mirror those of Webb's, which remained consistent with his rates at Double-A (Webb made only four appearances at Triple-A). If that’s the case, then Britton is going to strike out around seven per nine innings and walk two while his balls in play beat up the infield.

Once Britton stopped tossing his warm-up pitches and the bottom of the first got underway, it became apparent that his appearance wasn’t the only thing ready for The Show. The first “Wow” moment came against the second batter he faced. After B.J. Upton grounded out, Elliot Johnson worked a 2-2 count. At this point, Britton unleashed a two-seam fastball that appeared headed inside and off the plate. Then, as the pitch is wont to do, it darted back over the plate. Johnson had no hope as the umpire signaled strike three. Just like that, Britton had his first big-league strikeout (viewable here).

Along with his low-90s two-seamer, Britton throws a four-seamer that can get up to 94 or so, a slider, and a changeup. The four-seamer looks flat when compared to his two-seamer, but it serves as a good set-up pitch, particularly in counts where Britton can show lefties a wide four-seamer, then toss a backdoor two-seamer to end the at-bat. A more common sequence will have Britton tossing the two-seamer low in the zone and watching as the batter pounds it in the dirt for an easy groundout. Britton’s changeup had the highest rate of whiffs on Sunday, as he mixed it well. He also threw a slider, which he needs to control better. Even still, there’s a lot to like in his arsenal.

It is worth noting that the Rays had more success against Britton when they began to wait him out. Matt Joyce started things in the third inning with a nine-pitch walk. Britton tried getting Joyce to bite on pitches low in the zone, but resistance won out. The next man up, Fuld, saw his combination of small stature and squaring to bunt lead to a few generous ball calls, thus drawing a walk himself. After a B.J. Upton blooper dropped in between fielders (a heads-up play led to a force out at second base), Johnson dropped a squeeze bunt, giving the Rays their only run of the afternoon.

That’s not to suggest that Britton had a flawless outing. A few balls were smoked for hits (Ben Zobrist and Sean Rodriguez each doubled to the left-center gap), including at least two liners to the left side of the infield. For all the talk about the Orioles’ improved offense at the infield positions, the infielders' defense was the most impressive aspect of their game on Sunday, although Mark Reynolds did have a pair of run-scoring doubles and J.J. Hardy got involved in the offensive fun as well.

The box score shows that Britton completed six innings, striking out a batter per frame, walking three, and allowing three hits and one earned run. Whether the Orioles had plans to keep Britton up after Matusz returns or not is anyone’s guess, but if he continues pitching like he did on Sunday, they may not have much of a choice. Should Tillman and Arietta harness some of their potential, the Orioles could have a legitimate rotation for the first time in ages: the Orioles haven’t posted a team ERA below 4.50 since 2002, and you have to go back to 1997 to find a Baltimore team with an ERA below 4.00.

An O's pitching renaissance has been a long time coming, but for at least one weekend, Baltimore could boast the best rotation in the American League East.

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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