Zach Britton is a rare bird, and not just because he pitches for the Orioles. The left-handed rookie's best pitch is a hard sinker that during his minor-league days caused hitters to pound the ball into ground at an amazing rate. Britton has now reached the majors on the strength of his two-seam fastball that stays low in the strike zone and breaks plenty of bats.
While sinkerball pitchers aren't unusual, lefty sinkerballers like Britton are. The Orioles' third-round draft pick in 2006 out of Weatherford (Texas) High School never evern threw a sinker until his first full professional season, in 2007 with Aberdeen in the short-season Class A New York-Penn League. Aberdeen pitching coach Calvin Maduro suggested Britton learn a sinker grip to give him another pitch in his arsenal. Coming off a professional debut in which he went 0-4 with a 5.29 ERA in 11 starts for Bluefield in the Rookie-level Appalachian League, Britton was willing to experiment.
Britton quickly learned to love the sinker, and it made him such a hot property that Baseball Prospectus' Kevin Goldstein ranked him as the Orioles' second-best prospect coming into this season behind shortstop Manny Machado, the third overall pick in last year's draft. Like Machado, Britton got a five-star rating from Goldstein, who pegged him as the 17th-best prospect in baseball.
"With Zach, it's a different presentation than what you [normally] see from a left-handed pitcher," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said. "You see left-handers who will throw a sinker, but not at the type of velocity Zach does. It's a different look. The one thing you're always asking your minor league people, your coordinators and evaluators, is what presentations they see that are not generic in the major leagues."
Orioles catcher Matt Wieters has noted Britton's "heavy ball," which hits the catcher's mitt with more force because of its sinking action. "It's coming in at 93 to 96 miles per hour, which is harder than most regular four-seam fastballs," Wieters said. "I wear extra padding in my mitt for all our young pitchers because they all have great sutff, but I really need it to catch Zach. You can really feel it when it hits the mitt."
Britton, 23, was scheduled to begin this season back at Triple-A Norfolk in the International League, where he finished 2010, a move clearly designed to hold down his major-league service time. However, when Orioles left-hander Brian Matusz was forced to the disabled list with a strained intercostal muscle, an injury likely to shelve him another two or three weeks, the Orioles had no choice but to summon Britton, who had yet to pitch for the Tides.
After losing to the Indians on Friday night in Cleveland, Britton is now 2-1 with a 2.75 ERA in his first three career starts. He had previously allowed just one run in a combined 13 2/3 innings in beating the Rays and Rangers, two division winners last season, before getting touched for five runs in six innings by the Indians.
"He's done a great job," Showalter said. "I'm proud of him. It's not easy to come to the major leagues and have immediate success."
Even in his loss, Britton did not pitch poorly. Except for a triple by Matt LaPorta and a home run by Travis Hafner, the Indians did not hit Britton particularly hard. When they strung together six hits in a four-run third inning, three of those were on ground balls, another was on a bunt, and yet another came on an opposite-field bloop.
Britton found his first loss to be a learning experience.
"You've got to make your pitches to get big-league hitters out," Britton said. "In my case, I've got to keep the ball down and be aggressive so I don't let those guys feel comfortable in the batter's box. I need to do a better job of putting guys away. I feel like I need to get balls off the plate a little more when there are guys in scoring position. I threw too many balls that got too much of the plate, and that allowed them to hit them hard enough to get through the infield. It all comes down to locating the ball a little more down."
The Orioles are counting on Britton forming the backbone of a rotation that includes one veteran right-hander in Jeremy Guthrie and a number of other youngsters, including right-handers Chris Tillman, Jake Arrieta, and Brian Bergesen. Matusz, the presumptive staff ace, will eventually be back, and the Orioles hope that veteran righty Justin Duchscherer, currently on the DL with hip soreness, can provide rotation help at some point after Baltimore signed him as a free agent in the offseason. Guthrie is 33 and Duchscherer is 32, but the others are all 25 or younger.
While the Orioles spent the winter stocking up on position players such as first baseman Derrek Lee, third baseman Mark Reynolds, shortstop J.J. Hardy, and designated hitter Vladimir Guerrero—a move that has yet to pay dividends as Baltimore's average of 3.69 runs a game ranks just eighth in the American League and 19th in the majors—it is the young pitching that is being counted on to lift a franchise coming off 13 consecutive losing seasons. So far, the pitching has been problematic, too, as a six-game losing streak has dropped the Orioles to 6-7 following a 6-1 start. The Orioles are giving up 4.38 runs a game, which ranks seventh in the AL and 18th in the majors.
The young pitchers began taking strides late last season after Showalter took over a team that was 32-73 on August 3 and guided it to a 34-23 finish. The Orioles allowed 5.46 runs a game before Showalter and 3.72 after he arrived. Even though the numbers aren't as good in the early part of this season, Wieters still sees good signs.
"We really improved our offense, but the backbone of this team is our starting pitchers," Wieters said. "We've got a lot of talented young pitchers who are progressing very well. Their stuff has always been able to play at this level, and the mental game is coming along at a good pace. The good finish last year showed they could get people without their best stuff and was a real confidence boost to all of our pitchers."
Britton pitches with plenty of confidence, though no cockiness. That struck Showalter during spring training when he met Britton for the first time.
"He has a good face," Showalter said.
A good face?
"He's serious, earnest, has alert eyes. Those are thing you look at in a young player," Showalter said. "He has good hands, good wrists, good fingers. He has a good presentation on the mound. He presents a confident front, but at the same time has respect for the opposition and the level of play. He's not too cool for school. He's like, 'Hey, it's pretty cool, this is the big leagues.' His first thought is always about what it takes to stay in the big leagues. He's never assumed anything. Young players don't have many voices of reality around them. It's always someone telling them how easy it's going to be and how great they are. He doesn't fall for that."
Rumors & Rumblings: Mariners general manager Jack Zduriencik continues to insist he has no plans to trade reigning AL Cy Young winner Felix Hernandez, but some front-office types believe he will have no choice come July. "That team is just awful, and they're eventually going to have decide whether to have an awful team with King Felix or trade him and get three or four premium pieces to help them rebuild," said one major-league executive. … Mariners closer David Aardsma (hip) will begin a rehab assignment at Triple-A Tacoma tomorrow, and he should return to the big club within the next two weeks. If Aardsma proves healthy, he should be another attractive trade chip come July. … The Mariners are becoming very concerned by Gold Glove center fielder Franklin Gutierrez' stomach ailment, which has yet to be diagnosed. It forced him to cut short a rehab assignment at high-A High Desert over the weekend. … Right-hander Kevin Millwood seemed to silence some of the talk that he has nothing left by throwing a seven-inning, one-hit shutout on Sunday for Double-A Trenton against Harrisburg (Nationals) in his Yankees' organization debut. Look for the Yankees to fast-track Millwood, especially if Bartolo Colon struggles as the rotation replacement for Phil Hughes (arm fatigue), who will now try to build arm strength on a rehab assignment at Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
The Blue Jays are closer to activating Frank Francisco (pectoral), originally slated to be their closer, after he threw one scoreless inning for high-A Dunedin against Lakeland (Tigers) in the Florida State League on Sunday. Jon Rauch is expected to remain in the closing role for now. If he falters, Francisco will likely be plugged in as closer, though Octavio Dotel also has closing experience. … Much of Diamondbacks second baseman Kelly Johnson's slow start stems from balance problems at the plate. Johnson has been suffering from a bad cold for three weeks. … The Indians are expected to recall Jeanmar Gomez from Triple-A to take the place of Mitch Talbot (elbow) in the rotation. … Pirates right-hander Ross Ohlendorf (shoulder) has felt no pain throwing off flat ground, but there is no timetable for his return.
Cardinals right fielder Lance Berkman: "I really thought he was nearing the end of the line last year. He's got his bat speed back this year, though, which is a sign his legs are healthy. I'm not sold on him as a right fielder, but they can live with him out there if he hits the way he's been hitting the last week or so."
Cubs shortstop Starlin Castro: "He is really blossoming into a special player. He has great range, and he is starting to calm down in the field instead of rushing plays. I think he's going to be a heckuva leadoff hitter, too. He's calmed down at the plate, too, and he's starting to wait for a pitch then driving it. He's just a baby. Imagine how good he's going to be in another year or two."
Tigers left-hander Phil Coke: "He was so hyper as a reliever that I wondered how he would adjust to starting. He's looked good, though. He seems a lot calmer on the mound, has a better mound presence. Some guys just respond better to having a regular routine as a starter."
Padres first baseman Brad Hawpe: "He hasn't hit since the first half of 2009, and I'm starting to wonder if he'll ever get his feel back at the plate. He has so many moving parts to his swing that it's difficult to correct it. He hasn't been able to figure it out for almost two years now."
Marlins right-hander Josh Johnson: "He's been working in a slow curveball this year. It's not a great weapon yet, and he doesn't throw it often, but it gives the hitters something else to think about. The guy already throws 95-mph fastballs, two different types of sliders, and a changeup. If he masters the curveball, he'll be unfair. Nobody will touch him."