Meet Zach Britton–the Orioles starting pitcher whose win Tuesday night gave the Orioles a share of the division lead with the Yankees.
Britton has been phenomenal for the Orioles over his last 4 starts, going 4-0 with a sub-1.00 ERA.
A former 3rd round pick, Britton was previously ranked (in 2010) as a top-30 prospect by Baseball America, so his success shouldn’t come as that great of a surprise. But still, after Britton spent the first three months of the season in the minors and then accumulated an 8.35 ERA through his first 4 starts of 2012 season, he didn’t appear to be the most likely candidate to suddenly turn into a late-career version of Sandy Koufax.
So now, the question is whether Britton’s recent dominance is sustainable or whether it is merely “smoke and mirrors.”
Who exactly is Zach Britton? Let’s take a closer look.
Zach Britton: Ground Ball Machine
Through his first 14 starts of 2011, Britton posted an ERA of 3.10 ERA and a WHIP of 1.25.
In the AL East!
As a rookie!!
Over his remaining 14 starts however, Britton imploded, posting an ERA around 6.00 and a WHIP north of 1.60. As a result, his final stat line (11-11, 4.61 ERA, 1.45 WHIP) was average, at best.
Still, those first 14 starts are not exactly a “small sample size” so his production over that period cannot simply be attributed to “blind luck.”
If we expand the scope of our analysis to Britton’s first 16 starts of 2011, we find that Britton’s rate of inducing ground balls (GB%) was around 55%. In comparison, the average GB% for major league starters during the 2011 season was 44.4%.
Britton’s high GB% rate is significant for multiple reasons.
1) It is directly correlated to a lower batting average by opposing batters
2) It reduces the amount of extra-base hits surrendered to opposing batters.
And logically, this makes sense–a player’s batting average on fly balls and line drives will always be higher than their average on ground balls because when a ball is hit out of the infield (on the fly), it has a larger potential area to land safely as opposed to a ground ball (which is confined to the infield). And since a ground ball will generally only lead to an extra base hit if its hit sharply down the first or third base line, a ground ball will rarely lead to an extra base hit. Thus ground balls produce not only less hits, but almost entirely singles. Therefore, pitchers who can consistently induce ground balls have inherently more value to MLB teams than other pitchers
So is Britton the ground ball pitcher that his GB% rate purports him to be? You betcha…
Britton’s best pitch is his sinker, which touches the mid-ninties at times. He also has great control of both a 2-seam and a 4-seam fastball, each of which he is able to consistently keep around the knees.
And get this: in 2012, Britton has actually improved upon his already impressive ground ball rate from his first 16 starts of last year, which shows that his superb ground-ball rate is absolutely sustainable.
What To Make of Disastrous 2011?
There is however, still the unpleasant reality of Britton’s disastrous final 14 starts of 2011. While I won’t necessarily overlook these starts, I won’t buy into them very much, either.
There are a variety of reasons that a rookie starting pitcher can falter down the stretch of his first MLB season.
Britton might have suffered some degree of fatigue in the season’s second half, as indicated by the average velocity of his fastball dropping by roughly 2 MPH between his first and last starts of the season.
Britton may have also struggled to adjust to major league hitters as quickly as they were able to adjust to him, which is something that commonly happens to rookie MLB starters.
It appears however that in his second major league season, Britton has accelerated his learning curve.
Over his last four starts, Britton has been the best pitcher in all of baseball. And if you don’t believe me, just look at Britton’s stats over the past 3 weeks (28.2 Innings):
- 0.94 ERA
- 1.01 WHIP
- 29 Ks.
Pretty good right?
And while the .94 ERA and 1.01 WHIP are unlikely sustainable, they do serve the purpose of showing that Britton’s first 14 starts last season were likely not a fluke and that down the road, Zach Britton has the potential to become a top-of-the-rotation caliber starter.
Is Increased K/9 Sustainable?
The most unlikely statistic, however, isn’t Britton’s ERA or WHIP, but rather his 29 strikeouts (in 28.2 innings). In Britton’s entire professional career dating back to 2005 (minor leagues included), Britton’s strikeout rate per nine innings (K/9) has never exceeded 7.9. Over the past 4 starts however, Britton has a 9.1 K/9 rate, which is an elite rate for a starting pitcher.
So what has changed?
The answer is Britton’s slider.
At some point between 2011 and 2012, Zach Britton learned how to throw a more effective slider–check that, a MUCH more effective slider.
In 2011, when Britton threw his slider outside the strike zone and the opposing batter swung at the pitch, the batter made contact with the pitch 36% of the time (this is known as the O-Contact%). In 2012 however, Britton’s sliders have become significantly harder to hit as his O-Contact% has dropped to 23%.
It is also worth noting that while Britton’s slider was his least frequently thrown pitch in 2011 (he threw it on 1 out of every 8 pitches), it has become a more permanent part of his arsenal (as he now throws it on 1 out of nearly every 4 pitches).
Functionally, what these statistics mean is that whereas Britton was using his slider as a throwaway pitch in 2011, he is using it as his “out” pitch in 2012.
The fact that he throws the slider on roughly a quarter of his pitches means that he is basically throwing it once per at bat. And when he is throwing the slider to strike hitters out, he is often throwing it outside the strike-zone to induce hitters to chase the pitch. When those hitters chase, they almost always swing and miss (as they make contact less than a quarter of the time).
So whereas in 2011 when Britton would have his 2-strike sliders fouled off, he is seeing his 2012 sliders miss more and more bats. Thus I believe Britton’s recent barrage of strikeouts is less an anomaly and more a sign of things to come.
So…Who Is Zach Britton?
Is Zach Britton the next Sandy Koufax? Probably not.
But Zach Britton IS a hell of a lot better than his career 4.49 ERA and 1.45 WHIP would have you believe.
The bottom line is that Britton has the potential to become a top-of-the-rotation caliber starter for the Orioles as soon as next year and remain one for years to come.
Just remember that next year when you’re looking for late-round sleepers in next year’s fantasy draft.