You might think that a 26-year-old, out-of-options pitcher who has struggled to maintain success in the Major Leagues would feel the pressure to get his career together. At least in Zach Britton’s case, you would be wrong. At FanFest, Britton was asked about his future now that he’s a few bad starts away from unemployment, however temporary it might be, and responded that a weight had been lifted from his shoulders. As viewers, we can only imagine how mentally and physically stressful it must be to yo-yo between the Majors and the minors, expected to perform at both levels on whatever preparation, training, and sleep can be had in transit. For Britton, his lack of options means one thing: he’s a big league pitcher. And that’s it. If the Orioles don’t like the way he looks in black and orange, he’ll probably be a big league pitcher somewhere else, since he is young enough and talented enough to get plucked off of waivers.
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Zach Britton As a Starting Pitcher
The Orioles rotation currently looks like this, or at least very close to this, with some reordering or a question mark next to Gonzalez:
- Ubaldo Jimenez
- Chris Tillman
- Wei-Yin Chen
- Miguel Gonzalez
- Bud Norris/Kevin Gausman/Johan Santana1/Zach Britton
Britton hasn’t seen much action since a solid rookie campaign in 2011, playing in just 12 games in 2012, starting 11 of those 12, and 8 games in 2013, starting 7. He hasn’t really given the team a reason to put him on the mound in the first inning in the last two years, and some people may even leave him out of the discussion regarding the fight for the last rotation spot.
The Orioles have invested enough time and energy into developing Britton as a starting pitcher that his first last chance should be in the mix for a rotation spot. After that, he’d have to fight for time in an already crowded bullpen that already has a strong left-hander, albeit a specialist, in fellow former cavalry member Brian Matusz.
For Zach Britton to stick with the rotation, the first thing he’ll have to do is stop batters from reaching base so often. Britton carries a career 1.516 WHIP, which is not exactly ideal for starting pitchers. In his best season, Britton held a 1.451 WHIP and has only let it slip up from there. His BABIP has hovered just above .300 but hasn’t changed so appreciably that it can be cited as the cause of his woes after 2009. His BABIP in 2013 was .338, so Britton has been unlucky in that regard, with league-average BABIP generally cited as .300. He hasn’t been so unlucky that the team can look past it and expect his outcomes to regress positively.
Interestingly, Britton has posted a very good GB/FB rate in each of the years for which data is available. In 2012, the season in which he was first demoted and has been unable to recover from, his GB/FB ratio was 1.55 in 12 appearances. That’s a solid step up from his complete-season 2011 in which he posted a 1.14 ratio. Between these two seasons, regression ended up hurting Britton’s case: his 5.7% HR/FB ratio2 in 2011 was unsustainable, and even staying below the league average of 10% HR/FB in 2012 failed to be enough to keep his home runs per plate appearance from jumping from 1.8% to 2.2%. Britton even struck out more batters in 2012, raising his SO% by five percentage points to 19.6%. His H/9 and HR/9 stayed relatively consistent, so what was it that got Britton the push down to the minors in 2012? Two things jump out in his stats: his BB/9 increased by 1.2 walks per game and his ERA+ fell from 95 to an 86. Those two things seem to be very much related in Britton’s case: as he walked more batters, more batters scored. It’s that simple. Everything else Britton did in 2012 was better than in 2011; even with an elevated BB/9 – still with a BB% at average or above average! – his SO/BB increased from 1.56 to 1.66! Britton overperformed in 2011 and was bitten by regression in 2012, and suffered the option process because of it.
2013 was a very different story for Zach Britton. While he improved very slightly when compared to the league as a whole (up to an ERA+ of 85!), many important statistics were poor. In a very short Major League stint, Britton posted a H/9 of 11.7, a solid 2 hits per nine innings more than ever, and a SO/BB ratio of 1.06. This is particularly troubling since his BB/9 actually decreased to 3.8, in line with his 2011 performance. While he wasn’t giving as many free passes as he did in 2012, Britton just wasn’t getting anybody out. His WHIP shot up to 1.725 and he saw just 40 innings of Major League action during the season. There are three potentially positive takeaways from 2013:
- His HR/9 stayed constant at 0.9. While HR/FB is not available on Baseball-Reference for 2013, I’m going to assume that it was around that which he posted in 2012, which was about league average.
- He walked fewer batters. It’s easier to be successful if you’re making guys work for their bases. Britton didn’t make them work that much, but it’s a start!
- These stats were accumulated over an incredibly short time frame. While he admittedly pitched himself into that small sample size, Britton may benefit from a longer runway and being allowed to let peaks and troughs even out.
One of Britton’s biggest issues is with his two-seam fastball. According to FanGraphs, Britton threw the two-seamer 52.9% of the time in 2011 and then just 38% of the time in both 2012 and 2013. This pitch was worth 8.2 runs above average in 2011, 0.9 in 2012, and -3.5 in 2013. While his four-seam/unclassified fastballs have always been below average according to FanGraphs and PITCHf/x, his two-seamer has not only gotten worse but been used less often. It’s pretty clear that Britton began throwing his four-seam fastball and slider more often:
As for why his two-seamer dropped so dramatically in value, it’s difficult to say. Looking at the following charts, it’s easy to see that he stopped throwing the two-seamer inside to right-handed batters, but that doesn’t seem like it would change his fortunes so dramatically:
He also looks to have gotten squeezed a bit on the outside with this pitch, but again, it’s a reach to say that this specific change is the root of Britton’s problems. His SLG against and isolated power against have both increased since 2011, but whether this is a result of his using lesser pitches more often or having lost whatever advantage he had with his two-seamer is up in the air.
But here’s the thing: even when Britton got relatively lucky and had a well-used, formidable two-seamer in 2011, he was still a 0.4 bWAR pitcher. That’s a far cry from Matusz’s 3.0 bWAR season in 2010 with a similar number of starts. Dropping to a 0.1 bWAR pitcher in 2012 and 2013, possibly due in part to a fast shuttling, shouldn’t have been that surprising. It wasn’t like Britton fell off the same cliff that Matusz did (who dropped to -2.3 WAR in 2011). He wasn’t terrible, he was just a year older and a little less lucky. Every additional year of age takes away from some level of perceived potential, some level of prospect value. A 24-year-old with an unspectacular but manageable season in the Majors was great – this kid will grow into something next year! A 25-year-old who really regresses to the mean in most cases, improves in others, and struggles with command is a lot less appealing. If just those ages were flipped, Britton would still be touted as a potential breakout candidate.
So why did he get relegated to the back of the line so quickly? It’s all about competition. While Britton struggled in 2012, Chris Tillman asserted himself as a solid Major League pitcher, Jason Hammel had an unlikely and shirt-lived renaissance, import Wei-Yin Chen lived up to expectations, and Miguel Gonzalez came from nowhere to take a slot in the rotation. Arrieta wasn’t great, but he was good enough to take the last spot for most of the season.
In that respect, Britton faces a tougher challenge in 2014. The Orioles’ rotation candidates are stronger and deeper than they have been in a long time, and the team is going to look for more than a few wins from every member of their rotation. Not only will Britton have to post the best season of his career by a wide margin to be competitive, he’ll have to best a number of talented pitchers as well.
Zach Britton as a Reliever
Zach Britton already figures to at least be in the Orioles bullpen, since the team likely doesn’t want to give up their player on waivers. There, he’ll join lefties Brian Matusz and TJ McFarland, the first of whom is a LOOGY (assuming he doesn’t earn a rotation spot this spring) and the second of whom is a mop-up guy slated to take the mound when one of the two teams playing is up by a lot. Troy Patton will be serving a 25-game suspension before returning as another lefty, and Mike Belfiore and Johan Santana will be competing for a bullpen spot with the edge among those two likely going to Santana. That’s a crowded pool of lefties fighting for space in an already tight bullpen. It’s doubtful that Matusz is discarded, and McFarland is a cheap way to save arms, though he does have an option now that he’s been on the Orioles roster for a full season. Patton is unlikely to be a demotion candidate as well. After Patton returns, the bullpen will be set on lefties. If Britton doesn’t earn a rotation spot, it’s hard to fit him in anywhere.
The team could option McFarland and use Britton as their long reliever. This course isn’t any more expensive one way or the other; Britton and McFarland are both pre-arbitration and will likely make around $500,000 each. Britton is equally competent against lefties and righties, with a fairly similar triple slash against batters from each side of the plate. As expected, righties hit him a little better, but still bat under .300 against him. Britton’s troubles on both sides of the plate stem from the OBP he allows. Zach Britton’s value as a trade candidate may not be diminished much with a move to long reliever, since his sub-par performance as a starter has pretty much wiped him of that anyway. He would probably out-perform McFarland as a bullpen arm, considering McFarland’s 2012 bullpen stats match Britton’s starter stats. A shorter outing will likely help Britton focus on throwing harder and better pitches.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Britton is a mid-season trade candidate packaged as a reclamation project at starter or solid option in the bullpen. If he works out as a reliever, I would imagine the Orioles would like to keep him on their roster and hold McFarland in the minors. They’ve already invested so much time and money into him, and he’s cost-controlled for another few years. There’s no reason to let that investment pay off for someone else, even at the modest relief level.
I feel that it’s a long shot that Britton sticks as a starter in 2014, only because he is facing some very stiff competition. It’s more likely to happen than Matusz transitioning out of the bullpen, and the team will want to do everything it can to keep Gausman’s service time from starting right away, so it’s certainly a possibility. At that point, Britton need only to outperform Bud Norris, who was unspectacular in a handful of starts at the end of 2012, and Johan Santana, who is 35, coming off of surgery, and doesn’t have the firepower he did 7 years ago. Things can break right for Zach Britton and it wouldn’t shock me to see him start 10 games in 2014. While it would be a nice surprise to have him seemingly figure things out and return to the trajectory he appeared to be on after 2011, I believe it’s unlikely that Britton will lock the fifth spot down for the full 2014 season.
1. While Santana currently profiles as a reliever, his career has been as a starter and the incentives of his contract with the Orioles point toward an opportunity to make a few starts: Santana will receive bonuses if he makes more than just 5 starts.
2. For some reason, Britton’s HR/FB is different on FanGraphs. FanGraphs has Britton at 8.6% in 2011, 14.3% in 2012, and 12.5% in 2013. I generally use Baseball-Reference.com for this figure, so my reaction to his stats is based on what I typically see over there.