Zach Britton is refusing to give in. During Orioles Fan Fest the second year Orioles pitcher is backstage listening patiently to prodding questions from the reporters surrounding him. Naturally, the topic of Britton's ascendency to a starting role in his first full big league season comes up. Naturally, he is asked if he feels he can relax a bit now in spring training, if he feels he doesn't have to worry so much about the amount of close competition surrounding him.
It would be easy, and understandable, for Zach to admit to a bit of relaxation, and the questions seem to anticipate as much. After all he won 11 games last year, and posted a respectable first year ERA of 4.61 among some other solid numbers. But Zach Britton isn't biting. If anything, he's saying he's even less complacent now than he was a year ago.
We brought in a lot of starting pitchers and we knew that was gonna happen, says Britton of the numerous acquisitions now battling with the O's incumbents, including two more new additions from a trade that sent Jeremy Guthrie to the Rockies. You knew you were gonna have to fight for your job again. Still, Britton's not coming in with anything other than a fighter's mind-set.
Last year I went in, I was competing against everybody, he says of battling for a roster spot and place in the rotation. I went in there like I don't care if these guys are locked down already I'm gonna knock somebody out, Britton says of the confidence he brought to his first season in the majors. I know what it takes to do that and I'm gonna do exactly what I did last year.
Still, he knows nothing will be easy. In fact, the only advantage Britton readily admits to is in relation to his preparation. It's a little different for me this year, he says. Obviously I haven't started throwing bullpens, whereas last year I was probably 10 deep at this point. He expounds by saying that he's trying to pace himself so that, in his words, at the end of the season I don't get burned out like I did last year. The competition doesn't hurt either he says. I know what it's like to compete for your spot, so I think I have a little edge on some people already.
Britton certainly started out strong in his first season. By May 1st he was already 5-1 with a sub 3.00 ERA, and would actually wind up carrying a 2.93 ERA into June. He pitched his first complete game against the offensively inept Mariners on May 12th, a game that was one un-earned run away from being a complete game shut out. But Britton started to wear down by his 11th start. In that game against Oakland he allowed 6 earned runs and 10 hits in 5.2 innings, and it began a 1-7 stretch over 10 starts from May 29th to August 4th. It was a difficult part of the season that paralleled the Orioles as they went 1-14 at one point between June and July.
Still, just like the Orioles, Zach finished relatively strong. His first win in one and a half months came on August 22nd and kicked off a 22-16 Oriole's run to end the season. For his part, Britton would win 5 of his last 8 starts while allowing 2 earned runs or less in 4 of the games. On the year his 154 innings pitched were only second to the now departed Guthrie, and he allowed only .7 home runs per nine innings. His strike out per 9 innings rate of 5.7 was solid and his strikeout to walk ratio of 1.56 was equally impressive. It was a good all around showing by the 24 year old.
And yet, when pressed about what he's looking to do to improve those numbers in the Spring, Britton spoke without hesitation. I think a big thing that me and Matt have talked about is...maybe throwing in a slow breaking pitch, Britton says enthusiastically about some of the ideas he's tooling with. You know that's something that I didn't necessarily have. All of my pitches were kind of around the same speed last year, he says of his approach last season.
He doesn't stop there though, adding that, "obviously improving my fastball command [is] something I've already started. He wraps up by explaining how his mechanics will factor into his growth. Just the way you throw you can improve your fastball command, making sure that you're focusing on what you're doing when you're playing catch.
With Guthrie gone, Britton will be one of two returning Orioles starters that went over 115 innings last year (the other is Jake Arrieta). That kind of season easily puts Britton towards the top of the five man starting rotation heading into Spring, and potentially brings with it some added pressure. It's a lot for a second year player. Still, while he's not taking anything for granted, don't think Britton is coming in with a negative mind set.
Actually it's quite the contrary. When asked about whether he thinks he'll be one of the five starters come opening day, Britton responds with the kind of answer both coaches and teammates love to hear. I think you have to think that way, he says without a hint of arrogance about his position. I mean if you don't you're gonna get lost in a hurry especially with the guys we brought in. It's a big league answer from a guy who is no longer just happy to be here, from a guy who had to grow up quick in his first year.
He continues by saying what seems to be on everyone's mind heading into the 2012 season with this re-tooled Baltimore team. He says he need to put up results, and talks about how disappointed he was in his numbers. He's confident, but not cocky, aware of what he needs to do to help his team. For Zach Britton, for the Orioles, maybe more so than at any point in last 14 seasons, this year results matter.