Zach Britton: Changing Up

Despite leading the Carolina League in walks, Zach Britton is among league leaders in ERA and strikeouts. He is working on his secondary pitches, which seem to get better with each start. Inside, find out just what he is working on right now.

Zach Britton is quietly putting together one of the better seasons for a pitcher in the Orioles' system in 2009, but he took the loss Tuesday night after turning in his third quality start in four chances.

With the exception of walks, Britton has had a good start to the 2009 season. The young left-handed pitcher is among Carolina League leaders in ERA and strikeouts. He is second in ERA (2.35) and fifth in strikeouts (50 in 53.2 IP). He is averaging 8.4 SO/9 IP, a career high and nearly 1.5 more per 9 innings than last year. However, after walking just 3.1 and 3.0 batters per 9 innings in 2007 and 2008 respectively, Britton is averaging 4.5 BB/9 IP and leads the league in free passes handed out with 27.

One of the problems that has led to a lot of walks is overthrowing in the first couple of innings. Britton has hit 95 mph this season, but he lacks the control and movement necessary for it to be an effective pitch at that velocity.

"The first two innings the sinker was just dropping out of the zone and when I get too amped up, that's what happens," Britton said Tuesday night. "As the game gets going, it starts breaking into the zone."

Britton really settled in after the second inning and only threw 28 pitches over the third, fourth and fifth innings after throwing 29 in the second alone. In addition to that, he only walked one batter, the first time he has not walked multiple batters in a game in 2009.

"That's how it should be every time," Britton said. "I was really happy today, I just think that's how I should pitch all the time. It's a good step forward."

Britton was able to throw his sinker and changeup effectively but struggled to harness the slider. In low-A Delmarva last year, Britton's mission was to control the sinker and develop his slider. His slider has been reliable for most of this season and now it is his task to work on a changeup.

"[Britton's changeup is] getting better and better," Keys pitching coach Kennie Steenstra said a couple of weeks ago. "It's still his third pitch by a long stretch. I look back to having him all last year, his slider, last year, was about the point where his changeup is now [at this point last year]. "

"His slider is pretty close to being a plus pitch now and if he continues to work on the changeup this year like he did the slider last year, it's going to be a nice little arsenal he can put together."

Britton mentioned that he is starting to feel comfortable throwing the changeup and in his last couple of starts, when his slider was not working, he has been more of a sinker-change pitcher as opposed to being the sinker-slider pitcher he has been for most of the season.

"Right now he can play with a fastball-slider and get away with it in this league, but to move up, that changeup is going to have to develop," Steenstra said. "He's a hard worker, I'm not worried about that pitch at all with him. It's just a mater of him getting comfortable with it and keep throwing it. He's starting to throw it to left-handers now and he's doing a lot of things with it that he wasn't earlier and it's coming along nicely."

In fact, Britton has used the changeup to work out of jams in his last couple of outings, showing poise on the mound. This topic of "poise" has been talked about at the Major League level with recent call-ups like Brad Bergesen and Jason Berken pitching confidently with men on base, and Britton is doing that now.

In 2007 opponents hit .254 with runners in scoring position while Britton was pitching and he lowered that to .231 in Delmarva in 2008. This year, however, batters are only hitting .189 off of him with runners in scoring position, showing he is confident in pitching in any situation.

"He's a smart kid," Steenstra said. "You still got to remember he's awful young, too, for this league, he's 21, he's come a long way and I think he'll get even better as the season goes on."

Britton is not on a fast track at his age, but if he can re-gain his control, expect to see him in Baltimore in a couple of years. He has a plus sinker, an average, but improving slider, and a below average and quickly improving changeup. For now, he will be a groundout machine, but expect his strikeout totals to steadily increase as his pitches improve.

His manager, Richie Hebner had high praise for Britton, echoing similar comments about fellow rotation southpaw Brian Matusz:

"He's on a mission to get to the big leagues," Hebner said. "I mean, he's focused, he's got good stuff. He's pitched well this year."

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