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Beyond the Big Three: Looking at Zach Britton

With the promotion of Jake Arrieta looking quite successful after two starts, all of the so-called "big three" Orioles' pitching prospects are in the big leagues.  Yet, as the adage goes, you can never have enough pitching.  The Orioles starting pitchers have the second-worst FIP at 4.96 and xFIP at 4.92 in all of baseball, behind the Pirates.  Turning this around is more than a one man job.

The main culprits behind our AL-worst starting pitching are all now out of the rotation - David Hernandez, Brad Bergesen and Chris Tillman.  But while Hernandez may end up sticking in the bullpen permanently, we can expect to see more of Bergesen and Tillman in the rotation this year, particularly if Jeremy Guthrie and/or Kevin Millwood are dealt.  And barring significant improvement from them, the cavalry is going to need cavalry of their own.

So how are the next wave of starting pitching prospects doing?

Our most highly ranked pitching prospect beyond Matusz and Arrieta coming into the season was lefty Zach Britton, currently with Bowie.  Britton, the Orioles' third round pick in 2006 combines elite ground ball rates with high strikeouts.  He doesn't have the kind of raw stuff that blows scouts away, but his impressive results have had him steadily climbing up prospect rankings.  And on the surface, his 2010 campaign should do little to dispel that - Britton is 6-3 with an ERA of 2.84, and a WHIP of 1.28.  These numbers resemble his 2009 ERA of 2.70 and WHIP of 1.27 very closely.  He's maintained his elite groundball rates, at 64.8% this year almost identical to last year's 65%.  He's even improved his control a bit, reducing his BB/9 from 3.5 to 3.0, matching the best ratio of his professional career.

It would seem that Britton is solidifying his gains from last year and maybe even continuing to improve.  But looking  inside the numbers, there is reason for serious concern.  Britton's FIP is nearly a full run worse than his ERA, at 3.61.  Now, that in itself isn't too bad.  But it is his splits that are truly troublesome.

A big part of Britton's step forward last year was that he had more success against right-handed hitters than he did against lefties.  In 2009, right handed hitters put over 10% more balls on the ground against Britton than lefties did, and hit 2.5% fewer balls for line drives.  But in 2010, right handed hitters are giving Britton a lot of trouble.

Britton has dominated left handed batters in Bowie, striking out over 10 lefties per nine innings, and walking fewer than two lefties per nine.  He hasn't allowed a single home run to left handed batters either.  This dominance has led to a FIP of 1.68 against left-handed batters.  But right-handers are pounding him to the tune of a FIP of 4.32.  He's walking right handers nearly twice as often and striking them out only half as much, with a BB/9 of 3.18 and a K/9 of only 5.08 against them.  Britton is still getting primarily ground balls from right handed hitters, with a GB% of 65.1%; but the balls that are hit in the air are leaving the park - 11.4% of fly balls hit by righties against Britton are leaving the park, nearly three times the rate they did in 2009.

What these numbers indicate to me is that Britton's secondary stuff is lagging behind his two-seamer, which is still getting excellent results against all batters, as indicated by his strong ground ball rates.  The two-seamer is a genuine plus pitch, and his breaking ball is killing lefties.  But he doesn't seem to have mastered his changeup or his breaking ball to right handed hitters.  As a result, he's missing fewer bats, allowing more walks, and giving up more home runs.

None of this is cause for panic; Britton still has all the potential he came into the season with.  The difference in skill between AA and the low minors is perhaps the biggest gap in the minor leagues.  But anyone looking at his ERA and thinking that Britton is ready to be promoted to Norfolk or ready for a fast track to the major leagues needs to temper their expectations.  Based on his splits, Britton still has a lot of work to do in Bowie.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs, Minor League Splits, and First Inning.