Lefty Zach Britton made 28 starts for the Baltimore Orioles last year as a rookie. He was relatively effective in that time with a 4.00 FIP and 4.39 SIERA as a 23 year old. However, shoulder problems have kept him out of the big leagues and limited him to just 10 minor league starts so far this year. He is expected to join the Orioles next week, but made a start in AAA Norfolk on Thursday night.
He pitched against the Phillies AAA affiliate Lehigh Valley, a lineup with a lot of AAAA non-power hitters such as Andres Blanco. The first thing you notice about Britton is that he has a really strange arm action. He was throwing a ton of moving fastballs, which was the norm for him last year as well. According to Fangraphs, he threw that pitch more than half the time last year (Brooks Baseball calls it a sinker and said he threw it 42% of the time, I think it is more of a 2-seamer than a sinker). His first one was inside and was turned into a fly-out to left field. He then got 2 weak grounders, which isn’t surprising as Britton is a ground-ball pitcher. It doesn’t look like he has swing and miss stuff but throws a bunch of strikes. He struck out just 14.6% of batters but walked 9.3% of batters in the majors last year. However, he got nearly 2 ground-balls per fly-ball and gave up less line drives than average. In the game, even when his pitches were out of the zone he would still be giving up fouls. On the other hand, he faced a lot of righties, meaning he didn’t have the platoon advantage. Righties had a .330 WOBA against him last year, compared to the .303 WOBA he gave up against lefties. Despite this and the fact that he wasn’t missing a lot of bats, Britton got a lot of weak contact. There wasn’t really any balls hit very hard at all.
He threw a rare slider that looked unimpressive. It slides from left to right and wasn’t hard, and sometimes looked like a slurve or even a curve (Pitch F/X suggests he didn’t throw a curve last year, so I am just assuming that the slider didn’t always look the same). Britton did get a couple whiffs on it in the dirt for a strikeout. He didn’t have much of an idea where it was going but it seems like it got better as the game went along. Britton also threw a change with not a ton of movement or drop.
He didn’t appear to be throwing real hard, although he averaged about 92 MPH on his fastball last year. He actually got a couple of whiffs with his fastball later in his outing. He moved well off the mound and looked good defensively, and overall he threw 4 hit shutout ball in 7 innings.
According to Brooks Baseball, the pitchers most similar to him are relievers such as Eric O’Flaherty, Marc Rzepczynski, and Jordan Norbeto. That isn’t surprising in one sense, as they are all lefties with non-plus but decent fastballs. In another sense, it is somewhat distressing, as the Orioles would rather have more than a decent reliever in Britton. Maybe the comparison scores are wrong here, and Britton can become a good MLB starter. He showed last year that he has the ability to be a decent MLB starter. Whether he continues to be so will depend on health and the development of his secondary pitches.