Daniel Clark: For O’s and Britton, that sinking feeling is pretty good

Human nature can be defined as the general psychological characteristics, feelings and behavioural traits of humankind, regarded as being shared by all humans. One such characteristic is that most of us enjoy hearing about a genuine feel-good story. In life, feel-good stories often focus on achievements by individuals who have had to fight to overcome adversity, and in the world of sports, that exact sentiment rings true.

A feel-good story is never far away in professional baseball and each new season brings with it a brand new one. In the case of the 2014 Orioles, that feel-good story appears to be the tale of left-handed reliever Zach Britton.

Britton, a talented left-handed pitcher from Panorama City, Calif., has worked his way through the Orioles organization since being drafted in 2006 with the 85th overall pick. Being drafted is, of course, a special moment for any young player; however, it was even more special for Britton, who had overcome a significant hurdle during his teenage years.

In his only year at Canyon High School, Britton suffered a horrific injury and spent two days in intensive care having sustained fractures of the skull and clavicle, whilst also suffering from bleeding on the brain. These terrifying injuries came as a result of diving head-first onto concrete when attempting to catch a foul popup during baseball practice. Sometimes, as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and in the case of Britton, he’s clearly one who has gone on to achieve great things since being given that second chance.

Britton’s minor league career has been extensive, having appeared in the minors for eight consecutive seasons between 2006 and 2013. During those eight seasons and 139 appearances, Britton worked to an ERA of 3.38 and produced a 48-38 record. Of those 139 appearances, just two came in relief whilst Britton and the Orioles continued to focus on his development as a starting pitcher.

His first major league appearance came against the Tampa Bay Rays on April 3, 2011, where he threw six innings and allowed just one earned run as he and the Orioles won 5-1. The remainder of the 2011 season was encouraging, as he finished with an 11-11 record with a 4.61 ERA.

Unfortunately for Britton and the Orioles, he struggled to build on that promising first season and failed to develop himself into a consistent starter. In total, he appeared just 20 times during the 2012 and 2013 seasons combined, working to ERAs of 5.07 and 4.95, respectively. One of his better performances for the Orioles during this period came on Sept. 27, 2013 when he pitched 3 2/3 scoreless innings of relief against the Boston Red Sox and perhaps, now looking back in hindsight, this was an indicator of better things to come.

With the signing of Ubaldo Jimenez during the offseason, a position in the Orioles starting rotation appeared unlikely and Britton commenced spring training coming out of the bullpen. Both he and the Orioles were immediately rewarded with the results, as through 10 2/3 innings in nine spring outings, Britton struck out 11 hitters and worked to an ERA of just 0.84. His form was so impressive that it demanded a spot on the Orioles’ 25-man roster and he has continued that impressive form into the 2014 regular season.

Having now appeared in eight games, Britton has conceded just one earned run through his 13 1/3 innings of work - that’s an ERA of 0.68. He has struck out nine hitters and has forced 27 groundouts at a rate of 2.03 per inning pitched. This ability to force groundouts is the key difference to Britton’s pitching from previous seasons and it has been instrumental in his success.

* 2011: 215 groundouts in 154 1/3 innings (1.39/inning)
* 2012: 83 groundouts in 60 1/3 innings (1.38/inning)
* 2013: 58 groundouts in 40 innings (1.45/inning)

The increase in groundouts is coming due to an increased velocity of his sinker, which prior to making his major league debut had hovered around 94 mph. Upon reaching the majors, that velocity started to drop and by July 2013, it was hovering around the 92 mph mark.

The speed of Britton’s sinker this season however has increased significantly and the average mark is above 95 mph. In addition to this, he is finding the bottom of the strike zone more regularly and the sinker has some great late break - both of which are occurring as a result of an increase in confidence. As Britton’s season progresses, it’s worth keeping an eye on the velocity of his sinker and should it remain above 95 mph, then both he and the Orioles are set to reap the rewards.

Daniel Clark blogs about the Orioles at The Big Leagues Daily from Melbourne, Australia. Follow him on Twitter: @TBLDaily. His thoughts on the O’s appear here as part of MASNsports.com’s continuing commitment to welcome guest bloggers to our little corner of cyberspace. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by MASNsports.com but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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