Self proclaimed underdog emerges as a top O's pitching prospect

This time last year, O's minor league pitcher Zach Britton was just starting to get noticed.

Now, after a 2009 season where he was named Carolina League pitcher of the year, it seems everyone knows his name. He was rated recently by Baseball America as the Orioles third-best prospect.

The reason for his success could be his outstanding power sinker. Or his fastball that can touch 94. Or his great makeup. Or his willingness to learn and solid relationship with pitching coach Kennie Steenstra.

All of that is important. But Britton's attitude and outlook are real keys as well. He doesn't seem to think of himself as a top pitching prospect.

He says in the past he has felt like an underdog and that hasn't changed despite last season's 9-6, 2.70 numbers at Frederick.

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"That was good for me because in high school you get a mindset that you're better than everyone. That is not right to feel that way. I came in and struggled (in the pros) and no one was talking about me and that was an eye opener," the 22-year-old lefty said.

"It's not given to you. You have to work very hard for people to notice you. I feel like I'm an underdog. We have such great pitching in this organization that you can't take it easy for one second. You have to compete if you want to get to Baltimore.

"My mindset is to still feel like an underdog. I know how good Arrieta is. I know how good Erbe and Matusz are, along with Tillman, Bergesen, Berken and Hernandez. I've played with those guys and I know it won't be given to me. Maybe those guys are better than me right now but I'm getting closer to being able to compete at that level."

Britton was drafted by the O's in round three of 2006 out of Weatherford (Texas) High School. After a solid 2008 year at Delmarva (12-7, 3.12) last year he was second in the Carolina League in ERA and strikeouts, fourth in innings and tied for fifth in wins. Britton said he entered 2009 looking to continue to develop his changeup and to improve his consistency.

His fastball can range from 88 to 94 and his sinker can reach into the 90's. His changeup and slider have improved and his fastball velocity went up a notch or two last year.

"I threw that hard in high school but there was a stage in there where I was learning my sinker and slider and was more concerned with throwing strikes rather than throwing hard. I was babying pitches at times.

"This year (at Frederick) it came together where I could throw max velocity and throw strikes. I did walk some, but was more consistent throwing strikes. It was a thing of just having more confidence. I knew I had that velocity in me."

Britton's groundball-to-flyball ratio at Frederick was an amazing at 3.38. By comparison, Ricky Romero of Toronto led the AL last year with a 2.24 ratio.

Caleb Joseph, who was Britton's catcher at Frederick, said his sinking fastball was a devastating pitch.

"The guy never really dropped below 92, 93 with his sinker and that's amazing. It's like a power sinker. It's in the zone, then drops down to the ankles in a heartbeat. I've never seen so many batters swing and miss at fastballs like his. That's when you know your stuff is really good."

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Joseph said Britton would throw sinkers away to right-handed hitters, then when they were caught leaning over the plate a bit, he would bust them in with the heater that can touch 94.

"I think the movement is more important (than velocity) but I was one of those guys that didn't lose movement when I added velocity," Britton said. "My sinker actually got sharper. It had late break which was a real key. Throwing harder made my sinker better."

Always looking to better his pitches, Britton got some changeup tips last year from another Frederick Keys lefty - Brian Matusz.

"The last few months that pitch has become my favorite to throw in my bullpens. It has come so far with the help of Dave Schmidt, Kennie Steenstra and Brian Matusz.

"Brian saw I had a good changeup. It was more of a mental thing; he gave me encouragement. The change is a real feel pitch and he would talk me up and give me the confidence to throw it. If you have confidence with that pitch, you can throw it a lot and get better.

"Caleb and Brian are students of the game. I want a relationship with players like that who study the game and I can get knowledge from. I got along with those guys right away."

If there is one area Britton could work on it's his walks total. Last season he had 55 in 140 innings, not a whopping total by any stretch. But he did lead the league in wild pitches.

In 2010, Britton will likely start in Double-A Bowie's rotation and work again with Steenstra, his pitching coach at Delmarva two seasons ago and Frederick last year.

"He's (Steenstra) been a tremendous part of any success I've had," Britton says.

"All the talk has been that I'll start at Bowie; that's a natural progression. Maybe if I do well there, they'll give me a push. The past few years they've kept me at one level and maybe I needed that.

"I kind of feel like this is the year where the changeup has come around. The most important thing for me is to harness my command and I'm pretty close to that. So I hope to go to Bowie and maybe get a push to Norfolk, but that's out of my control."

Britton has had a busy winter. He got engaged in early January and has been traveling between Texas and California, where his fiancée, Courtney, is in law school. They haven't set their wedding date just yet.

But he expects a date with the Bowie Baysox this year and he'll try to keep the same hungry attitude that has served him so well to date.

"You could let it (more attention) affect you, but I was the guy that no one was talking about it. Some people thought I was no good. I took the path to be around guys that were encouraging to me.

"You have to stay on an even keel - what if I don't do well next year? I take it in stride and will just go out this year to do what I did last year.

"There will be a real competition to get to Baltimore in this organization. Some of us might even have to move to the bullpen. My goal has always been to get to the Major Leagues. I don't care how I get there. There is going to be great competition for the rotation and the bullpen. Really good teams build through pitching. We are starting to get to that point. It should be exciting."

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