Sometimes it’s hard to remember that just because the Orioles and Blue Jays finish towards the bottom of the American League East does not make them bad teams. Both clubs have promising short- and long-term futures, but with the three-headed monster of New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston also in the division, progress in those areas have been difficult to view.
We get a clear glimpse of the Orioles’ promising future tonight, though, as rookie left-hander Zach Britton takes the mound against Clay Buchholz. Britton is just 23 years old, with all of four major league starts under his belt, and he is far from a finished product, but the early returns have been solid. He has thrown 25 2/3 innings, and although he has struck out just six batters per nine innings pitched, he has induced groundballs 57 percent of the time.
Britton will likely never strike out a ton of hitters–he topped out at 8.4 per nine at High-A, but generally has been in the seven per nine range–but the ability to induce ground outs makes him successful. Over 25 percent of his outs have come on the ground in 2011, thanks to his low-90s sinking fastball that is easily tops amongst prospects with the pitch. His changeup has been an effective weapon as well–it’s a plus pitch, and he has generated swings-and-misses on 14 of the 58 he has thrown in the majors (24 percent).
He has leaned very heavily on his sinking fastball to begin his big league career, but in the long-term, he will need to improve his secondary stuff. His slider, a pitch he has barely flashed over his four starts, occasionally gets a little too much loop in it and catches too much of the plate. He won’t be able to get away with not throwing it forever (especially when facing patient teams like Boston, who may let his sinkers low in the strike zone go by again and again in order to gain favorable hitter’s counts).
There is plenty of potential here, though, as his heavy sinker and plus change give him a formidable pair of weapons. Britton currently has a 3.16 ERA, but over a full season, that number should shoot more towards the low-to-mid four range–PECOTA’s 90th percentile has him with a 4.36 ERA, and ZiPS had him down for 4.78.
He isn’t as dominant as his ceiling allows just yet–and still has some things he needs to learn–but Britton, along with fellow southpaw Brian Matusz, give the Orioles a formidable pair at the top of the rotation, and one that can take advantage of New York, Tampa Bay, and Boston’s lefty-heavy lineups, now and for years to come.