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Move To Bullpen Revitalizes Zach Britton's Orioles Career

May 15, 2014
When the Orioles reported to spring training in Sarasota, Fla., in February, left-hander Zach Britton looked like a man without a role.

Orioles 2014: Zach Britton (set)
Photo Credit: Mitch Stringer/PressBox
Britton, 26, was three years removed from his last full, healthy season on the mound. A left shoulder impingement -- an injury he suffered during spring training in 2012 -- threatened to derail Britton's career, as he struggled to regain the sinker that had once served as his signature pitch. During the 2012 and '13 seasons, Britton bounced between the majors and the minors with little success, posting a 5.02 ERA during 20 big league games and struggling to find a groove at either level.

Complicating matters was the fact that Britton was out of options entering 2014. The Orioles no longer had Triple-A Norfolk as a safety net if Britton needed to work through his struggles. They couldn't try to send him down without exposing him to waivers, at which point any team in the majors could claim Britton for its own.

Britton, once one of the Birds' top pitching prospects, made a career-high 28 starts during a promising rookie campaign in 2011. This year, Britton was a bad camp away from his Orioles career potentially coming to an end -- and from joining the likes of Jake Arrieta, Hayden Penn, Adam Loewen and Matt Riley on the ignominious list of failed Orioles pitching prospects from recent years.

But Britton's story -- so far, at least -- has taken a more fortuitous turn.

During spring training, the Orioles experimented with converting Britton to relief. The shift was designed to give Britton a better chance of cracking the Opening Day roster -- because all five spots in the starting rotation were spoken for -- and also to give the Birds a potential second lefty out of the bullpen as Troy Patton served his season-opening 25-game amphetamine suspension.

Britton worked nine spring training games in relief, allowing one run and striking out 11 batters in 10.2 innings, and earned a spot in the Orioles' Opening Day bullpen. 

Britton began the season with seven consecutive scoreless appearances, spanning 12.1 innings of relief. During six of those outings, he worked two or more innings, but he wasn't eating innings during garbage time or when a starter was knocked out early. The first eight times Britton took the mound, the Orioles were separated from their opponent by three or fewer runs.

In a league of increasingly specialized relief pitchers, with managers often cycling through a bevy of relievers who get one or two outs apiece, Britton provided manager Buck Showalter with a valuable bullpen asset who could pitch effectively for multiple innings during tight games.

After his first 16 games of the season, Britton carried a 0.84 ERA and 0.89 WHIP in 21.1 innings. Britton was particularly dominant against lefties -- holding them to a .156 average and .338 OPS -- but shut down righty swingers as well (.167 average and .571 OPS). That gave Britton the ability to pitch multiple innings instead of being reduced to a specialist role.

Considering Britton's early results, it seems he's adapted well to the conversion to relief. But that doesn't mean he has nothing left to learn. In particular, Britton -- who started 137 of his 139 minor league appearances, and 46 of his 48 major league games entering this year -- had to change his warm-up routine as a reliever.

"Just getting loose, even if you warm up and don't go into the game, it's still taxing on your body," Britton said. "So it's tough. I think, being a starter for so long, you don't know what it's like to be a reliever. And it's [given me] a lot more respect for those guys and what they do with their bodies. It's very tough just to kind of go from sitting down to all of a sudden being game ready. It's a pretty quick switch, and that's kind of what I'm getting used to right now.

"I think, as a starter, sometimes you do so much more than you need when you warm up. Being a reliever, you realize that what you do down in the 'pen has no bearing on your performance out on the field. It's just about getting loose and being ready to compete."

Britton said his fellow relievers -- including lefty Brian Matusz, who made a similar conversion from starting to relieving in 2012 -- had helped him adjust to his new role.

"We have a bunch of good guys down there that have helped me with the process," Britton said. "I think the first guy I leaned on was Brian Matusz, and then Darren O'Day. Those guys are giving me pointers. But really the biggest advice they give me is just figuring it out on your own. That's the biggest thing. You've got to know what your body needs, and what it doesn't need."

A key part of Britton's adjustment to the bullpen, Orioles pitching coach Dave Wallace said, is finding a routine that works for him.

"Everybody's a little bit different, but it becomes a mindset," Wallace said. "He talks to some of the guys who have experience doing it, and then go from there. So it's almost a trial and error in trying to figure out how to go about it.

"I think, so far, he's really done a heck of a job for us. [He's] still learning the role a little bit and how to get himself ready on a daily basis, but he seems to have embraced it."

One key to Britton's early success in 2014 was his increase in velocity. Through his first 14 games, Britton's average velocity on his two-seam fastball was 93.7 mph, the highest of his career and an increase of 2.2 mph from 2013.

It's not unusual for starting pitchers to increase their velocity when they move to the bullpen. By pitching in shorter, one- or two-inning spurts, many hurlers are able to throw at full effort all the time, a luxury they can't always afford when trying to pace themselves through a six- or seven-inning start.

In Britton's case, though, the velocity increase might be more attributable to his return to full health, as he put the lingering effects of the 2012 shoulder injury behind him.

"I think it's, the majority, being healthy," Britton said, "and then, obviously, [pitching in] shorter bursts. But I don't feel like I'm trying any harder, throwing-wise, than I would if I was starting. I'm not just airing it out every pitch. I'm trying to make pitches. So I think it's just more of being healthy."

With a clean bill of health, Britton was able to rededicate himself to offseason training, working on a strength program with Orioles vice president of baseball operations Brady Anderson and Triple-A Norfolk strength and conditioning coach Ryo Naito.

"I got back on a weighted-ball program," Britton said. "And that's something I'd done all the way through the minors and my first year in the big leagues. With the way my shoulder was feeling the last two years, I wasn't able to do it. It was just something [where] my arm didn't feel right. So this year I was able to do that. [I] started that in November, along with Brady and Ryo's program."

That renewed strength has aided Britton's conversion to relief -- and could continue to benefit him if he moves back into a starting role.

"I think maintaining your velocity is a strength thing," Britton said. "And I think I'm strong enough to maintain that throughout the game [even if] I'm starting. I've done it in the past. When I was in the minors, I threw just as hard as I do now when I was starting. So I don't think that would be an issue. But until you start again, you don't know."

Britton still could have a future in the rotation, but in the meantime, he has proved to be a weapon in relief.

"I see myself as a starter long term," Britton said. "But my focus this year -- and really, until they give me the opportunity to start again -- is just being a good reliever and doing what I can to help the team win out of the bullpen."

Britton entered the 2014 season as a pitcher on the bubble. Now, he could be on his way to a breakout year.

Issue 197: May 2014