Dumb luck brought Britton his out pitch

When Zach Britton(notes) uses his middle finger, it’s not an obscenity. It just causes them. Opposing batters punctuate ugly swings and flaccid ground balls and strikeouts with every last morsel of a sailor’s vocabulary, and if Britton really wanted to add insult to injury, he would extend his bird as a reminder of what caused that particular at-bat’s demise.

The Baltimore Orioles’ 23-year-old rookie starting pitcher has spent the first five weeks of his major league career confounding hitters with one of baseball’s rare beasts: the left-handed power sinker. Forget the high heat, the diving splitter, the tilt-a-whirl slider, the whittling cutter, the ACL-tearing curve – it’s the sinker, the workaday pitch almost anyone can learn, that, when mastered, can transform a man into an out-making automaton.

Zach Britton is a rarity – not many lefties throw a dominant slider.
(AP)

No one throws a sinker like Britton. Actually, the ball isn’t even supposed to sink. When he was in Class A, futzing around with different grips like all inquisitive pitchers do, one of his coaches, Calvin Maduro, tried to teach him a cutter. He told Britton to dig his middle finger into the seams, rest his index finger alongside it and throw. The ball was supposed to move in against right-handed hitters. It dove a foot away.

“I don’t know what you’re doing,” Maduro said. “Just keep doing it.”

Britton didn’t know, either, and he did keep doing it anyway. And eight starts into his career, with his latest Thursday a nine-inning gem against Seattle, he might own the best lefty sinker in the American League.

There is no shortage of right-handers whose reliance on the sinker defines their very baseball existence: Fausto Carmona(notes) and Justin Masterson(notes) in Cleveland; Derek Lowe(notes) and Tim Hudson(notes) in Atlanta; Brandon Webb(notes) and Chien-Ming Wang(notes) in Disablelistadelphia. The list of lefty sinker specialists won’t swallow too many kilobytes: Britton; St. Louis’ Jaime Garcia(notes) (the best in the business for now); and Atlanta reliever Jonny Venters(notes), among a few others not nearly as notable. A simple answer explains the pitch’s rareness: Opposite-handed hitters tend to handle sinkerballers – especially those without a worthwhile changeup – and there are plenty of right-handed batters to stack teams’ lineups.

Britton has handled them, and everything else, really: the callus on his middle finger which needed to be excised with a scalpel; the emotion of knowing he was going down to Triple-A Norfolk to start the season only to return after a Brian Matusz(notes) injury; and the reality that, for the foreseeable future, he’ll be pitching in the toughest division in baseball.

“I’m not scared of the Yankees,” Britton said. “I’m not scared of the Red Sox. I’m not scared of the Rays. It’s a great opportunity. These guys are the best teams in baseball. I’m glad I’m in the AL East. If you can succeed against the best, you can pitch against anyone in baseball.”

In 17 1/3 innings against Tampa Bay and Boston, Britton has allowed five runs. He beat the Rays in his first start and lost to them in his last, and his 5-2 record and 2.42 ERA have fetched him particular attention in what was turning into a very nice two-man American League Rookie of the Year race between Britton and Seattle Mariners right-hander Michael Pineda(notes) (with latecomer Eric Hosmer(notes) of the Kansas City Royals happy to join the fray).

While Hosmer’s swing excites and Pineda’s fastball lights up radar guns, the uniqueness of Britton’s sinker makes it the standout tool among the three. Last week, Orioles center fielder Adam Jones(notes), on his day off, crouched behind the plate to catch Britton’s warm-up pitches between innings.

“He’s throwing 75 percent and the ball is moving all over the place,” Jones said. “I wouldn’t want to catch it at 100 percent, and I definitely wouldn’t want to try to hit it at 100 percent.”

Britton understands full well the weapon he found. He was an outfielder in high school, set to go to Texas A&M, before the Orioles chose him in the third round and decided to put him on the mound. Which was good, Britton said in his first trip to Baltimore, because “they need pitching.”

He was 18 at the time, and his critique was damning in its truth and hubristic in its delivery, particularly considering Britton’s struggles while going winless in his first professional season. Baltimore developed him slowly, content with one-level jumps for four years until he dominated Double-A and Triple-A last season and proved himself plenty ready for the major leagues.

“I’ve been down this road hundreds of times with young players that started out well,” said Orioles manager Buck Showalter. “I understand how this works. We’ll let him do his thing. We all live in a world where we want to know exactly what’s going to happen before it happens. He’ll be as good as he’s capable of being, and we’re curious to see what it’s going to be.”

It’s not just in the stuff his left arm produces. Britton welcomes challenges. He relishes winning in Baltimore. He likes the idea of being a good and involved citizen. He’s getting married soon to Courtney Leggett, who’s in her final year at Southern Methodist law school. He enjoys drawing in the offseason, when he takes to a sketchpad or easel and lets his innate artistic talent do the rest.

Pitching coach Mark Connor (right) is also working with Zach Britton on a split-finger changeup, a favorite of two NL aces.
(AP)

Showalter concerns himself most with the pitching, though, and with Britton and Matusz atop a rotation that includes Jake Arrieta(notes), Jeremy Guthrie(notes) and perhaps Chris Tillman(notes), the prospect of the Orioles contending isn’t nearly as far-fetched as it used to be.

“He goes out there and expects to win, to pitch well,” said Arrieta, who played junior-college ball with Britton’s oldest brother, Clay, and has known Zach for nearly a decade. “He’s got a lot of confidence in his ability, which he should. Even when he goes out there without his good stuff, he gets outs. He pitches deep into ballgames. And as a rookie, that’s tough to do. When you don’t have your good stuff, you get discouraged. Not him.”

The good stuff is usually there, of course, and when others see it they want the secret. Britton tries. Last year, reliever Pedro Beato(notes) inquired. He couldn’t master the grip. Britton showed it to Matusz, who said it better resembled how he throws a curveball.

“I’ve tried to teach people the grip before,” Britton said. “It doesn’t work for anyone else.”

So, naturally, Britton tried a variation on his variation this spring. He had thrown a circle changeup, like the pitcher he most admired, Tom Glavine(notes). Orioles pitching coach Mark Connor suggested Britton try to use his sinker grip and develop a split-finger changeup, the most devastating pitch Tim Lincecum(notes) and Ubaldo Jimenez(notes) throw.

“I didn’t have anything to lose,” Britton said. “The best thing that happens is you find a really good pitch, and the worst thing that happens is you don’t use it.”

He found it. And even if he does throw his sinker 73.8 percent of the time, more than all but three other pitchers, it’s helpful to know Zach Britton need not fully subsist on one pitch. He can only give ‘em the finger so many times.

Other popular stories on Yahoo! Sports:
Harmon Killebrew ends fight against cancer
The NBA star who didn’t recruit LeBron
Can jumping rope make you fit?

Jeff Passan is a national writer for Yahoo! Sports. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Jeff a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Thursday, May 12, 2011