The Orioles blew another game against the Yankees last night, but rookie Zach Britton was brilliant again, scattering 6 hits over 7 innings and allowing only one run, that unearned. His ERA of 2.14 is 5th best in the American League, and he has the 3rd highest WAR among AL pitchers. In the talk about Baltimore’s good young arms, Britton has gotten less ink than Brian Matusz and Chris Tillman; in the first two months of his big-league career, he’s outpitched both. Could he really be this good?
There are at least two reasons to think not. First, Britton doesn’t strike out anybody: just 5 K per 9 IP so far this year. Last year, the best ERA among pitchers with 5 or fewer strikeouts per 9 innings was Carl Pavano, at 3.75. It’s hard to pitch effectively without getting strikeouts. That suggests Britton’s been pretty lucky; and indeed, his BABIP right now is an unsustainably low .228. In other words, batters are hitting Britton’s pitches, but the balls haven’t been falling in for hits. That’s the kind of thing that au courant thinkiing tends to place outside a pitcher’s control.
And yet —
There’s another thing a pitcher controls totally, and that is not giving up home runs. And Zach Britton is very, very good at not giving up home runs. This year he’s given up just 4 in 60 innings of work. That’s a small sample size (league average rate would be 6 HR in that many innings) but it’s been his trademark throughout his professional career. In 103 minor league starts Britton gave up just 27 home runs.
If nobody homers off you, you can get away with a lot of singles and walks. Britton is not going to maintain a 2.14 ERA but I think there’s every reason to think he’ll be a legitimate front-of-the-rotation starter.
The less said about the end of the Yankee game, the better, but I’ll remark on one more bright spot — Mariano Rivera blew the save, continuing his record of mediocrity against the Orioles. His career ERA against Baltimore is 3.15, almost a full point higher than his overall ERA, and we’ve beaten him 8 times, more than any other team.
There’s some degree of BABIP-type luck when it comes to HRs as well. Typically pitchers allow HRs on 10% or so of fly balls (I can’t remember the exact number off the top of my head). Britton has been a ground-ball pitcher so far (I have no idea if that’s how he profiled in the minors), so that helps him suppress HRs but he’s also had a bit of luck on balls hit on the air (7.8% HR/FB).
Hey, I didn’t know this about HR/FB! But you’re right, that does seem to be the conventional thinking. In any event, Britton is an extreme ground-ball pitcher now and always was in the minors, too. Even at 10% HR/FB he’d be quite strong at keeping the ball in the park. But yeah, it seems like HR/FB and BABIP are working in concert to make him look more impressive than he actually is.
Whatever. At least it’s not women in baseball ;-)
I agree that his BABIP is unsustainably low. It’s still early in the season, so we’re still dealing with small sample sizes, but the K rate offers some encouragement.
At least that’s what I tell myself when I watch Frank Francisco pitch. He managed to blow a save last night, and the saves he does get tend to give me heart attacks. He’s the new Kevin Gregg (at least for Blue Jay fans).