How doing something wrong turned out so right for Zach Britton

When we see a pitcher with a true dominant pitch, everyone wants to know about it. Ask Mariano Rivera how many times people have inquired about his famed cutter. How do you hold it? Who taught it to you? What do you do on release? What makes it so great? As a former teammate, I was one of those inquisitors. When we see greatness we want to know more and attempt to replicate it. As is so often the case, the path to a great pitch is littered with non-tradition, and in the case of Zach Britton an inability to do what a coach was trying to teach him.

The Baltimore Orioles had a dominant closer in 2014 in Britton. Incredibly enough, it was his first season in the bullpen. The transition from starter to reliever appeared seamless for him as he went 37 for 41 in save attempts while posting a 1.65 ERA in 71 games. While ERA is not the best indicator of performance, especially for relievers, it’s worth noting that Britton ranked second in the AL in ERA among full-time closers. His save percentage of 90.2% was third in the AL.

His manager, Buck Showalter, has a track record for taking former starters and finding a successful home for them in the bullpen. Britton is the next notch on Showalter’€™s belt. In 46 career starts, Britton had gone 18-17 with a 4.86 ERA/4.23 FIP. Those are not horrific numbers,but there wasn’€™t a place for Britton in Showalter’s 2014 rotation. A move to the ‘pen was imminent. I asked Buck last year what he saw in Britton that gave him the confidence to put him in the closer’s role. "That was an easy decision" he told me. "We all knew he had the stuff for it."

Britton’€™s "€œstuff"€ Showalter was referring to is mostly his dominant two-seam fastball. As a starter, Britton brought a mix of four-seam and two-seam fastballs as well as a slider and changeup. The breakdown of the usage of those pitches from 2011-2013, according to PITCH F/X data, was pretty standard for a left-handed starter.

It was that two-seam fastball, though, that Martinez, new pitching coach Dave Wallace and bullpen coach Dom Chiti identified as the go-to pitch that could change Britton’€™s career path. The unorthodox beginnings of this great two-seam fastball is what makes Britton undeniably left-handed.

In 2007, the then-19-year-old Britton was pitching for Baltimore’€™s Single-A affiliate, the Aberdeen IronBirds. His pitching coach at the time was former major-league pitcher and current scout Calvin Maduro. In an attempt to deepen Britton’€™s repertoire, Maduro was trying to teach him a cutter, the "it" pitch for the past decade or so in baseball.

The grip Maduro was teaching at first might sound unusual; it was essentially a traditional curveball grip. Why a curveball grip to learn a cutter? This is actually not the first time I heard of this.

Tom Gordon was a teammate of mine with the Yankees in 2004 and a pitcher who was known for his great curveball. Talking pitching grips one day, he showed me his curve. It was a very common curveball grip with a raised index finger tip on the ball. The focus was on the tightness of the grip and index finger pressure. The cutter he showed me next was the same grip, with his index finger more relaxed but still slightly raised. I wondered how he could throw a cutter with a curveball grip. He made it work. I tried his cutter a few times playing catch, I couldn’€™t.

So what does a curveball grip for an attempted cutter have to do with the development of Britton’€™s two-seam fastball? This was where Britton officially became left-handed. 

Maduro was going through the process of working with Britton on the cutter with this curveball-like grip. It wasn’€™t cutting. In fact, it was doing the exact opposite of what Maduro and Britton wanted it to do; it was diving down and away from a right handed hitter with strong bite, not in and somewhat flatter on the hands like you‒d want a cutter to do. Britton was holding a curveball and trying to throw a cutter that resulted in a nasty two-seam fastball.

"He asked me what I was doing," Britton said. "I told him I was trying to throw a cutter."

"That’s not cutting,"€ Maduro told him, "but whatever you’€™re doing … don’€™t stop."

And that was it. The 19-year-old lefty was armed with a new found two-seam fastball. Step two: make it a usable pitch in games.

Commanding the sink

Command was a concern for Britton. Having a plus two-seam fastball is terrific, but throwing strikes is a common deficiency among great sinkerball pitchers. His 3.9 BB/9 rate coming into 2014 was not something that would make you overly optimistic that he could be trusted with key outs as a reliever. That had to change in order to pitch late in the game.

The plan was laid out: command the two-seam fastball down to both sides of the plate and you have yourself a dominant reliever. Britton wasn’€™t even allowed to throw his slider until he mastered the command of his two-seam fastball. Sounds simple. Nothing in this game is.

It started in spring training with bullpens, but not just your average side session bullpens. Britton would throw through a contraption that Wallace had brought along. Essentially it was a target for Britton to throw to. You may have seen the strike zones that pitchers will sometimes use that are outlined with string in front of home plate. They’€™re thin lines so even if the ball hits the string the path of the ball won’€™t be affected and the catcher can still catch it.

Wallace took it a step further. "Dave had me throwing to a target not much bigger than a softball," Britton told me on MLB Network Radio recently. Having lived through the frustration of inconsistent command, I was amazed that Britton took on what would seem like a near impossible task.

"It was really frustrating at first. Dave told me Greg Maddux could hit 9 out of 10. There were days when I would hit 0 out of 10 … people were laughing at me." Over time it got better and getting two-seam fastballs through the 5-inch by 5-inch target during spring training was becoming more common.

Britton said he learned what he had to do to get that pitch to the target with more consistency. The drill became a competition with himself. Ultimately, it helped him learn the movement of the pitch better and how to get the ball to finish where he wanted, regardless of which side of the plate he was aiming.

When throwing a pitch, you have two choices of where to focus for command: where you start the pitch or where you want it to finish. For Britton he discovered that focusing on where he starts his sinker is what works for him. That means that he doesn’€™t actually look at the glove as a target, but he picks out a specific spot on his catcher’s gear to start the pitch. When it’€™s Matt Wieters behind the dish, there is a part of his Under Armour gear, near the logo on the shin guard, that is his starting point. Because he knows the movement so well, he knows that if he starts the pitch there, it will end up where Wieters’ glove is set up.

But 10 times out of 10? Britton’€™s walk rate in 2014 of 2.7 BB/9 was significantly better than it was in previous years as a starter, but it still falls short of the elite class of relievers. He ranked 67th among qualified relievers in walk rate last season. There is time for it to get better, as you can count on Wallace having that frustrating little box back up in spring training. The one that help take Britton from average starter to one pitch dominant reliever. No one is laughing at him now. 

Changing courses: Britton’s career pitch usage

PITCH 2011-2013 2014
Two-seam fastball 46% 89%
Four-seam fastball 25% 2%
Slider 16% 8%
Changeup 13% <1%