Saturday, January 20, 2007

How Good is Chris Britton?

The Yankees traded for a lot of young pitchers this offseason. Ross Ohlendorf. Humberto Sanchez. Kevin Whelan. Steve Jackson. We even got Luis Vizcaino. These guys are all excellent little acquisitions, but I am most excited about the most overlooked pitcher that we brought in - Chris Britton.

Britton was somewhat of a surprise for the Orioles in 2006. In 2005, Britton blossomed in to a top notch relief prospect for his level, pitching 78.2 innings at High A ball. He struck out an obscene 110 and walked just 23. He allowed just 14 runs for an ERA of 1.60.

Despite the numbers, Britton stayed under the radar. The Orioles were more focused on their ace reliever Chris Ray. Baseball America did not list Britton among the Orioles top-10 prospects, but did get a nod for "Best Control".

Britton started out brilliantly at the Orioles's AA affiliate. He did not allow a run in 21 1/3 innings. It took a few recalls from AA for Britton to catch on, but he earned himself a trusted place in the Baltimore bullpen by June. Through August, he pitched 41.2 innings with an ERA of 2.59, striking out 32 and walking ten. He hit a rough patch that earned him a short demotion to AA (I can't find any proof of this, but I'd wager that the Orioles needed an extra outfielder or something, and Britton had options). The rough patch wouldn't look much different from a typical Kyle Farnsworth week - over four appearances he allowed seven runs. Britton was sent down and called up ten days later. He finished the season strong - pitching 7.1 innings in ten appearances while striking out eight and walking 1.42. He allowed just one run over that time.

All told, Britton pitched 16 innings in AA and 53.2 innings in the majors. He posted K/BB ratios of 24/6 and 41/17 at those levels.

Britton was drafted in the 8th round of the 2001 draft out of High School, but suffered a major setback when he was hit in the face with a line drive. He had to have surgery on his face, which set him back a year. Britton was set back further in 2003 when he had to have surgery to remove bone chips from his elbow. He missed the entire season. Since that surgery, he's been excellent at every stop in the minors.

Britton has nasty stuff. He throws 92-94, but it looks faster because of his deceptive delivery. His massive stomach hides the ball. Ok, maybe not, but Britton is a big guy. He is 6'3" and reportedly weights 280 lbs. Baseball America reports that the fastball looks more like a 96 mph heater to hitters. Britton complements his fastball with a plus-and-a-half curveball, which is where he gets his strikeouts. Britton also has a changeup, but it's more of a "show-me" pitch. Britton has excellent command and control of both his fastball and his curveball.

What do the projection systems say?

: 74 IP, 4.09 ERA, 61 K, 30 BB
Marcel: 52 IP, 3.89 ERA, 39 K, 17 BB
ZiPs: 72 IP, 3.63 ERA, 65 K, 25 BB
Average: 66 IP, 3.87 ERA, 55 K, 24 BB

What do I think? I see those projections and I think of Scott Proctor. However, Britton has one weakness. Lefties hit .301/.378/.384 off Britton in just 17 innings. Lefties put up a similar split in the minors against him. Right handed hitters hit just .186/.232/.333.

Proctor put up similar splits in 2005, except that Proctor let lefites hit for power too. I think that if Joe Torre used him right, Britton would beat the ZiPs projection by a small margin. I don't think that Joe Torre will use him right. I think that Britton will fall closer to the 3.87 ERA line. If he does, he'll be a valued member of our bullpen. Hopefully Torre doesn't overuse or alienate him.

Of course, Britton has two option years left. We have a loaded bullpen. The Yankees could make the wrong decision and keep Brian Bruney instead of keeping Britton in the majors. We'll see.