To see how effective Chris Britton was this season, you have to look past his numbers. While the numbers were good, a quick glance wouldn't notice anything too special.
The big right-hander went 6-0 with six saves for the Frederick Keys. They look like better-than-average statistics for a middle reliever, but upon closer inspection, it becomes clear why Britton deserved the MiLB.com Class A Relief Pitcher of the Year award.
His 1.60 ERA is just the start. Combine that with a .172 opponents' batting average and 110 strikeouts in 78 2/3 innings and it's obvious how dominating Britton was.
Not bad for a guy pitching out of the bullpen for the first time.
"It seems like I couldn't do anything wrong," Britton said in a phone interview from Venezuela. "Out of Spring Training, I was told by management that I would be a starter. Something happened that pushed me into the bullpen. I guess it was meant to be."
Britton turned into such a valuable reliever because his experience as a starter enabled him to work more than one inning.
The Keys already had a closer and didn't want to move Britton into a role that limited him to one inning when he could just as easily throw two.
Frederick pitching coach Scott McGregor -- a starter during a 13-year Major League career -- explained why Britton was able to excel as a set-up man.
"He's really made himself the real deal. Those numbers were incredible this year," McGregor said. "When we put him in the game, it was over. That's what you like to have."
Britton didn't come into the season expecting to dominate. He was still recovering from being hit in the face by a line drive toward the end of the 2002 season, an injury that required surgery and insertion of a metal plate to stabilize the area.
"I caught a comebacker between my eyes," Britton recalled. "You get comebackers all the time. Either you get out of the way or you defend yourself. That was a little too quick for me to defend myself."
As if that wasn't enough, Britton needed surgery to remove bone chips from his right elbow at the end of Spring Training the following season, which ended before it began.
He spent most of 2004 in extended Spring Training and by then wasn't very highly regarded by the organization. With a fastball that tops out at about 94 and a slider, that clearly has changed. He's dabbling with adding a third pitch that will remain a mystery before it is unveiled in a game situation. A slight hitch in his delivery caused McGregor to liken it to Robb Nen's toe-tap delivery.
"He was very effective and very gutsy on the mound. He goes after people and throws strikes," McGregor said. "Not a month into the season, I was like 'This guy is unbelievable. Where did this guy come from?' That's the way the game goes. Sometimes guys wake up."
This story was not subject to the approval of the National Association of Professional Baseball Leagues or its clubs.