Normally, I like to start my posts off with some history of either the player being evaluated or the study being conducted. Tonight, I’m going to break from that mold given that every baseball fan knows that Barry Zito signed an albatross of a contract with the Giants following the 2006 season and has in no way lived up to the win values meriting such a contract. He also does not add to the team from an extra-curricular standpoint the way Manny Ramirez adds butts in the seats and sells merchandise.
Early in the 2009 season, however, Zito has actually looked pretty darn good and one has to wonder if he is going to revert to some semblance of his past form. Sure, he has only appeared in five games, but let’s keep the small sample size comments to a minimum here… after all, do you really think those of us at this site, who harp on the positives and negatives of samples all the time honestly don’t know that we are dealing with small samplels? Short rant over, back to the action.
There have been a few studies conducted linking Zito’s success in Oakland not only with the quality defenses backing him up but also an ability to consistently induce popups. While a popup might seem more random than skill-based, Zito consistently finished amongst the league leaders in this area, ultimately suggesting that some facet of his performance, be it velocity, movement, location, or some combination of the three, allowed him to record a higher than usual percentage of these weakly hit high pops.
During his first two seasons in San Francisco, Zito not only saw his velocity completely drop off the map, but his percentage of popups practically halved. From 2002-06, he ranged from around 15-17%. In 2007 and 2008, he induced popups under nine percent of the time. That could be chalked up as a direct result of the velocity issues or perhaps lesser foul area in San Francisco in which popups could remain in play.
This season, however, Zito’s rate of popups currently sits at 18.8%, higher than any previous season. He is not very likely to sustain a popup rate that but given that Zito has proven himself capable of above average marks in this department, he could very well stick around the 14-17% for the season. Not surprisingly, his velocity is also up to a tad below 87 mph, which only seems significant based on his gradual dropoff into Moyer-territory over the last two seasons.
Zito is not an ace and he probably will never pitch anywhere near as well as he did during the early days in Oakland, but if he can build on this early 2009 success and continue to get popups, all the while sustaining the improved velocity, there is no reason he could not be one of the best fourth starters in baseball. An improved Zito would certainly look much better than most of the other back end of the rotation pitchers consistently garnering opportunities. If the popup rate regresses towards the levels of the last two seasons, though, do not expect this success to continue.
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