Back to His Old Habits?

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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Eric is an accountant and statistical analyst from Philadelphia. He also covers the Phillies at Phillies Nation and can be found here on Twitter.


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erik
Guest
7 years 4 months ago

looking at his pitch f/x data, his curveball has more movement from this year to last.

-7.7 inches vertical movement in 2008
-9.5 in. of vert. movement so far in 09

John
Guest
John
7 years 4 months ago

has anyone done a study on the SDs of pitch f/x data?

brian
Guest
brian
7 years 4 months ago

what about sliders? his curveball % is his lowest ever, and slider % is his highest ever.

it’s also interesting that his groundball rate is his highest ever…

kris
Guest
7 years 4 months ago

I think it’s the Horizontal movement that’s doing it — After two years of being below average throwing that big overhand curve, he’s now getting 5.6 inches of horz. movement on it.

I haven’t seen him pitch in a long damn time, but it’d be interesting to see his arm angle and how he’s actually throwing the curve now.

I took a quick peak at the release point data, and he’s still coming waaay over the top. Guess he’s just getting more “hows your mother” on it.

Nick
Guest
Nick
7 years 4 months ago

Zito’s GB rate is also at 45% this year, which is a career high. He is only allowing 36.4% FBs, but if half of them are of the infield variety, that means he is allowing only ~18% outfield FBs. Playing in that huge ballpark, it’s no surprise that he’s only allowed 2 homers.

MPC
Guest
MPC
7 years 4 months ago

Pitch anywhere as good? Come on. “Pitch anywhere as WELL…”

Bhaakon
Guest
Bhaakon
7 years 4 months ago

But popups are home runs in a well.

Steve Balboni
Guest
Steve Balboni
7 years 4 months ago

You can just preface with “SSCA” (Sample Size Caveat Aside).

Bhaakon
Guest
Bhaakon
7 years 4 months ago

SSCA (To take Steve Balboni’s suggestion), there’s speculation in the Bay Area that Zito’s improvement has something to do with who is catching him. Dating back to late last season, Zito seemed to throw significantly better when Bengie Molina was not behind the plate. From August 18th (the first time Sandoval caught Zito), Barry put up 29 IP, 22 R, 22/13 K/BB and 4 HR when Molina caught, and 52 IP, 15 R, 34/17 K/BB and 4 HR when anyone else played backstop.

I realize that the evidence for “game calling” is tenuous at best, but Zito’s extremely unorthodox style suggests the possibility of a connection. It could be that Zito, and perhaps other pitcher’s with unusual stuff, demand an equally unusual approach from their catchers. Also interesting, Pablo Sandoval, who caught most of the games in the second group, has a fairly poor defensive reputation (except throwing out base stealers, which he’s excelled at).

kris
Guest
7 years 4 months ago

Okay, first off – SSCA is lame. We’re all intelligent people who know that 6 games is 6 games, nothing more. It really shouldn’t have to be pointed out until mid-season when some stats are around the correct number of events, and others aren’t. I think it’s pretty fair to assume that 99.9% of fangraph readers know enough math to understand when a sample size is statistically significant.

Secondly, the Zito comment is awesome. It’s just so nonsensical that I buy it. I also wouldn’t be surprised if Zito shakes off catchers-not-named-molina more often and throws whatever he damn well pleases.

I’m sure it would be a long and tedious job, but checking zito’s shake-off rate with different catchers would definitely intrigue me.

Bhaakon
Guest
Bhaakon
7 years 4 months ago

There’s another factor, which may relate to Zito’s new and improved IFF%. Purely subjectively, it’s my opinion that Molina struggles to catch high fastballs, and shys away from calling them. IIRC, this is a pitch which Zito had used often in Oakland.

Again, something that should be revealed by the pitch f/x data.

Leo
Guest
Leo
7 years 4 months ago

The pitchers with sinkers induce grounballs…
Zito’s best pitch is his circle change, which if I recall correctly, he thows quite often. Well if the hitter sits on it and gets a fastball, wouldn’t by the law of physics he pop it up? Would this explain the high flyball rates?

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