And so it’s come to this. On September 2, Barry Zito allowed four runs in a four-inning start. Shortly thereafter, he was sent back to the bullpen. He hasn’t pitched since. Really, there’s no reason for him to pitch from this point forward, but he might still get one last turn, maybe to rest some arms, maybe additionally in a show of respect to a veteran who was at least always a good sport. This is how the Zito contract ends. Or, probably ends — MLB.com refuses to just outright state the obvious.
Zito’s days as a Giant are likely coming to an end. His seven-year, $126 million contract ends with this season. The Giants almost surely will decline to pay him an $18 million option. Zito then would get a $7 million buyout. The left-hander is 4-11 with a 5.91 ERA and has twice been removed from the rotation.
Zito’s club option is almost as comical as the old Vernon Wells opt-out clause. It’s an enduring reminder that someone once thought Zito could be highly effective through 2013. Zito wasn’t even all that good when he finished up in Oakland, and he never had much of a margin of error. Since then, he’s only declined further, and now one wonders what he’ll be doing half a year from now. But decline aside, I thought it’d be fun to review Zito’s fastest pitches from the 2013 season. Zito has famously long been something of a junk-baller, but he never did away with his heater completely. One always needs at least the threat of a fastball, and you establish a threat by throwing it. So, below, I’ve prepared a list, showing Zito’s top ten pitches from 2013 that registered at least 86 miles per hour.
- Batter: Jose Bautista
- Date: May 14
- Velocity: 86.1 miles per hour
With his first pitch to Bautista in the bottom of the sixth, Zito went upstairs and blew a heater by one of the game’s better bats. Bautista’s a power hitter who loves to pull the ball, and against a soft-tossing lefty like Zito it stood to reason Bautista would be aggressive, so Zito played off that and got himself ahead in the count. Bautista took a mighty hack, but he swung underneath the ball, pausing afterward to consider what just took place.
And that’s it. Thank you for reading my top-ten list. According to PITCHf/x, Barry Zito has thrown one pitch this season that reached 86 miles per hour out of the hand. The next-fastest pitch came in at 85.6. The pitch to Bautista did manage to generate a swinging strike, but it also seems like Zito badly missed his spot and wound up almost in the danger zone. Bautista singled on the next pitch, and Zito was pulled, and he finished having allowed 12 hits and eight runs in 5.2 innings. It wasn’t a great day for Barry Zito. Great days for Barry Zito have been fewer and further between.
Mariano Rivera is 43 years old, and no matter what happens with the Yankees, he’s not more than a few weeks away from the end of his big-league career. Even now, he’s still successful with the same approach as always — with Rivera, it’s just cutter on the edge after cutter on the edge after cutter on the edge. Excluding intentional balls, Rivera’s slowest pitch in 2013 was faster than Zito’s fastest pitch. Zito’s barely cracked 86. Rivera’s barely sunk below 88.
It’s not hard to observe Zito’s velocity decline, and indeed it’s made evident right there on his FanGraphs player page. But here’s an alternate look at it — the percent of Zito’s pitches reaching 86 ticks, by year:
- 2009: 33.0%
- 2010: 20.3%
- 2011: 1.5%
- 2012: 0.8%
- 2013: < 0.1%
Accordingly, Zito’s park-adjusted xFIP has climbed every year, from 2009’s 104 to this year’s 129. That’s still better than Jake Westbrook, but Jake Westbrook doesn’t represent the threshold of acceptability.
And there’s something I feel like I should mention, about that pitch at 86.1 miles per hour to Jose Bautista. That was thrown on May 14. According to PITCHf/x, five of Zito’s seven fastest pitches of the season were thrown on May 14. Zito threw 4.4% of his overall pitches on May 14. Maybe, Zito was feeling unusually strong that day. More likely, PITCHf/x was a little bit off, with velocity numbers a little bit inflated. Which would mean, in turn, that Zito hasn’t actually eclipsed 86 after all. Maybe it’s weird to dwell on this right on the heels of Jamie Moyer‘s career, considering, but then we haven’t had Moyer to talk about. Just Zito, progressively throwing more and more like a knuckleballer without the knuckleball.
It’s interesting to me how Zito has come apart without truly coming apart. With the A’s, he threw 61% strikes. With the Giants, he’s thrown 62% strikes. With the A’s, he allowed 79% contact. With the Giants, he’s allowed 81% contact. Yet, with the A’s, he posted an 80 ERA-. With the Giants, he’s posted a 117 ERA-. The Barry Zito of today still resembles, by and large, the Barry Zito of his best years, in the American League, but somewhere along the line he became just bad enough to be a problem. Zito always had a small margin of error. It got smaller until there was no margin left. Zito isn’t all that far on the other side of the line, but the difference is significant because big-league hitters are amazing, and once you’ve sunk it’s almost impossible to swim back up to the surface. As a rule, pitchers start taking on water shortly after they arrive in the bigs. It’s gradual, but Zito wasn’t that big a ship.
This wasn’t supposed to end up too similar to what Matt Klaassen wrote a week ago. This is really just about Zito’s missing zip. But when you write about the small stuff, it’s hard not to pull back and observe the bigger picture. Literally and figuratively, baseball is a game of inches. A literal inch can be the difference between a pop-out and a dinger. A figurative inch can be the difference between a Cy Young winner and a spring-training NRI. Barry Zito isn’t far from being a big-league caliber starter. He’s never been further away.
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