Barry Zito to Have Some Chance

The 2012 World Series begins in just some hours, with the Tigers trotting out their ace in Justin Verlander. The Giants will respond by trotting out a guy who might have been an ace once many years ago in Barry Zito. I was tasked with the project of writing up a Barry Zito Game 1 game plan, and to me it couldn’t be more simple. Zito’s Wednesday night strategy:

  1. do what Justin Verlander does
  2. maybe do it better?

All right, so that is a physical impossibility, unless Verlander suffers a crippling injury between now and then and still somehow is allowed to start. A more realistic Barry Zito Game 1 game plan:

  1. hit all of the spots
  2. do not miss any of the spots

See how easy this is? Barry Zito might well win tonight just so long as he pitches perfectly. If he doesn’t make any mistakes, at all, then surely he’ll have the Tigers’ hitters off balance and maybe the Giants will score a run against Verlander or the bullpen and, presto, there’s a World Series advantage! I guess my work here is done, sooner than I expected it to be.

Obviously, the Giants would prefer for this series to be starting differently. There are pitchers better than Justin Verlander on a per-inning basis, but those guys are relievers, because Justin Verlander is probably the best starting pitcher in the world. Barry Zito just posted the same ERA- as Clayton Richard and the same FIP- as Travis Wood. One doesn’t often stumble across bigger pitching mismatches come playoff time, and the Tigers have to be feeling confident. But then one should always remember that the starting pitchers are only one factor, and in any given game, the odds can be only so lopsided. The Giants have a real chance of winning Game 1. I don’t know the specific odds, but they’re probably somewhat similar to the odds that Gregor Blanco reaches base. Is it ever such a shock when Gregor Blanco reaches base?

Zito pitching well — or Zito generally just keeping runs off the board — isn’t the Giants’ only shot. They could score lots of runs against Verlander, they could score runs against the Detroit bullpen, or the San Francisco bullpen could be amazing, or anything. There are lots of ways for the Giants to win. But it would help them the most if Zito pitched well and matched innings with Verlander, so we should talk about Zito and what he might be able to do.

Zito has two things going for him, that are intimately related to one another: he’ll be pitching at home in AT&T Park, and he’ll be pitching against a DH-less Tigers lineup. The Tigers will still have their DH, but he’ll be playing left field, which, that’s another subject. This season, AT&T played to the extreme in terms of run suppression, and that’s not going to hurt the Giants’ chances. A run-suppressing environment will have a smaller effect on Verlander than it will on a guy like Zito, who you expect to allow more runs in a neutral park. It doesn’t even the playing field, but it somewhat levels the playing field.

For his career, Zito hasn’t shown much of a platoon split, but he’s shown more of a platoon split lately as he’s dropped his arm angle somewhat. It looks like he’s going to face two lefties in Prince Fielder and Andy Dirks, and one pitcher in Verlander. The remaining six, obviously, are righties, and among the righties is Miguel Cabrera. No pitcher can have the platoon advantage against both Fielder and Cabrera, and you can imagine what Cabrera might be able to do to Zito’s slop if he has to come over the plate.

What Zito did well against St. Louis in his last start was mix things up and hit his locations. It’s the same answer you always get from a finesse pitcher after a good performance. An effective finesse pitcher has to mix things up and hit his locations; a finesse pitcher who spends time over the middle is probably going to get figuratively and literally beaten with sticks. Zito stayed away from the middle against the Cardinals and he’ll want to do that again against the Tigers, but I feel like that should go without saying.

Now, it’s easy to spot changes in Zito. This year he significantly boosted his rate of sliders or cutters thrown. He threw non-cut fastballs less than two-fifths of the time, which is an extraordinarily low rate, and you figure there might be some relationship between that and Zito’s 15-8 record. But Zito’s ERA was the same as it was in 2010. His FIP- was his second-worst as a Giant. His xFIP- was his worst as a Giant. In some ways, Zito made some changes, and in other ways he didn’t at all. Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that greater unpredictability has allowed Zito to rejuvenate his career.

But Zito is nothing without his unpredictability because he can’t let hitters hone in on any one pitch. If we’re going to try to tailor a game plan to Zito, then as with all pitchers, it would be good for Zito to work ahead in the count. Opposing hitters swung at just ten percent of his first-pitch curveballs this season, so it looks like a first-pitch curve for a strike could be Zito’s ticket to finding 0-and-1. He can’t exclusively throw first-pitch curves, of course, but he can throw more of them than usual, and he can alternate with a high fastball because tonight fly balls probably aren’t going to carry. Conditions should give Zito a bigger margin of error.

Sticking with the curve, one notes that that’s Zito’s one groundball pitch. In that start against the Cardinals, Zito’s curve yielded six grounders and a line drive. On the year, it generated 67-percent grounders. No other pitch of Zito’s generated greater than 40-percent grounders. While fly balls shouldn’t be an enemy tonight, Zito might want to give Fielder and Cabrera a lot of curves to try to keep them grounded. They’re the two players most likely to take Zito deep; Zito should try to minimize the chance of that happening.

Going through some other Tigers hitters specifically, evidence suggests that Austin Jackson and Omar Infante have trouble hitting to the opposite field, so while Zito generally isn’t afraid to bust righties inside with his fastball or cutter, against Jackson and Infante he might want to stay away with almost everything. He can try to get an occasional fastball in on the hands, just to change the look, but it would behoove Zito to make Jackson and Infante go the other way. Jackson’s speed would be less of a factor, and line drives would be less of a factor.

Delmon Young has actually been a pretty good hitter against lefties for his career, over more than a thousand plate appearances, but his power is also mostly to left. Everybody knows that you can get Delmon Young to chase, and Zito should try to get him chasing down and away. It’s almost always the game plan for opposite-handed pitchers to work in the low-away quadrant. They do that for a reason. Zito likes his inside cutter, but he should be careful with it when he throws it tonight. Even with the probable pitcher-friendly conditions.

Ultimately a game plan is only as good as a pitcher’s location. Plans don’t mean anything if a pitcher can’t put the baseball where he wants to, and if Zito’s location is off tonight then he’ll have to count on the air to knock fly balls down. Which, granted, it very well might, pretty often. But there are specific things for Zito to try to do that might allow him to keep up with his far more talented counterpart. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work, but then not a whole lot of people are expecting it to work given that this is Barry Zito and Justin Verlander.

In a way, for Zito, it’s a no-lose situation. I mean, he could definitely lose, but the expectation is that he’ll lose. He already saved the Giants’ season once with a miracle and people are going to pick the Tigers as overwhelming Game 1 favorites. There’s pressure on everyone in the World Series, but there might be less pressure on Zito than there is on the average World Series starting pitcher. But just because expectations are low doesn’t mean a Zito win or at least no-decision would be impossible. This is one game, and Zito’s in the right park for his skillset. If his curveball can find the glove without the glove having to go get it, well, we’ve seen one miracle. We know now it could happen again.




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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


40 Responses to “Barry Zito to Have Some Chance”

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  1. Desertfox says:

    Good to see a baseball intellectual here.

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  2. Chummy Z says:

    It’s as if you were so funny the first time with your misuse of capital letters and general stupidity that we wanted an encore.

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  3. Nathan says:

    Here’s how Barry Zito can get Delmon Young out.

    Throw a pitch in some area his catcher can realistically catch or block. Watch Delmon swing. Three times in a row.

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  4. ucancmysox says:

    I’m pretty sure this IS his day job.

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  5. BWOzar says:

    Pat Venditte could have the platoon advantage against both Fielder and Cabrera…

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    • TKDC says:

      would he really?

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    • TKDC says:

      I assume this is the guy that throws lefty and righty. But he surely does better as a lefty against lefties or as a rightly against righties, so he doesn’t really have a platoon advantage against one of them, right? I mean, I know this was somewhere between a joke and throw-away comment, but I’m curious.

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    • Ian R. says:

      Free Pat Venditte!

      Or just resurrect Tony Mullane, who was rumored to throw with both hands every now and again.

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  6. dragonflyball says:

    Maybe they should have the game moved to 8am instead of 8pm. Pretty sure NOT having soupy fog in the morning in San Francisco is one of the seven signs. (Why, yes, I did live around there for a while.)

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  7. JT says:

    I think we’re underestimating the odds of San Francisco winning. Verlander is without doubt a far superior pitcher, and I know he’s been lights out this postseason, but everybody has rough days. During the regular season, the Tigers lost in Verlander starts against: CJ Wilson, Luis Mendoza, Derek Holland, Josh Beckett, Zach McAllister, David Price, Phil Hughes, Daniel Bard, Justin Masterson, Jonathan Sanchez, Ivan Nova, and James Shields.

    Of the 13 times the Tigers lost with Verlander starting, they were only at home three times. They’re on the road tonight.

    I definitely give the Tigers a significant advantage tonight, but it isn’t as if Verlander hasn’t lost to plenty of pitchers who are not only worse than him, but not very good period, this season.

    I know the author of this very well-written article acknowledges the Giants have a very real chance of winning, but for all our collective hate of “The Narrative,” it’s as though we’ve created our own narrative (one of Zito’s imminent doom) based on the very quantitatively-verifiable distance between him and Verlander. It’s best to remember that with a sample as small as one night it’s far from reliable that these guys will look anything like we project…

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    • ElJimador says:

      Verlander so far this postseason:
      3 starts, 3-0, 24.1 IP, 10 H, 5 BB, 25 K, 0.74 ERA, 0.617 WHIP

      Cliff Lee’s postseason going into the 2010 WS:
      3 starts, 3-0, 24 IP, 13 H, 1 BB, 34 K, 0.75 ERA, 0.583 WHIP

      It’s an entirely different Giants lineup this year outside of Posey yet their overall approach at the plate is remarkably similar. They still feature a lot of contact hitters who would rather swing the bat than work the count but who are very good at not striking out. And though it may not be the best approach over an entire season, when you put the ball in play sometimes you do find holes, or suspect defenders on the side (as in, “welcome to AT&T Miggy, Prince and Delmon Young, have you met Pete Kozma?”)

      Any rational baseball fan would concede that Verlander and the Tigers are the favorites tonight. But not only would it not take a “miracle” for the Giants to win, it wouldn’t even take anything that unusual. Just a decent-enough start from Zito + a little bit of luck from the BABIP gods or an untimely mistake by Verlander or his bullpen. Viola. Or Verlander could come out and just plain be off like Cliff Lee was in that 2010 game 1. It happens.

      Or Verlander could also go out and throw a complete game W. The point is I can imagine any one of these outcomes just as easily as another. “Some chance”? It’s baseball. Zito and the Giants have every chance, and this is why we watch.

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      • Keian says:

        How do the 2012 Tigers compare to the 2010 Phillies? Wasn’t that an “unbeatable team” with Cliff Lee (who was rolling, as noted above), Halladay, Hamels, and Blanton? They also had a lineup with two NL MVPs and a healthy Chase Utley. This is baseball. Good teams lose even when the matchup is favorable. The Tigers lost nearly 40% of Verlander’s starts this year. This would not be an impossible game for the Giants to pull out, though they probably are not favored.

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      • Bigmouth says:

        Lords of BABIP, hear my prayer…

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      • quincy0191 says:

        @Keian

        The 2010 Phillies didn’t have Cliff Lee. They did have Roy Halladay and Cole Hamels, but Lee was with Texas in 2010. Of course, the Giants beat both those teams anyway, and if the regular season is any indication at all both those teams were better than the 2012 Tigers.

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    • Kevin says:

      And two of those starts he gave up under 2 runs in 8 innings. in other words, he isn’t unbeatable, but you really have to be on your best to beat JV at his below-average. (The beckett start and the one against Cleveland, might’ve been Masterson).

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  8. BWOzar says:

    Clearly this guy is kidding… Relax everyone…

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  9. James says:

    I mean, sure. And your next post could be “Delmon Young to Have Some Chance in Outfield” as well. It’s one game. Anything could happen. It’s just not particularly likely.

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  10. MikeS says:

    The Tigers are never DH-less. At a minimum they have three DH’s in the lineup at any one time.

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  11. Shankbone says:

    The seven rules of Barry Zito: 1. Never Trust Barry Zito. 2. Keep the ball down. 3. Pitch to contact. 4. Avoid walks. 5. Build a lead. 6. Bring your curve ball out to play. 7. Profit. Also, Never Trust Barry Zito.

    Zito has been decent this year when he gets some early defensive plays behind him and avoids walks and big hits. This pitching backwards thing seems to be helping him. There is talk of his new found home life helping as well. Not sure I buy that, but I do buy pitching backwards to keep hitters off the 84 MPH heater. He gets the confidence to throw the curve, he can be quite good.

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  12. Eminor3rd says:

    I like your work, Jeff, but this one was a lot of words without much content.

    I think a more interesting angle would be taking a look at how often historically lopsided matchups (with some sort of context) end up with the favorite on top. I think everyone knows that it’s possible for the Giants to win, but how possible?

    Not trying to be a jerk, sorry.

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  13. Gary York says:

    “nowe” for know instead of “no” for know? Bad troll! Bad troll!

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  14. Hurtlockertwo says:

    It’s a lot better story line when the underdog triumphs. The Giants are lovingly refered to as cockroaches for good reason. Giants in six games, you heard it here first.

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  15. Petruchio says:

    Avoiding walks will be Zito’s biggest priority. If he puts balls in play, the defense can suppress hits, and the damp/deep park can suppress home runs.

    Additionally, I wouldn’t be surprised if this Zito start is actually a Tim Lincecum start in disguise. If the bullpen Lincecum is for real and not a small sample size fluke, the Tigers might have a tougher game ahead of them than everyone thinks.

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  16. Bigmouth says:

    Which umpire is calling the game? Zeeter does best when the big curve gets called for strikes.

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  17. Paul Thomas says:

    Frankly, the Giants are better off with Zito going against Verlander (essentially conceding those two games) and trying to win 4 of the remaining 5 than they would be if, say, Matt Cain was starting Game 1.

    I suppose one could make a credible case for Bumgarner as the sacrificial lamb instead. But you clearly don’t want Cain or Vogelsong “dominated” by Verlander– akin to how a Texas Hold-Em player doesn’t want a hand of A-K when his opponent has a pair of aces.

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  18. adohaj says:

    Good job acting like you know what “should” happen

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  19. sgs says:

    Best tip for Zito? Don’t do what Verlander does.

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  20. Antonio bananas says:

    Or verlander shits the bed and pablo goes no lube on the tigers. That’s another way zito can have a chance.

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  21. JG says:

    WARNING: This post is nothing but anecdotes.

    If there are baseball gods, they toy with the Tigers. When everyone expects them to cruise to a title (2006 WS, entire 2008 season, 2012 before September) they underperform. When they’re the underdog or aren’t even supposed to make the playoffs (2006 and 2012 AL playoffs, 2011 regular season, 2012 September) they’re unstoppable.

    This even works on a micro level, where the Tigers light up (or at least outperform) opposing aces while struggling mightily against soft tossing lefties with FIPs over 4.50. Also Ubaldo Jimenez. Dude wouldn’t win a game if it weren’t for being in the same division as Detroit.

    So Zito outpitching Verlander in Game 1 was bound to happen exactly because it shouldn’t have.

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  22. Nick63 says:

    This now looks pretty funny. Probably a better read after the game than before it, when it was just a sort of fluffy-state-the-obvious piece.

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