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.

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Good to see a baseball intellectual here.