Barry Zito as a Disappearing Exception

Remember when a seven-year, $126 million deal seemed pretty crazy? Sure, Jayson Werth’s similar contract (signed prior to the 2011 season) does not exactly seem great (although he is having a nice year) these days, either, but back during the 2006-2007 off-season, when Barry Zito signed with the Giants, it seemed utterly insane. It was not simply that it was, at the time, the biggest contract ever signed by a pitcher. Prices go up — hot dogs cost more now than ever before, and I do not see any moral panic about that phenomenon. It was that Zito seemed like a poor choice for such a deal. Sure, he was a three-time All-Star and the 2004 American League Cy Young winner. He was durable, as he had pitched more than 210 innings six seasons in a row for the As. However, Zito was going to be 29 in 2007, and his strikeout and walk rates, which had never been all that impressive, seemed to be getting worse. It looked like it was going to be an albatross.

It was. Although he has had his moments over the last seven seasons, as a final cherry on top (insert a joke about the 2014 option here), Zito’s 2013 season has been one more blow to the contract year theory of player performance. In the last season of his notorious contract, Zito has had the worst year of his career. He lost his rotation spot in August (although he received another shot in the rotation for a few starts later). Zito’s time with the Giants is drawing to a close, and he is not going to get a ceremonial final start at home, if that was something someone wanted. This is not meant as a career retrospective. Instead, I want to look at something that Zito seemed to have in Oakland, something that probably played a big part in the Giants’ willingness to give him the contract, something which seemed to depart after he made the move: his ability to outperform DIPS metrics.

Zito was no uniformlly bad as a Giant. He was roughly average for maybe two or three seasons, depending on how one looks at it, but he was not being paid to merely average. Moreover, he was mostly below average, and that might be generous. Whatever one makes of the Giants’ decision to sign Zito, they definitely deserve credit for working around a decision that at the time of the Vernon Wells trade, seemed to be even worse (although the Wells contract has turned out far worse than it seemed at the time). They won the World Series in 2010 (although Zito did not even make the postseason roster) and then again in 2012. Zito was even a big contributor during the 2012 playoffs. His start in Game Five of the National League Championship Series versus St. Louis was particularly impressive, as he went seven and two-thirds, strikeout out six and giving up no runs against a Cardinals lineups full of good right-handed hitters.

Overall, though, Zito has performed miserably as a Giant. Since 2007, he has totaled 6.2 WAR as a Giant. Even if one does not like FIP-based WAR, he was even worse according to RA9-WAR, with a total of 5.4 since 2007. This is what particularly interests me in Zito’s case, as prior to signing with the Giants, he looked like the sort of pitcher that could outperform his DIPS metrics. In his Oakland years, Zito’s FIP-based WAR was 24.9, but his total RA9-WAR was 33.1, mostly due to his low BABIP (a stunning .262), which enabled him to accumlute almost 12 BIP-Wins with the As.

This does not require dismissing DIPS. As is widely acknowledged, there are some pitchers who seem to be particularly good or bad when it comes to controlling their balls in play. The problem is identifying them over small (even one full season of starting) samples. In certain cases, though, in some cases with a large sample, there is reason to think that RA9 is a better measure of a pitcher’s contribution than FIP or another DIPS-type metric.

Barry Zito certainly seemed like one of those pitchers prior to 2007, a period in which he pitched more than 1400 innings for Oakland. While his FIP was a pedestrian 4.17, his ERA during that time was 3.55. Maybe back in his 2002 Cy Young-winning season one could have seen Zito’s 2.75 ERA versus his 3.87 FIP as a fluke, as he had only pitched a partial season in 2000 and in 2001 his ERA (3.49) and FIP (3.53) were practically the same. As time went on, Zito just kept “outpitching his FIP,” other than a hiccup in 2004.

Zito’s non-DIPS success during those years was not a total mystery. While his Oakland teammate Tim Hudson also mostly outperformed his DIPS metrics, Hudson did so by keeping the ball on the ground. Zito, in contrast, not only did not have Hudson’s control, but was a fly ball pitcher. He was probably helped in part by the As’ park suppressing his home run rate. Mostly, though, simply inducing a high proportion of fly balls — and a high number of those were pop ups — kept Zito’s BABIP down. Zito was not even that great with runners on, as he was about three runs below average in left on base wins during his Oakland years. It was all about balls in play.

What happened once Zito moved to San Francisco? There was talk about his velocity, but his velocity was never good, even during his best years. There was discussion of his delivery. Here, I simply want to focus on his results. While batted ball data is imperfect, it is reasonable to note that Zito did seemed to remain a fly ball pitcher. His batted ball rates were pretty much the same as during his Oakland years. San Francisco pitchers developed something of a reputation for outperforming DIPS metrics during this period (Matt Cain being an example, though he was not nearly as extreme in this respect as the young Zito), even to the point of maintaining good home run per fly ball rates, and Zito kept up with that, too. Yhough Zito’s BABIP was still low in San Francisco at .287, that was not enough to keep him afloat. He had a .262 in Oakland. Some of that was quickly likely simply age-based decline. And it is not as if DIPS metrics are totally irrelevant to guys like Zito. His peripherals still mattered, and both his walk and strikeout rates became worse, as one would expect for a pitcher in his thirties.

Nevertheless, it is still remarkable that Zito’s apparent ability to pitch better than his FIP seemed to disappear after the move. He still did it in 2007 for the Giants, but a 4.53 ERA versus a 4.82 FIP was not great, even for him — his FIP was even 4.89 in 2006 and he still managed a 3.83 ERA. Parks might have been a factor, but though the As’ home park is tough on hitters, the Giants are far from playing in a lesser version of Coors Field.

Even using ERA instead of FIP, Zito’s contract was a bad idea for the Giants at the time it was signed. In that respect, too, things turned out worse than one might have expected. By 2010, it began to seem reasonable to start using DIPS metrics more heavily for Zito, a trend which continued. Barry Zito seemed to be one of the exceptions back in 2007. As of the moment, his ERA for his Giants career has been 4.59, and his FIP has been… 4.59. Whatever he did with the As, with the Giants he has not been exceptional, at least not in the way they probably expected him to continue to be.




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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


27 Responses to “Barry Zito as a Disappearing Exception”

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  1. John says:

    Could this phenomenon be due to reduced outfield defence? (Just a thought) One way that a pitcher could be consistently out performing the FIP metric could be due to a consistently above average defence behind him. And if that same pitcher then moves to a different team where the defence is not as good then maybe this would cause his numbers to fall back to where they ‘should be’. I know this is just a thought and lacks number to back it up.

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  2. Johan Santana says:

    *2002 Cy Young winner

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  3. chief00 says:

    “there are some pitchers who seem to be particularly good or bad when it comes to controlling their balls in play”

    Man, did that make me laugh.

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  4. Wille Mays says:

    As bad a Zito has been, he still manages to pitch great games every so often. This year he pitched seven shutout innings in three of his first four starts. Very odd.

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    • Alex says:

      Every pitcher is great every so often. Philip Humber threw a perfect game, for god’s sake

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    • steve says:

      It isn’t THAT odd. I mean, as much as Zito sucks relative to other MLB pitchers, he is still are really good pitcher. On the days the balls get caught, and a few more swinging strikes, any major league pitcher can look great. The really good ones just do it a lot more often, and don’t require as much help.

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  5. tz says:

    How would the comparison look if we could factor in foul popups? Oakland’s huge foul territory must have pulled Zito’s BABIP down by a few points at least.

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    • EricR says:

      I was going to post the same thing. If he was inducing a lot of pop-ups in Oakland, then there were likely plenty of extra outs recorded due to the vast foul territory at the Coliseum, which BABIP wouldn’t record.

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    • wally says:

      Especially if Zito happens to induce a lot of weak popups in foul ground that are outs in Oakland, but out of play everywhere else.

      You’d think you’d be able to isolate that by home/away split before/after OAK.

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      Yes, I thought this was the conventional wisdom. His IFFB% declined from about 16% for the A’s from 2002 onward vs about 10% for the Giants.

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  6. Baltar says:

    This was a good article, for which I thank you.
    I do have a disagreement with your statement, “in some cases with a large sample, there is reason to think that RA9 is a better measure of a pitcher’s contribution than FIP or another DIPS-type metric.”
    It seems to me that all outlier cases disappear after a few years at the very most. This has happened to Zito and Cain, whom you mention in that connection in your article.
    I have to think that if their are any true exceptions to DIPS, they are too few to matter.

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    • DNA+ says:

      …or maybe the pitcher’s ability changed as they aged?

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    • Pitnick says:

      If you can write off 7 years of Cain outperforming his DIPS stats as being an inadequate sample, is it fair to use 160 innings of underperforming them to proclaim that it had all been an illusion?

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  7. Doug says:

    Just as Zito seemed to lose this “skill” mid-career, Bronson Arroyo seemed to gain it. Since 2009 he’s accumulated at least 1 extra win per year of RA/9 WAR compared to FIP WAR after never previously showing any ability in this regard.

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  8. Dan Rosenheck says:

    This ain’t rocket science. As I demonstrated at http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/hitting-em-where-they-are, starters’ BABIP is largely a product of popup rate and Z-Contact%. Zito’s BABIP went up in SF because he induced vastly fewer popups–he averaged an IFFB on 6.7% of batted balls in Oakland, which is elite, versus just 3.9% on the Giants, which is just average–and to a lesser extent because hitters made more contact with his strikes (Z-Cont of 86.7% in OAK versus 88.7% in SF, a significant difference).

    Much of Zito’s decline in popup rate, in turn, can be traced to the factors Steve Staude identified as inducing IFFB’s at http://www.fangraphs.com/community/babip-and-innings-pitched-plus-explaining-popups. Though we don’t have the vertical movement on his fastball for the Oakland years, we do have a much higher Zone% (51.5% to 45.6%) and a lower fastball-changeup velocity differential (11.6 mph to 10.5 mph), both of which correlate to fewer popups. It’s not that Zito got lucky as an A and then regressed to the mean as a Giant. To the contrary, the data show conclusively that he had significant true talent BABIP suppression skill early in his career, and lost it later on.

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    • channelclemente says:

      I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, especially since that popup rate change converted to increased line drives with the attendant increase in BABIP. His mini-renaissance in 2012 can be attributed to Righetti finally convincing him to fully incorporate a cut fastball, and commit to throwing it in situationally appropriate counts. For all the dubious opinions I’ve had of Zito over the years, his performance in that elimination game for the Giants with the Cardinals and winning that opener in Detroit against Verlander buys him a permanent indulgence from me.

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    • Ivan Grushenko says:

      Cool! So the foul territory wasn’t the only thing!

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  9. Jimbo says:

    I know what I’m about to say is gut feel and not subject to the usual battery of statistical measurement, but as an Oakland fan living in San Francisco, my theory about Zito’s precipitous drop in the Giants organization is due to coaching and the mental pressure of an insane contract.

    Zito has been in decline for lots of reasons, but for me the key question is why was it so pronounced between 2006 and 2007? I think putting it all on Zito is unreasonable.

    Straight-up, I think the Giants pitching staff wanted a star performer and paid a godawful amount of money for that. They kept tugging at Zito for tweaks and such to get it, and Zito didn’t respond well. I know it sounds like I’m blaming the Giants organization; I’m really not. I just think the expectations between Oakland and San Francisco are light-years apart when it comes to pitching. I recall Zito showing up to spring training in 2007 with a new pitching stance that he thought would give him more control and stamina. The Giants nixed that immediately. I suspect there were more changes they wanted too.

    Again, pure hunches on my part, no statistics I can point to, just the notes of an A’s fan who watched one of our aces become almost reviled in the city across the Bay.

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    • channelclemente says:

      It was in the ‘bury the memory of Bonds’ era, and Zito was cast as a savior. That could explain his hard headed disengagement and general disinterest in listening to Righetti.

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  10. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Barry Zito was way overpaid, and there were statistical signs that his decline was already starting before he signed the contract. In terms of value/performance it was a terrible contract! His contract was not an albatross, at least by how I define an albatross contract. An albatross contract is one that is such a large financial drain on the employing team that it prevents them from obtaining better players and thus prevents them from winning. During his time with the Giants, they not only won 2 World Series Championships, he contributed to both of them.

    While he was left off the 2010 postseason roster, he had something like 20 QS’s during the regular season, many of them won by the Giants. When you look at how close the NL West race was, the Giants probably would not have even made the posteason without those QS. Whether some other starter could have done as well, we’ll never know but 20 QS is not that easy to beat.

    I think it’s quite clear that the Giants probably would not have won the World Series in 2012 without Zito.

    There are a lot of teams that would happily pay a player $127 M in return for 1 WS title let alone 2!

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    • Hurtlockertwo says:

      True, after all the Angels have had many huge contracts that have not equaled winning. Most critics stopped talking about the Zito contract when the Giants won the first WS.

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    • Jason B says:

      “There are a lot of teams that would happily pay a player $127 M in return for 1 WS title let alone 2!”

      (1) Paying Zito $126M did not cause them to win one, or two, World Series. There is not a causative link there.

      (2) Those monetary resources could have been deployed more effectively, as was evident the day the deal was signed. I would hope I could get well in excess of 20 QS for $18M per season.

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  11. Chris says:

    What are the opposite of performance enhancing drugs? Maybe Zito has been taking those.

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  12. Blueyays says:

    YHOUNG ZITO

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