The Reinvention of Barry Zito

When I say “the Barry Zito contract”, what feeling immediately rises up in you? Is it disgust? Shock? A little schadenfreude? It’s still amazing to think how could a pitcher with such bad trends – xFIPs of 5.04, 4.61, 5.64 each season before signing with San Francisco – would ever get paid “ace” money, and that over seven years? How does a GM do that and still have a job? But I digress.

After pitching terribly for the Giants the past two seasons, Zito has put together a pretty solid season this year. No, he hasn’t had an $18.5 million dollar season, but a team could do worse for their 4th starter. Look at his three year trends:

Zito3yr.

(Pardon my use of MS Paint, WordPress is giving me formatting fits w/ making a table).

Looking at his peripherals, it’s easy to pinpoint the “why” for his improvement. Zito’s increased his strikeout rate by a batter per nine innings, while also cutting down his walks. His stuff appears to be new and improved compared to previous seasons with the Giants. Here’s a scouting report of Zito from just last April from the ever-resourceful site 60 Feet, 6 Inches:

Barry Zito is a nice guy. He does yoga and gives money to injured veterans. Unfortunately his fastball is slow and his changeup looks like a little league pitch. In his prime, he pumped in a 92mph fastball and was tough to hit. Always known for his curveball, the pitch has become a lob that is hard to throw for a strike. A couple years ago he added a tighter breaking ball that he uses like a slider to LHs.

Zito threw 92 MPH in his prime? Maybe that was true back in ’00-‘01, but for his Cy Young season in 2002 – the season we begin to have velocity data here at FanGraphs, Zito was averaging 87 MPH on his fastball. That’s consistent with his seasons in Oakland from ’02 through –’05. It wasn’t until 2006 that Zito was throwing his pedestrian 85 MPH fastball. This season, his velocity is up a tick. –

944_P_FA_20090814blog

Last night against Cincy, Zito topped out at 89(!). Slight bump in velo aside, Zito’s started to get away from throwing that little league change-up so often. The past two seasons he’s thrown it 20% of the time, this year he is doing that with a slider, a pitch he previously has not thrown a whole lot of.

That lob of a curve has also been tightened back up to form. According to pitch-type values, Zito’s curve has been worth 11.3 runs, good for 6th on the leaderboards. Looking at pitch f/x, the pitch has gained about 2 and ½ inches of horizontal and vertical movement on average in comparison to last year’s slop ball. Zito isn’t about to revert to his former dominance, but at least he’s proving to be an above average starter at the moment. His ZiPS update forecasts that Zito will finish with a 4.13 FIP over 195 innings, good for nearly 3 WAR. Giant fans will gladly take it at this point.




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Erik Manning is the founder of Future Redbirds and covers the Cardinals for Heater Magazine. You can get more of his analysis and rantings in bite-sized bits by following him on twitter.


13 Responses to “The Reinvention of Barry Zito”

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  1. Travis L says:

    I’m glad to see Barry doing a little better. Played against him in H.S., and he was always a really nice, genuine guy. Not really his fault that Sabean had his brain removed; I probably wouldn’t turn down that much money either. It’s bugged me that he’s become a villain just b/c of that — any redemption on his part is good for the old heart muscle.

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  2. bjupton says:

    “I probably wouldn’t turn down that much money either”

    Heh…really? Signing the biggest contract available and get to stay in a market where you are happy? I’d say you probably wouldn’t either.

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  3. You cannot use FIP to evaluate a pitcher like Barry Zito. FIP relies on the assumption that DIPS is working, but as Tom Tippett showed in his comprehensive study of the history of baseball, he found pitchers who did not follow the DIPS tenets. I believe that Zito falls into the crafty lefty category there.

    His BABIP has been much lower than the .300 mean that pitchers normally regress for his career. Tom Tango at his site noted that it takes about 7 seasons worth of pitching stats to have enough results to say statistically certainly that a pitcher’s BABIP is lower than the .300 mean, and Zito is past that threshold.

    Ironically, once Zito joined the Giants, his BABIP has been around .300, so perhaps his FIP is valid now but not back when he was with the A’s, not sure how that works.

    He said that his velocity went up mid-last season when he started long tossing again, which he had stopped when he joined the Giants, and he continued doing that in the off-season with Brian Wilson, who was staying with him and teaching him some sort of physical routine. Obviously, that increase has continued this season and apparently it is still improving if he is up to 89.

    The increase was evident last season by the bump up in his K/9 and by his being able to have a stretch of 3 starts where he struck out more batters than IP. That was something he had not done in SF or Oaktown for 3-4 years and something that he did not do regularly since his first seasons up with the ‘s. His K/9 has stayed higher this season as well, relative to the same stage of the season (apparently he is able to strike out more batters later in the season than earlier, which is probably why he has those second half surges that he has).

    He is surging again and looking to help with this playoff drive.

    I was not one of the Giants fans who expected him to be an ace just because of the money and contract. I expected him to be an innings eatting good pitcher, in the high 3/low 4 ERA range, like he was with the ‘s, as that would lock down one position in the rotation while our young pitchers struggle and learn. Instead, he has struggled and learned, while our young pitchers have locked down two of the positions in the rotation.

    If he would have done that, the contract would have actually been OK: a huge risk, but like a mortgage, paid on regularly with good pitching, it would have been OK. Instead, his first two years were spent waiting for his brain to get over his contract so that he can pitch like he had previously. He seems to be finally there this season, and I guess it all works out, because we need him like this for this season, it would have been wasted the past two seasons, plus then we would have gotten worse picks and not got Posey and Wheeler (though perhaps still would have gotten Smoak and Miller).

    Thanks for pointing out that leaderboard on pitch types, I will have to check that out, sounds interesting.

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    • phildo says:

      zito’s babip was lower in oakland because he has always generated a ton of infield popups and the coliseum has enormous foul territory. notice his iffb% is way down since he was signed by sf.

      it’s not ironic at all. parks are different and therefore skillsets play differently in them.

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  4. fanOFdefenseAGAIN says:

    It’s funny to me that FIP doesn’t normalize for league or park conditions (correct?)

    Clearly Zito has improved this year. This is more a question about the usefulness of comparing Zito to a AL East pitcher in Camden Yards, for example.

    Does tRA or whatever account for these important differences?

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  5. Just running this up the flagpole, knowledgable baseball folks: An Alfonso-Soriano-for-Barry-Zito bad contract swap. Good idea? Bad idea? Remotely feasible?

    I’m not necessarily promoting the concept, and it’s not like the Cubs need a fifth starter – even next season. But I’m curious as to whether such a deal would have any legs to stand on.

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  6. tribescribe says:

    Moneyball quotes Billy Beane as saying Zito had an 88-mph fastball at the time of the draft : http://tinyurl.com/l7qs6r

    Doubt he ever consistently sat at 92, though he may have touched it from time to time.

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  7. Alireza says:

    I really don’t get why Bochy doesn’t just plug Sandoval into catch during Zito’s starts. Zito is obviously handled better by the guy and it really should take much of a toll on Sandoval.

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  8. To be fair, Zito was pulled the other night for a pinch-hitter because the Giants had runners at 2nd and 3rd with two outs in the 6th. He wasn’t pulled because of the pitch count.

    Would have been worth talking about Zito’s lack of run support this season. The Giants haven’t scored a single run for him in more than a third of his starts. While Zito hasn’t pitched perfect this season, if his record was 13-7 would anyone really be complaining?

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