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:

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(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. –

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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.


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