What’s Different About Barry Zito?

Whatever else might be written about the 2010 San Francisco Giants, they have assembled an excellent pitching staff. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, and Jonathan Sanchez are all tremendous young pitchers, and, yes, good ol’ Barry Zito is a pretty good #4 pitcher. Once you leave the contract jokes aside, that is, and focus on his numbers, yeah, a lot of teams would be thrilled to have a guy with Zito’s projected talent at the back of their rotation. And so far this year, he looks much better than that, with a 1.86 ERA and a 2.88 FIP. Once again, I won’t give you the small sample size lecture that I’m sure you all know by heart at this point. It still applies. But is there anything in the numbers (I’ll leave the Pitch F/X stuff to someone smart) to indicate that Zito has changed something in his approach in his first three starts such that we migth see a turnaround for him in 2010? After all, after projecting him for a 4.60 FIP before the season, as of now, ZiPS rest-of-seasonn has him at 4.35.

So far this season, Zito’s walk rate is only 2.33 per nine innings, and he hasn’t given up a home run yet. While his BABIP is an unsustainable .209, he is managing to hold hitters to a mere 15.5% line drive rate. These are the primary reasons he has a 2.73 tERA, right in line with his tremendous ERA and FIP.

Other numbers are less impressive. After having a better strikeout rate in 2009 than in any other previous season, in 2010, he’s only striking out a Horacio Ramirez-esque 4.19 batters every nine innings. I’m personally agnostic regarding how much control pitchers have on line drives rates (if they do, I think it’s much less than with regard to groundball rates, strikeouts, walks, etc.), but even if you think Zito has found something new in that regard, most of those former line drives have turned into flyballs — up to about 46% this year from Zito, as opposed to his usual rate of about 40%. Zito doesn’t get that many groundballs — he’s at about his usual rate of 38% at the moment. But as for the flyballs… yes, so far he’s been very lucky to not give up any home runs, which is why his xFIP is 4.79 so far this season. While his pitch type values (by count) reflect the success he’s had in preventing runs so far this season, and his pitch typesshow a slight decrease in sliders in favor of his 86 mph “heater,” his plate discipline numbers reflect his low strikeout totals — getting fewer swings on pitches outside the strike zone, allowing more contact in general, and a lower swinging strike percentage.

None of this is to say that Zito is actually worse than expected, or that he can’t be helpful. Nor do I intend to start a debate about the relative value of FIP, xFIP, and tERA — all three are useful. All I wanted to examine in this post is whether Zito’s hot start might be attributed to some changes in his pitching this season. From what I can see in the numbers, the answer is “no.”




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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.


36 Responses to “What’s Different About Barry Zito?”

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  1. god shammgod says:

    Zito did pitch well in the second half of 2009, too, for whatever it means. I have no delusions here but I don’t see why he can’t be a solid No. 4 for the Giants.

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  2. Pull T says:

    Salary notwithstanding, a good three-quarters of teams would gladly have Zito as their #4.

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  3. Sam says:

    It’s unavoidable to discuss Zito without discussing FIP/xFIP. A substantial part of Zito’s success over his career has come from limiting the run value of balls in play, specifically balls in the air. When he’s been successful, he’s induced a ton of infield flies, limited HR/FB, and given up fewer extra base hits than would be expected. In over 2000 IP, his career ERA is nearly a full run better than his career xFIP.

    When discussing whether Zito has reverted back to being a successful pitcher, you can’t simply ignore the things that made Zito successful in the first place.

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    • Bishop says:

      Agreed. His career BABIP is also 0.274, which takes a bit of bite out of Mr. Klaasen’s analysis. Is he getting lucky? Sure. But if he can post a 3.80 ERA the rest of the way, that’s a damn good #4 guy.

      (Anyways, after his last start, his GB% is now at a career-high 43.8%, which only goes to demonstrate how early in the season we are.)

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  4. Mark says:

    A question:

    The difference between xFIP and FIP is that xFIP adjusts FIP such that the pitcher allows 11% of his fly balls to be hit for home runs, right?

    Well, in my (albeit limited) research into the matter, it seems that SF Giants pitchers in general allow fewer home runs per fly ball than the league average. It appears that AT&T is below average in terms of home runs. Thus, it seems reasonable that you wouldn’t necessarily expect their FIP to naturally regress to their xFIP.

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    • Travis L says:

      The ATT Park Factors are easy to look up. Last year it suppressed HR by under 3%. In 2008 it limited HR by under 1%. In 2007 it did it by 19%.

      Also, I’m not so sure you can simply link park factors to HR/FB %.

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  5. Sam says:

    Actually, someone pretty smart once looked at Zito right after he signed with Giants. He dealt with the FIP ERA difference and deduced that Zito has shown some ability to sustain it.

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    • FIP assumes that every pitcher regresses to .300 BABIP. However, Tom Tippett demonstrated long ago that this is not true, there are pitchers, for whatever reasons, are able to sustain a lower BABIP. He classified a category there as “Crafty Lefties”, which is probably where Zito belongs. I’ve read somewhere that part of his ability to do that depends on him getting hitters to hit pop flies, which are easy to catch and no danger of going out.

      In addition, TangoTiger examined how long it would take for a pitcher to statistically show that his career BABIP is lower than the league mean, and he found that it takes 7 seasons worth of starts. Zito passed that recently and it is still below the league mean. I wonder if you changed the FIP equation to use his career BABIP as the mean he regresses to, how different that would be.

      And, as noted by another commenter, with the infield flies, that results in a lowered HR/FB ratio, and thus xFIP, which assumes a 10% rate, would be off as well.

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  6. DrBGiantsfan says:

    It’s interesting that he’s throwing fewer sliders, because Mike Krukow has been making a big deal out of him ADDING a slide piece to his repertoire. It also looks like he might be cuttng the fastball to get a bit more movement in on the hands of RH hitters. The changeup has looked like it has a bit more fade and sink to it than in the past.

    In summary, just from watching on TV, it looks like Zito is throwing a larger variety of pitches with more movement and thus keeping hitters off balance more. The result is weaker contact.

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    • LeeTro says:

      Pitch F/X confirms your observation about his changeup. It’s went from 4.3 inches of “rise” to 2.1, but there is no extra fade. Another big difference is his use of a 2-seamer. About half his fastballs are now 2-seamers, and it has nice sink on it. A concern of mine is the release point(s). His offspeed offerings are released much higher and closer to his body than his fastballs.

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  7. Please says:

    Please stop bolding the statistics. It’s distracting.

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  8. BillWallace says:

    I watched 2 of Zito’s starts this year and in both cases I thought to myself he’s getting lucky with batted ball placement. A bunch of smoked potential double/triples hit directly at outfielders and several warning track shots.

    He’s probably pitching about the same as always and his numbers will fall in line with history. Still a nice pitcher to have…. if only the Gints could hit.

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  9. scatterbrian says:

    Two words: Pittsburgh and Houston.

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    • Disco Burritos says:

      He also threw into the 8th against LA, giving up only 1 run.

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      • quincy0191 says:

        And it should be pointed out that that “run” wasn’t really his fault; he walked a guy, then Romo came in a gave up a homer to Manny Ramirez. Zito didn’t allow a batter past second base in that game, which I think is a more accurate description of how he pitched.

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    • It Byrnes when I Peavy says:

      “Pittsburgh and Houston” is actually three words. Four more: Pujols and the Cards.

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    • Scott says:

      A few more words: Los Angeles and St. Louis

      These are not weak hitting lineups and he had two of his better games of the year against these opponents.

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  10. Joe says:

    Another fine article by FanGraphs. Of course his FIP is so low. He hasn’t allowed a HR yet. It’s not even SSS, it’s that he’s so lucky right now, there is no way it’s sustainable. Or anything even close to it. So yeah, good job with this article, guys.

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  11. jirish says:

    Whether he sustains it or not, he’s been good so far this season. He just put up eight shutout innings tonight against the Cardinals-3 hits, 3 walks, 10 K’s. He was brilliant tonight and was working with a really nice change up. Lots of routine fly balls and easy ground outs.

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  12. DrBGiantsfan says:

    Anybody want to make a case for tonight’s game being due to luck?

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    • BillWallace says:

      No, tonight was his best of the 3 I’ve seen by far. He pretty much dominated Pujols and I don’t think the whole Cards lineup hit the ball hard more than twice or three times. Amazing performance.

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  13. It could just be a simple case of continuation of the performance level he reached in the second half of 2009: 15 starts, 86 IP, 2.83 ERA with 74 K and 37 BB.

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  14. giantsrainman says:

    Can you see the difference now? Your problem is that you only look at the numbers and forget to actually watch the game. You need to be able to scout as well as evaluate statistics.

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    • jirish says:

      I love this comment. Open your eyes to the big world out there beyond the statistics-no matter how much you can learn (or can’t) from sifting through statistics-maybe it helps to actually WATCH Zito do what he’s doing. The best hit balls in that game were hit foul. That is a combination of Zito’s command and the upset to the hitters timing. What stat is going to tell you that? There’s no denying that right now he’s throwing the ball as well as he ever has in his career.

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    • Scott says:

      He certainly has looked good and the numbers are reflective of how well he has pitched. He certainly has had some good luck which is bound to reverse itself over the course of the season and that is why he will probably revert back towards his carerr numbers but it is certainly possible for him to have a career year. As we saw with Matt Cain last year and his strand rate sometimes numbers that should revert back to the mean don’t and you have a great year. Let’s hope that is the case and he is able to have a strong season.

      I think that it wouldn’t be out of the picture to have an ERA around 3.5-3.7 and put up some solid numbers espcially because he has over the course of career been a second half kind of guy.

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    • Joser says:

      It’s sad that I can’t tell if this comment is intended to be serious or parody.

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  15. SharksRog says:

    Tim Lincecum’s father Chris said this morning on radio station KNBR that Barry has strengthened his core and is pitching more horizontally now, giving him more speed on his fastball and more bite on his curve.

    Zito’s fastball speed in both 2009 and 2010 has been higher than in any season since 2005.

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  16. bradley emden says:

    We were Lucky that he was good vs St.Louis.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      Fortunate might be a better word. Zito has been good in all 4 games he’s started so far, so I don’t think the St. Louis start was an isolated event. No, he’s not going to finish the year with a sub-2 ERA, but I’ll predict a sub-4 ERA.

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  17. bradley emden says:

    A Mike McCormick type comeback. I recall McCormack saying that for
    several years inbetween being good, he had some arm problems, not enough to stop his careeer but enough to make him less effective. Of course no MRI’s or CT scans back then.

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    • DrBGiantsfan says:

      And this has what to do with Barry Zito?

      BTW, there was a pitch called the screwball that had something to do with McCormick’s Cy Young in 1967. Maybe that pitch caused in injury after that? All I know is that I used to listen to McCormick’s games back in ’67 and the screwball was devastating.

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