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.


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