Can Barry Zito Shed the Bust Label?

We all know Barry Zito. He is the biggest bust in free agent history. Zito is the guy who walks over five batters per nine. He is the fellow with the -2.79 WPA, the fourth-worst mark among starting pitchers last year. Zito is also the guy who falls down in high leverage situations, as his -1.34 Clutch rate was the third-worst for starters. He is the pitcher with an average fastball velocity of 84.9, the fifth-slowest mark in baseball and surrounded by guys in their 40s.

So, why on earth would we focus on him as a fantasy player?

In the beginning of the century, Zito was one of the top pitchers in baseball. There is a combination of ability and pitching smarts hidden beneath the wreckage of the past two seasons.

Well, that and he rebounded to pitch half decently after an awful start in 2008.

After nine starts, Zito was 0-8 with a 6.25 ERA along with 24 walks and 22 strikeouts in 44.2 innings. And just for kicks he allowed six home runs in that stretch. Not much return for $14.5 million, was it?

But from May 23 until the end of the season, Zito was 10-9 with a 4.79 ERA. Now, that’s hardly anything to get excited about but at the very least it was a drastic improvement over what he did at the beginning of the season. His K/9 ratio jumped to 6.52 while his BB/9 actually increased to 5.19 from 4.84 earlier in the season. And he also kept the ball in the park, allowing a 0.67 HR/9 mark.

One of the keys to Zito’s turnaround is that he actually showed a little more life on his fastball as the season progressed. According to Dan Brooks’ PitchFX site, in his penultimate start of the year, Zito’s fastball averaged 87.17 mph with a high of 89.4 compared to a season average of 84.9 as was mentioned earlier. By contrast, in his April 27 start, Zito’s fastball topped out at 84.4 and his average was 82.8 for the day.

With more life on his fastball, Zito went from awful to a league-average type starter. The final step in his rehabilitation will be to get his walk rate under control. And the main problem is still his fastball. According to Josh Kalk’s PITCHf/x tool, Zito’s fastball broke down like this:

Balls – 337
Called Strikes – 185
Swing and Miss – 36
Foul Ball – 123
Out Recorded – 78
Hit – 30

Clearly, with a heater that still doesn’t crack 90 mph, Zito can’t just lay his fastball down the heart of the plate. But hopefully, he can move closer to the strike zone and get more swings.

At this point, that is simply wishcasting. Zito actually has to go out and do it. Right now, he is not worth drafting in mixed leagues. But with the improvement that he showed last year, and with his past pedigree, Zito is someone to target late in NL-only leagues. And my hunch is that he will be a popular addition in mixed leagues during the season.

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14 Responses to “Can Barry Zito Shed the Bust Label?”

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  1. RollingWave says:

    so after a lenghty article, your conclusion is basically the same as what everyone else saw in about 3 second looking at his ERA and periphals :P

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  2. Brian Joura says:

    Hi RW – thanks for reading and commenting.

    My guess is that most people would look at a guy with a 5.15 ERA and a 5.10 BB/9 and conclude this is a guy you shouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole.

    I said you should target this guy in an NL-only league (BTW he had a negative dollar value for NL-only leagues last year) and that he would be a common add in mixed leagues.

    Just to satisfy my curiosity, what other guys would you target in -only leagues that have both an ERA and BB/9 over 5?

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  3. He has never really been a true ace at any time. When you refer to his past pedigree you are talking about seasons when he beat his FIP by more than a full run. His 2 seasons when he had an ERA under 3 his FIP was 3.80.

    He has never been more than a league average pitcher with great luck in 2002. His BABIP that year was .254 and a LOB% of 80.7%.

    His 2008 HR/FB was only 6.8% and although he should have a good HR/FB as he pitches in the NL West you can’t go on his low HR rate.

    Of qualified NL pitchers in 2008 he had the worst K/9 and the worst K/BB. Only Daniel Cabrera and Kenny Rogers were worse in the AL at K/BB. His K/9 was the worst of any pitcher.

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  4. Brian Joura says:

    Hmm, I guess I dreamed 2003, when he was the 21st-best starting pitcher in fantasy baseball. Or 2001, when he was the 13th-best. Or 2002 when he was the 4th-best. Clearly he was a fantasy ace in ’02 and he was a #2 SP the other two years.

    FIP is great for projecting future performance but sometimes you have to use what really happened.

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  5. But future projection is what were trying to address here right? So the fact that his FIP has been over 4.70 for 3 years now with none under 4 since 2002.

    He is getting worse so even if we call him a #2/#3 in 2001-2003 we have no reason to say he is suddenly going to revert all his stats to 2003.

    I will give you this though…I think a lot of his problem is work ethic. After his contract was signed I think he doesn’t put his heart into and do a lot of offseason work.

    If he suddenly decides he wants to try real hard and put the work in he could have a few good seasons left.

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  6. Jim says:

    Thank you Brian….that needs to be said badly….and not just regarding this article.

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  7. Brian Joura says:

    Thanks for your comments Troy.

    2009 projection from a strictly fantasy POV is what we’re trying to do. And with that as our goal, it really doesn’t matter what his FIP is. To pull numbers out of the air, if Zito can post a 3.50 ERA with a 4.50 FIP and there won’t be a fantasy player who cares.

    The bulk of the evidence is that Zito will not be a good fantasy bet in 2009. Most people are like RollingWave who will spend three seconds on him and move on. I’m saying there are signs with his second half numbers and his improved fastball velocity that we shouldn’t write him off completely.

    Finally, I would be very curious to see a source on your claim about his work ethic.

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  8. Jim says:

    Maybe he should take a break from baseball….his arm just seems to be tired from all those innings….he’s not even 30 yet is he?

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  9. But I don’t understand how you can say FIP doesn’t matter. I’m not saying we should use it in fantasy as a stat, but if someone beats their FIP by a run then you can expect a regression to occur.

    I also think this Pitch F/x review of a game in June against the Cubs is not good news.

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  10. I do agree he once had the best curveball in baseball and if that was back he would be an average or maybe an even above average pitcher, but it’s not the same any more.

    He is barely even using it anymore. He threw it only 16% last year when he threw it 25% in 2005.

    This is something I would be curious about. I had read that he was having a lot of control issues with this.

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  11. Brian Joura says:

    What a player’s FIP is has no bearing on how useful he was as a fantasy player. You can’t say Zito wasn’t a 1/2 fantasy pitcher in 01-03 because his FIP didn’t measure up.

    As for using FIP specifically for Zito, how many years does this individual have to beat his FIP for it to be of questionable utility?

    Thanks for the link. In the game referenced, Zito allowed five runs and five walks in five innings. It was one of many lousy outings he had during 2008. In his next outing, he pitched seven innings, gave up two runs, had one walk and 10 strikeouts.

    I’m having trouble accessing Kalk’s tool to look at Zito’s curveball data. You are certainly right about the raw data but I’m wondering if it’s because of arm slots/mechanics like mentioned in your linked article or if it’s due to something else. With batters no longer even remotely worried about his fastball, were they just sitting on the curve? Did he show any improvement in control with his curve during the season? Did he throw fewer curves in April and more in September?

    Thanks for all of your comments here Troy. I don’t know if you listened this past week but Mike and I talked about you and your Fielder ranking on this week’s Face-Off show.

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  12. I’m going to ask our guy Corey to review any pitch f/x he can throughout last year to see if he sees any improvement. That is the only analysis I can find for 2008 and during that game he may have been working on his delivery as they seemed to stress that last year as his delivery seems to be off.

    I just listened to the show and thanks for letting me know.

    And in regards to his FIP not matching his ERA I think that is mainly due to pitching in OAK and SF. Both stadiums deflate homers and the NL west is a great place to deflate HR/FB with no power out there.

    Being that he is still out there you do have to expect he will beat whatever his FIP is by about half a run.

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  13. Larry Yocum says:

    Hey Brian,

    Nice write-up. People need to realize that as fantasy writers, we are trying to find the hidden gems. Anyone can go out on a limb and recommend drafting an ace, but who saw Cliff Lee coming last season?

    I watched Zito a lot last season and his fastball added life as he went on as you point out. IF he can work in the 87-89 range consistently, he will be effective. One area that I would be concerned with is the decreasing strike zone. It just seems that in 2002, he could throw that curve whenever he wanted and get a called strike. Last season, he would throw it a lot and guys would just lay off of is knowing that the ump wasn’t going to call it. It just seems like the zone has gotten smaller and really hurt finesse lefties in the last several years. Tom Glavine would have never been Tom Glavine with the current zone if you know what I mean. Zito needs that zone.

    Also, the difference between 84 and 89 is huge with him. He wasn’t getting any swing throughs at 84, but once he started hitting 89, hitters looked off balance as it was just enough of an increase from the slow curve to really throw them off.

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  14. KR says:

    Brian and Troy, thanks for interesting thread.

    Larry, from where I sit (at Pac-Bell for about 30 games a year anyway), you’re absolutely right with regard to the curveball. As I was reading the thread, that was my answer as to why he only throws it 16% of the time. The pitch still moves a ton, but, like you noted, batters are laying off and he’s not getting the called strikes.

    Can anyone compare the called strike curveball % in say 2002 and 2008? If your your overall “anti-soft tossing lefty” rule is a factor, I’d expect the 2002 % to higher. On the other hand, its also possible that after a few years in the league, hitters have adjusted and lay off a pitch that was never really called a strike.

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