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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.