It can’t be stressed enough. It just can’t. Barry Zito is probably my least favorite topic to think about, discuss, or devote any brain power to. On one hand, I feel bad for watching a once talented pitcher dissolve in front of our very eyes. It’s a metamorphosis none of us thought would happen this soon or this completely. Nobody expected Zito to do what he’s doing right now and I think even the most hard boiled critic of the Zito deal assumed that he’d be alright for the first couple of years and then slowly start to decline. The decline is now and it’s frightening.
On the other hand I think I feel like most Giants fans do. Zito is eating payroll — which face it matters to the team, even if you take a “it’s not my cash” approach it’s a limited resource that the Giants have a finite amount of, and affects their future ability to operate the team — and maybe even worse, he could soon be blocking talented young up-and-coming pitching from the Giants system. Maybe not this year because the pitching is still a bit off, but what do you do when Henry Sosa, Tim Alderson, Madison Bumgarner, Clayton Tanner, Ben Synder, or any semi-quasi interesting and talented Giants pitching prospect is knocking on the door while Zito continues to struggle in the year 201X? Heck, Patrick Misch might be a better starting pitcher than Barry Zito right now.
Zito’s problem is two-fold. Hitters are making a lot of contact against him and he’s walking hitters. Small sample size caveat aside, here’s Zito’s career numbers over the years in terms of BB% and K% and what he’s done so far in 2008.
Year K% BB% 2001 22.7 8.8 2002 19.3 8.3 2003 15.2 9.1 2004 17.6 8.7 2005 17.9 9.3 2006 15.9 10.4 2007 15.4 9.7 2008 7.8 10.6
Here’s a graph to illustrate the changes over time for Barry.
The yellow line is league average K% and the green line is league average BB%. I don’t think Zito was ever going to maintain a 20%+ K% like he did in 2001 and almost in 2002, but he settled into a nice groove from 2003-2006 where he was right around or above league average. He dropped to below league average in 2007 and in his small sample size in ’08, he’s striking out hitters like Carlos Silva — career K% of 9.8 — but without his control or GB tendencies. The pattern that emerged in the spring for Zito, not striking out hitters, has continued into the early season. If you recall, Zito struck out just 4 hitters in 18 innings of Spring Training baseball. Zito’s fastball is also down by almost another mile-per-hour this year compared to last. On average, Zito is throwing his fastball at 83.7mph this year, compared to 84.5mph last year. Over the course of just 4 seasons, Zito has lost almost 4mph on his fastball. How much more will he lose?
Zito’s strong suit has never been his control and from the graph you can see that he’s been trending upward over the past few years, moving from around league average to above and beyond. Therein lies the problem for Barry Zito. He’s going to need to learn how to locate his pitches without walking hitters. Zito just doesn’t have that ability right now and he might not ever have it.
A question for my readers: Are there any historical examples of pitchers drastically improving their control at Zito’s age? Can it be done? I lean towards “no” but there might be a few examples of hope out there for Zito.
Asking Zito to turn into Greg Maddux or any other control artist is almost like asking Kirk Rueter to throw 95mph instead of 85mph, some guys just can’t pitch with that level of control and command. Zito has never demonstrated above average control in his career and I doubt he’ll be able to figure it out now.
For a pitcher like Zito that’s going to put the ball in play — doesn’t strike out many hitters — he’s also got another significant roadblock in his way. The Giants defense is pretty bad this year. The subtraction of Feliz and Omar has damaged the left side of the infield while Ray Durham continues to display the range of a wheelbarrow loaded full of bowling balls at second base.*
*Ray Durham Defense Tangent: Durham’s Revised Zone Rating of .657 is amazingly bad. That means that Durham is only converting 65.7% of balls hit into his zone into outs. Compare him to chronic bad defenders Dan Uggla (73.5%) and Jeff Kent (82.1%) and you get an idea of just how bad Durham is. Eugenio Velez is no gold-glover, but in 114 innings at 2B, his rate of (76.5%) while still poor, is much better than Durhams’. There is no reason to play Durham right now, both offensively and defensively.
The Giants, as a team, are also terrible defensively this year. As a team, they are well below average. The average NL team has a RZR of .836, the Giants are at .802. Thus, because of the poor defense behind Zito, his BABIP is very high (.339), when hitters hit the ball into play against Zito, they are hitting like a batting champion. The BABIP should come down some, eventually, but the defense isn’t going to do any Zito any favors, at least now barring any improvements.
According to the Mercury News, there’s a good chance that Zito will get moved to the bullpen soon. At minimum I’m almost certain they’ll skip his next start.
After another erratic and utterly hittable start in a 10-1 loss to the Cincinnati Reds on Sunday at AT&T Park, Giants Manager Bruce Bochy all but declared he would skip Zito or demote him to the bullpen.
“We’ve got to do something,” said Bochy, after Zito allowed a six-run first inning. “We can’t keep doing what we’re doing and getting what we’re getting.”
Here is what the Giants have received from their opening-day starter: an 0-6 record in six starts, a 7.53 ERA, a growing soundtrack of boos at home and no sign of a break in the clouds.
I’m not sure what moving him to the bullpen would do, but it might be the best option right now. I have no doubt that Zito is a bright guy but I think he’s got an extremely large challenge in front of him that he might not ever be able to get past. He’s a poor fit for this Giants team at the moment or any team. You’re essentially placing a pitcher who’s losing the ability to miss bats and control the strike zone and putting him in front of one of the worst defenses in the National League. Zito is forced to let hitters make contact — when he’s not walking them — and when they do make contact, most of that contact is going for hits. Even if you moved Zito to a team with an elite defense, he’s still going to have trouble. You can’t survive in baseball and do what he’s doing — walking hitters, not striking out hitters, all while throwing 83mph. Barring an injury that could explain his control problems and velocity loss — indicators of arm issues — Barry Zito is going to be the most expensive 5th starter in the history of baseball.
The Giants have to be really, really worried about how Zito is pitching and his prospects for future success. This is easily the worst contract in baseball history. In 2009 his salary kicks up to $18.5M. At least in contract blunders like Darren Dreifort or Mike Hampton, they were injured for lengths of their deals and couldn’t play. Zito is healthy, as far as we know, and continuing to take the mound. What’s better, expensive and not hurting the team by not playing or expensive and hurting the team by playing?
Comment Starter: Zito’s chances for setting the record for most losses by a Giants pitcher in a season? The record is currently held by Ray Sadecki for his 1968 season that ended in 18 losses. I’ll put Zito at a 60% chance right now, he’s already a third of the way there and it’s not even May.