Barry Zito did something strange Wednesday night against the Cleveland Indians. He pitched well. He didn’t walk a hitter over 6.2 innings. He had his longest start of the year. And he won a baseball game.
His final line of the night was: 6.2 IP, 4 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 4 SO
All good things. Zito appeared to be throwing a tick harder than usual, he touched 87mph in the 6th inning and for him, that’s like dialing it all the way up to 97. The result of a lower arm slot? Maybe, who knows, I’m not a mechanics expert. This was also his first start of the year where he did not issue a walk. Zito’s control has been a major issue for him this year. The start last night lowered his BB% to a still scary 12.6% but it’s no longer in the 13′s like it was.
Ultimately, though while encouraged by Zito’s start, I think it raises just as many questions with me.
Questions such as:
His velocity, was it really the result of different mechanics or something else? Is it sustainable? Or will it come and go?
How much did facing Cleveland, a team that’s struggled offensively all year, help Zito? Any night you can get out major league hitters is a good night but there’s a big difference between the Indians (EqA of .250) and Barry Zito’s next opponent, the Cubs (EqA of .276). The Cubs have the 2nd best offense in the game right now, only behind Texas.
Did his new arm slot help his control? Zito was walked as many as 6 hitters in a game this year and his control is at a career worst.
I think the best thing we can do is to not get overly excited and believe that “Zito has figured it out” because it’s just one game and anything can happen in one game, but we can take the positives as small gains and hope that the next start we’ll see the same positives again. This was definitely the best game that Zito has thrown this year. I decided to plot his WPA Scores after this game and here are my results.
If you’re unfamiliar with Win Probability Added, or WPA, it’s a basic way to figure out how much a player contributed to a win. WPA is more descriptive than predictive, so we can’t assume because Zito did well in this start that he’ll do well in the next start, but it’s a fun stat to use when looking at past games. Here’s a pretty good description of why you should care about WPA from Fangraphs, one of the best sites out there.
WPA takes into account the importance of each situation in the game. A walk off home run is going to be weighted more then a home run in a game that has already gotten out of hand. This makes it a great tool for determining how valuable a player was to his team’s win total.
Because WPA is based on the context of the situation in which a play occurs, the scores can get tilted a little bit for players that constantly appear in high leveraged situations (such as a closer that’s always used in close high leverage games) but overall, it’s a pretty handy and fun stat to look at. A WPA of zero means that the player was purely “average” in contributing towards a win, he neither helped or hurt his team.
On my plot, negative WPA score’s are indicated by the white bars and positive WPA scores are indicated by the orange bars. Also, the number above each bar indicates the game. So, Zito’s last game against Cleveland, and his best start of the year by WPA, was his 16th start.
Here’s the data that went into the plot.
GS Date Team Opp WPA 1 31-Mar Giants @Dodgers -0.216 2 06-Apr Giants @Brewers -0.187 3 11-Apr Giants Cardinals -0.214 4 16-Apr Giants Diamondbacks -0.169 5 22-Apr Giants @Diamondbacks -0.371 6 27-Apr Giants Reds -0.429 7 07-May Giants @Pirates 0.003 8 12-May Giants Astros -0.022 9 17-May Giants White Sox 0.017 10 23-May Giants @Marlins 0.108 11 29-May Giants @Diamondbacks -0.079 12 03-Jun Giants Mets -0.236 13 08-Jun Giants @Nationals -0.042 14 13-Jun Giants Athletics -0.191 15 18-Jun Giants Tigers -0.322 16 25-Jun Giants @Indians 0.355
As you can see by the plot, Zito’s first 6 starts of the year were disastrous. The worst being the 6th against the Reds in which Zito’s WPA hit a season low of -42.9%. In that game, he pitched 3 innings and gave up 8 runs. Zito then went to the “bullpen” and came back against Pittsburgh to eek out a positive WPA. That’s his 7th start that barely charted on the plot because the number was so small. Zito then pitched his 8th start against the Astros and eeked out another negative score of -2.2%.
As you can see, after Zito came back from his bullpen exodus he wasn’t really a better pitcher, just not as terrible as he was earlier in the season. He bordered more on average than anything else. His 7th ,8th , and 9th starts all hovered right around 0 WPA. Zito finally got his first win against the Marlins on May 23rd, and until that point, it was his highest WPA scored of +10.8%. That’s until his game last night when Zito scored a +35.5% by WPA, his highest score of the season by far.
Like I said above, I’m not sure if Zito has necessarily turned a corner, but you can’t help but root for the guy despite his large contract. He seems genuinely nice and it was nice to hear him talk about getting a win on the post-game last night rather than explaining why he melted down. Again, I think it’s important that we don’t put too much into his start last night other than appreciate it for what it was, his best game of the year.
He’ll get a real test in his next start against the Cubbies.
Edit: I decided to add plots for WPA scores for Lincecum, Cain, and Sanchez, just as a comparison point.
I included Lincecum’s funky 4 inning relief appearance in his plot.