(All information in this post, including graphs, courtesy of ESPN’s Stats & Info.)
Oh, Barry Zito. You’re like an old friend at this point. I, and many other bloggers, have spent countless seconds, minutes, and hours of our lives talking about you. We’ve talked about your contract. Your pitching motion. Your struggles. When we thought you might have figured it out. When we knew you hadn’t really figured it out. Your fastball velocity. That other time we thought you might have figured it out. And, again, when we learned that you really didn’t figure it out.
You’ve always been, and will continue to be, Barry Zito. An overpaid 5th starter that probably gets more abuse than is deserved. Most people, I think, weren’t expecting much from you this season. I know I wasn’t. And yet to the surprise of many — myself included — you’ve been perfectly cromulent. In six starts you’ve thrown 36.2 innings while giving up nine earned runs. That’s a 2.21 ERA (4.42 FIP). Your strikeout-to-walk numbers aren’t good (18 to 17) but I don’t think anyone can argue that you haven’t exceeded the (somewhat low) expectations of a back-end starter.
This post isn’t meant to be an explanation of Zito, or if he’s “really” figured something out to make him a good enough pitcher. Well, it kind of is, but I’m not making any grand proclamations. I really don’t know what kind of season Zito will end up with. I’m just spitballin’ here.
However, something caught my eye today after browsing through some Pitch F/X leaderboards: Barry Zito seems to be inducing lots of weak contact this year; namely, weak fly ball contact.
I took every pitcher in the majors that’s thrown at least 150 pitches and ranked the average distance per batted fly ball (defined as fly balls, pop-outs, and line drives). The results might surprise you a little.
The fly ball distance leaders
(Note: the league average distance for fly balls is 270 feet.)
Now that’s quite the interesting list: Gonzalez, Verlander, Johnson, Halladay, Strasburg … Zito? Batters are averaging just 249 feet per flyball against Barry Zito. For pitchers in our sample, that’s 6th best in baseball.
The fly ball distance trailers
After looking at this list it kind of dawned on me that fly ball distance is largely going to be affected by home run rates (also home park). I was not surprised to see Lincecum here.
Another way to look at this: Zito’s hit chart
Other than the home runs, and a few long fly ball outs, looks like a lot of weak-ish contact against Zito. Lots of groupings of outs and hits around medium outfield depth.
As I stated above, there’s an obvious correlation between home run rates and fly ball distances. The ‘leaders’ averaged a HR/FB (home runs per fly ball) of 4.6 percent. While the ‘trailers’ HR/FB was nearly three times as high at 13 percent. And really, that’s the rub. The question should be: is Zito simply getting lucky with his home run rate (possible), or is he pitching in a different way that’s inducing more weak contact. It’s impossible to tell at this point, but his slider usage this year gives me the dimmest of hope. Out of 627 pitches thrown by Zito, 251 of them have been sliders. The slider has gone from a pitch that was an afterthought to something that Zito has piled on hitters. Zito’s slider, when hit, has been classified as a flyball 61.1 percent of the time; and, the average fly ball distance on those batted sliders is just 241 feet.
So it seems possible that batters aren’t squaring up the slider very well, resulting in lots of weak to medium fly balls. Stranger things have happened in baseball. Will it be enough to make Zito an acceptable pitcher? We’ll have to wait and see.