How Close Is Giants Lefty Barry Zito to Reclaiming Ace Status?
Note the past tense here.
Zito was an albatross for the first five-plus years of his deal, but not so much anymore. Given the way he's pitched ever since the beginning of last August, now we have to wonder whether the Giants are finally getting what they thought they were buying for $126 million back in December of 2006: an ace.
Well, no. We'll get to why in a minute, but...Well, no.
But since I did say you have to wonder, let's go ahead and do a bit of wondering.
Zito made his second start of the season on Wednesday afternoon against the Colorado Rockies, and he pitched seven innings of shutout ball. He did that in his first start against the St. Louis Cardinals too, bringing his ERA to a perfect zero over 14 innings.
Another guy who has a 0.00 ERA through two starts: Clayton Kershaw. The word around the campfire is that he's pretty good at this whole pitching thing.
But it's not just what Zito has done in his first two starts this season. The starts he made in the NLCS and the World Series last year saw him give up just one run in 13.1 innings with nine strikeouts and two walks.
Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com crunched the numbers:
Barry Zito era over last 4 starts (including postseason) is 0.33. Hard to believe comeback. #persistence— Jon Heyman (@JonHeymanCBS) April 10, 2013
There's also what Zito did down the stretch last year. In his last 11 starts, he posted a perfectly respectable 3.92 ERA over 62 innings. The Giants didn't lose a single one of those.
Put those 11 starts, Zito's three postseason starts (he made one in the NLDS that wasn't so great) and his two starts this season together, and you get 92 innings and 30 earned runs. That's a 2.93 ERA, which would have put Zito in the top 10 in the league last year.
Like I said, you just have to wonder. That's what I'm doing. This is me wondering.
But now here comes reason to burst the bubble.
In regards to what Zito's done in his first two starts, we've seen him do the whole hot start thing before. He had a 2.78 ERA through his first 11 starts back in 2010, and then ended up being awful enough to be left off the Giants' postseason roster.
Zito opened with a complete-game shutout last year and maintained an ERA under 3.00 through seven starts, and then posted an ERA worse than 5.00 over his next 14 starts.
Now here's Zito doing it again, and we have reasons to believe that this hot start will prove to be a fluke as well.
Both of Zito's starts have been at AT&T Park, and you always have to take dominant pitching numbers compiled there with a grain of salt. Per ESPN.com's Park Factors, San Francisco's home park was the worst park in the National League for offense, and the worst park in baseball for home runs.
Zito has given up zero home runs so far, but he probably should have a couple on his record by now.
FanGraphs' up-to-the-minute leaderboard shows that Zito has a 46.3 fly-ball rate, one of the highest marks in the league in the early goings this season. That none of those fly balls has gone over the fence is an anomaly, a reality reflected by Zito's 4.92 xFIP.
Zito's xFIP last year? Exactly 4.92, and it only earned him a 4.15 ERA.
In the event you're hearing of xFIP for the first time, it's a version of Fielding Independent Pitching that looks at how many home runs a pitcher should have given up rather than how many home runs he's actually given up. The trick is to multiply a pitcher's fly-ball rate with the league-average HR/FB rate.
Zito's HR/FB rate is zero. The league average is obviously a little higher than that.
You could argue that Zito's been inducing fly balls in his first two starts because he knows that fly balls die a painful death at AT&T Park. I'd find that easier to believe if he'd proven he's actually capable of manipulating things like that, but he hasn't. Zito's 2012 splits show that his fly-ball rate was higher on the road, and his 2010 splits show the same thing.
The long balls are going to come, and I'm going to go out on a limb that Zito isn't going to keep his left-on-base percentage at a flawless 100 for much longer either. This would be the scientific way of me saying that Zito's ERA isn't going to stay at zero for very long.
Not that the Giants have any delusions about that. Zito's 3.92 ERA in his last 11 starts last year was more than good enough to help the team make up for Tim Lincecum's persistent struggles, so the Giants will gladly take it if they can get it. If they get the 2.93 ERA Zito has since last August instead, hey, even better.
They very likely won't get an ERA like that...But there's a sliver of a chance they will.
Though Zito should probably have been touched up for a long ball or two by now, you do have to hand it to the guy for shutting down two dangerous offenses. The Cardinals finished second in the National League in runs scored last year, and the Rockies went into San Francisco leading baseball in runs, average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage.
What's more, it's encouraging that Zito has gotten by with a fastball that BrooksBaseball.net clocked at an average of 83.71 miles per hour in Zito's first start and 83.42 miles per hour in his second start on Wednesday. That's obviously not a good fastball, but Zito stymied two very good lineups with it.
That may have something to do with the fact that he still has hitters looking for his slider (or "slutter" if you prefer). He was throwing it about 40 percent of the time in April and May last year before he eased off and threw it more like 30 percent of the time from June onward.
In the end, both BrooksBaseball.net and Baseball Info Solutions (via FanGraphs) say that Zito threw his slider about 30 percent of the time last year. Assuming sliders and cutters are really the same pitch, the data shows that Zito's already thrown 59 of them this season out of 210 total pitches.
That's pretty close to 30 percent.
If this is a sign of things to come, then Zito needs to pitch off his slider again this year, which means he's taking a "if it ain't broke, don't fix it" approach to his pitch selection.
That's fine, but Zito's going to need a little something extra to go from "reborn pitcher" to "ace pitcher." One thing he may be able to use to take that next step is his changeup.
Zito didn't use his changeup all that much last year, as both BrooksBaseball.net and BIS say he broke it out only about 11 percent of the time. It's no wonder he did, as it's supposed to be a primary weapon against right-handed batters and they hit .348 against it with a .250 ISO last year.
But Zito's changeup has been an effective pitch in the past. He used it heavily against right-handed batters in 2010 and they hit .331 with only a .180 ISO against it. In the end, the OPS right-handed batters posted against Zito in 2010 was only 10 points higher than the OPS left-handed batters had against him.
What sort of pitcher is Barry Zito right now?
So far this season, Zito has thrown 24 changeups. Once again, that's about 11 percent of his pitches. It's too early to tell for sure, but he may not be quite ready to trust it again.
But if Zito starts to have success with his changeup like he did in 2010, that's when he could break it out more often and have just another weapon to turn to in his arsenal. If he ups the ante in that fashion, achieving legit ace status for the first time in forever may not be so impossible. It could be that he's really just one more reliable pitch away.
Until then, it looks like Zito is going to keep on as he was keeping on last year. Assuming what he did last year was for real, and assuming his luck so far this year will even out, that should make him a pitcher capable of posting an ERA in the 3.00s.
Not an ace, but certainly well above-average, and certainly a lot better than what Zito used to be.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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