When former San Francisco Giants' managing general partner Peter Magowan convinced general manager Brian Sabean to sign free agent Barry Zito to a record-setting contract prior to the 2007 season, the team's majority owner expected the 2002 American League Cy Young award winner to anchor the Giants' rotation for the better part of the next decade.
But not long after Zito inked his name on the seven-year, $126 million hitch-the largest ever given to a pitcher-it became abundantly clear that he wouldn't be able to supplant Jason Schmidt as the number-one starter for the Orange and Black.
The then 29 year-old Zito collected $10 million in 2007, while posting a mediocre 11-13 record, 4.53 ERA, and 1.35 WHIP. Even as the AT&T Park faithful tried to rally behind the fan-friendly southpaw, Zito's inconsistency and wavering command made his bloated salary a tough pill to swallow.
No amount of batting practice pranks, pregame autographs, and charity work could erase the fact that Captain Quirk was on his way to becoming one of the biggest free agent busts in baseball history.
Last year, Zito's ERA and WHIP climbed with his paycheck, continuing to expose his deal as an absolute calamity. As they watched their de facto number-five starter lose a league-high 17 games, Giants fans were left fretting over Zito's fizzling velocity and control.
Perhaps Brian Sabean and Peter Magowan should have noted the worrisome mileage-at least 213 innings pitched in six consecutive seasons-on Zito's still relatively young arm instead of marveling at his durability. Perhaps Zito was simply taking longer than expected to adjust to pitching in the National League. Or, perhaps there was another reason for his rapid regression.
Regardless, fans could only wonder: If Zito was already over the hill at the age of 30, just how ineffective would he be over the remaining half-decade of his tenure in San Francisco?
Fortunately, Zito has partially recovered in 2009, paring his ERA back down to 4.47 and his WHIP down to 1.37. His 101-to-51 K/BB ratio in 131 innings is the best mark he has posted with the Giants. And, since the All-Star Break, Zito is 3-1 with a robust 2.32 ERA.
Yet, Zito's greatest financial contribution to the San Francisco Giants organization may not be anything he has done on the mound, at the plate, or in the clubhouse. It is likely not something he expected his most notable deed to be. And, it certainly is not something he expected to have the kind of raging influence it has had on the Orange and Black fan-base.
Ironically, the best thing Barry Zito has done-and may ever do-for the San Francisco Giants is invent a magnificent moniker for the team's rising young slugger, Pablo Sandoval. When it occurred to manager Bruce Bochy that Zito seemed to pitch better when someone other than starting catcher Bengie Molina was behind the plate, Sandoval became his caddy in the latter part of the 2008 season. And thus, the Kung Fu Panda was born.
Sandoval's rapid ascent to stardom-highlighted by a phenomenal .336 AVG/.385 OBP/.564 SLG line, 32 doubles, 17 homers, and countless exciting plays in his first full big league season-has made him a cult hero of sorts among Giants fans. Tim Lincecum is still The Franchise, but Pablo Sandoval is approaching a similar status, as perhaps the best young hitter to come out of San Francisco's farm system since Will Clark debuted in 1986.
From panda hats to panda masks, full-body panda suits to "You Just Got Panda'd" signs, and seemingly every other panda-related item one can imagine, Panda-monium has taken over AT&T Park.
And no one is happier about that than the Giants-not only because Sandoval's Kung Fu power has given their offense a much-needed boost, but also because the team is raking in profits from all kinds of Panda sales and promotions.
All those hats and masks: ca-ching! Extra ticket sales on Pablo Sandoval t-shirt night: ca-ching again! And, we probably haven't even seen the peak of Panda-monium yet.
According to FanGraphs, Zito's performance as a player thus far in 2009 has been worth $6.7 million of the $18.5 million he is due this year. When all is said and done, the Kung Fu Panda nickname may double that value.
Barry Zito never became the ultra-marketable star Peter Magowan and the team's brass thought he would, and he failed miserably in his bid to replace the profits generated by the "other" Barry. But, in his third year donning Orange and Black, Zito's creativity has offered the organization's marketing department one giant breakthrough.
Perhaps Magowan expected such a contribution from Captain Quirk—who practices Zen, collects stuffed animals, and buys his own autographed baseball cards—but if he did, he most likely envisioned it as icing on the cake from the eccentric left-hander.
Barry Zito the player has been a flop of epic proportions in San Francisco. Barry Zito the marketing agent, on the other hand, has been an ace in the hole for the Giants.
Barry Zito the player might be the worst free agent signing of all-time. But without him, there would be no Panda-monium at AT&T Park.