Barry Zito’s six scoreless innings in Tuesday’s 3-0 victory over the Houston Astros fit the profile the once-brilliant left-hander has slowly established in rebuilding himself after two horrendous seasons with the San Francisco Giants.
Oh, it would be nice to believe that the Zito, who gave up three hits while striking out five with just a single walk, was the result of his latest change in attitude and approach.
"I've just really made some good adjustments in my game," Zito said last week, marking about the fifth set of adjustments he’s made since signing a $126 million contract with the Giants. "I've got an appetite right now for success. For whatever reason, I've had to build that appetite back up. I think they say a lion can't really hunt on a full stomach. I want to prove a lot of things this year."
Zito was closer than he probably wants to believe to being written off by the Giants.
He couldn’t get anybody out, heck, he couldn’t throw strikes consistently for the bulk of 2007 and 2008. There were games were Zito was hit harder than some batting practice pitchers. So, he probably was damned hungry for success well before the start of 2009.
That’s just Zito being Zito.
He’s a sensitive, analytical man in a game where he’s judged, often harshly, solely by the numbers.
As much as he would like to think what he says will win folks over, it’s how he pitched Tuesday and in his last 17 starts of 2009 that will enable the Giants and their fans to come to grips with the serviceable pitcher Zito has become.
"For me, it's obvious the business side of the game got a little too involved in my game, and now I'm boiling it back down to simply just baseball,” Zito said, referring to that free agent contract that he couldn’t have lived up to without going 25-3 for seven straight seasons.
The pattern that Zito has established in his last 20 starts won’t make fans forget the $126 million salary, but it has him headed toward being a solid No. 3 (or No. 4) starting pitcher on a winning team.
The Giants know that Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are No. 1 and No. 2 and that, clearly, Jonathan Sanchez has to stuff to emerge as the true No. 3.
Everybody knows that Zito is in the second slot in the rotation only to break up the hard-throwing, righty-righty, Lincecum-Cain tandem.
Zito’s last 20 starts have produced 10 outings that can be rated anywhere from great to good enough to win. Admittedly, two of the starts fall into the category of “quality starts” where he pitched six innings and gave up three or fewer runs.
The criteria for “quality starts,” is more a description of the minimum a starting pitcher should be able to do to keep his starting job. The 4.50 ERA that comes from taking a “quality start” through nine full innings demeans the word “quality.”
Still, Zito had two starts in early August 2009 where he pitched six and gave up three runs. That, it is clear, must be more than acceptable for Giants fans when they consider what they can expect from Zito.
Zito had a truly first-rate start in mid-August, going six innings and giving up two hits in getting a no-decision in a 1-0 loss to the Cincinnati Reds. That start, and Tuesday’s outing against the Astros, appears to be what fans can accept as a truly outstanding outing by the 31-year-old.
Zito's a six-inning pitcher. If he can do what he did on Tuesday, throw 90 pitches with 62 strikes, he can work deeper into games based on the score.
Seven of his last 20 starts were absolute stinkers. They were those games where he looked like he had no feel for his curve and, really, no fastball and no idea how to find the strike zone.
It's important to note that those are games when Zito's mechanics are haywire. He doesn't really lose five miles an hour off his fastball for no reason.
If his release point (the spot where he lets go of the ball) is about ear-high (three-quarters for serious fans), he's going to hit 82-84 mph and get raked. When he's throwing over the top, he'll get up around 86 mph and get hitters out.
The mechanics, not lack of effort or too big a contract, also account for games when he can't hit the spot he's aiming for. (Sorry if the technical jargon makes it harder to mock Zito the next time he struggles.)
Unlike the Zito of 2007 and 2008, though, Zito has mixed in truly brilliant efforts reminiscent of his glory years in Oakland. Five of his last 20 outings were great pitching performances, by any standard.
So, where does that leave Zito and the Giants?
In pretty good shape, actually, thanks in part to the young studs ahead of him in the rotation, and also to the fact that Zito’s only 31, and could eventually turn things around completely.
He’s been as bad as a pitcher can be, then he runs off five great starts, five starts that were good enough to win, and seven stinkers. He is moving in the right direction.
The key for Zito will be eliminating the back-to-back starts where he’s just terrible. He was horrific in four of his last six starts in 2009. He obliterated the memory of 8 1/3 fine innings he pitched to win a big game, with seven strikeouts and just a single walk before he hit the skids.
Zito has set a pattern fans have to accept, a pattern that, particularly if the Giants offense has improved, will enable him to win enough to help the team more than he hurts it. There were a handful of starts last year when he would’ve kept a more potent offense in a game without pitching well.
Perhaps, he’ll be able to do that in 2010.
Regardless, the Giants got what history now shows is about the best of Zito on Tuesday.
And, it was plenty good enough to win.