Barry Zito has been known as a slow starter throughout his career. Since he came over to San Francisco, fans have come to the conclusion that he's not worth watching until July.
But in 2010, a new mindset and new approach has quickly led him to the front of the pack of National League pitchers. With Brian Wilson's first blown save of the year falling after a brilliant start by fellow fast starter Tim Lincecum, Zito is now first on the team with 4 wins in five starts.
In those five starts, Zito has been more or less dominant. All five outings have been quality starts. His ERA is a paltry 1.53, and opposing hitters are managing a measly .167 average against him.
Most impressively, Zito has struck out 24 in 35.1 innings while only walking 11. Never really a strikeout pitcher, Zito has emerged this year as more than able to strike guys out and also getting strikeouts in key situations. And when was the last time Zito went eight innings in back-to-back starts?
Many feel that this year, he's finally starting to pitch like he deserves his 7-year, $126 million contract. But if you look at his recent history, this year's progress has actually been a couple years in the making.
In 2006, Barry Zito was basically signed to take the place of Barry Bonds. The Giants brass basically figured that, since the Giants already had a chant for Bonds, they could use it for Zito without having to learn anything new. But it has taken four long years for Zito to hear that chant coming from the home crowd.
Remember, he was expected to be the ace of the staff and the anchor of the rotation. Yet as I have said before, when he had all of his great years in Oakland, including his Cy Young year in 2002, he was pitching BEHIND Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Although one of the Three Aces, Barry Zito had never been the centerpiece of a team.
This immense pressure, and that of signing the largest contract for a pitcher in history, weighed down on Zito heavily, and that showed in his pitching. He wasn't pitching like he used to, and even tried reinventing his pitching motion in 2008.
But that all changed when Tim Lincecum came to town. With Lincecum becoming the Giants ace almost overnight, a lot of that power shifted from Zito. After Lincecum brought home his second Cy Young award, the expectation of Zito to assume the ace position faded.
And although some players might love that spotlight, Barry did not. This year he changed zip codes in the locker room, moving from Barry Bonds' old locker at the front of the locker room to Rich Aurilia's old locker on the opposite side. Lincecum took over Bonds locker.
It seems that the star of the team should take that locker, and I feel like it's safe to say that Zito understands that it's not his anymore. Instead, he's moved to the veteran side of the locker room.
Lincecum is surrounded by kids his own age, sharing space with Sergio Romo and Pablo Sandoval. Zito is rubbing shoulders with Aubrey Huff, Mark DeRosa, and the longest-tenured Giant Matt Cain, who is mature beyond his years (actually YOUNGER than Lincecum). Never truly outspoken with the media, he can now openly defer to The Freak or The Panda while quietly going about his 4-0, 1.53 ERA business.
With Randy Johnson gone after 2009, Zito is no longer the ace of the staff, but the veteran presence with sage wisdom to impart. Although not the light-out stud, Zito is taking a balanced and tempering leadership role on a club that can get a little exuberant in their youthful energy.
He took the lead in his first spring start of the year, nailing Prince Fielder in the back in retaliation for his homerun celebration last year. Although not a flamethrower, Zito does have accuracy, and Fielder wore a bruise for a few days reminding him that it was no mistake.
Zito also quietly disagreed with those who praised Matt Cain and preferred him over Zito for the number two spot in the rotation. Although Cain has had his share of hard luck losses already this year, Zito has been the better pitcher and earned that number two spot.
It comes down to comfort. Zito is clearly more comfortable now more than ever to be wearing a Giants uniform. He's not under the microscope that he used to be under.
Zito and pitching coach Dave Righetti have figured out how to get rid of those problems that existed in year prior. He's throwing more confidently knowing that this year's Giants offense can actually score some runs behind him.
Although no one can expect him to continue this success all season, Zito is pitching like it's already July, gaining full midseason form here in April. If that's the Zito that comes out in May, I won't be surprised.
He's here for another three years (at least), so Giants fans, let's get used to some dirty curveballs and high socks, because Barry Zito's one of us now. He loves this team and this city, and I think it's time we repaid the favor.