Barry Zito and the Need for New Pitching Metrics

Bleacher ReportSenior Writer IJuly 26, 2009

When it comes to approximating a successful pitching campaign in Major League Baseball, the traditional measurements are wins, losses, earned run average (ERA), walks-plus-hits per innings pitched (WHIP), strikeouts, and walks. 

Some stat geeks, and I use that term inclusively, will pour over minutiae like home runs allowed, batting average against, on-base percentage against, slugging percentage against, etc.

Nevertheless, the majority of fans stick to the basic alphabet soup: W, L, ERA, WHIP, K, BB, and HR.

Those are fantastic tools to thresh out the absolutely best of the bunch.  Guys like Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain from the San Francisco Giants jump to mind as two guys who shine in most (if not all) of those categories.

Cliff Lee dominated them last year as did Johan Santana and CC Sabathia.

However, each of the five mentioned had, or is having, an incredible season.  Not simply good or even great.

That is the uncomfortable reality settling over baseball.

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Modern Big League pitchers make 35 or 36 starts if they take the ball every fifth day and twirl at the front of the rotation.  The average is probably somewhere closer to 30 with Roy Halladay, one of the Show's most notorious work horses, averages 32 starts per 162 games.

Let's be generous and say a great pitcher averages eight innings per start (laughable) and hits Doc's 162-game average for taking the ball after the Anthem.  That means our hypothetical hurler would toss 256 innings in his hypothetical season.

Momentarily forget that 256 IP would've led both the American and National Leagues every year since 2003.  Forget that no Major League resident of the mound has eclipsed the 280 frame mark since the ancient knuckleballer Charlie Hough did it in 1987.  In other words, forget the number represents an exceptionally high output.

If you use the hallowed statistic of ERA as an example, you can see where I'm headed.

This ace would have to keep his earned run total under 85 for the season to register a sub-3.00 ERA.  Might sound easy, but it's not even for the cream of the creamiest crop.

Four or five really bad outings and the magic number becomes pretty much unattainable.  Figure you surrender around thirty runs in the string of rough turns, which leaves a buffer of about 50 or so runs for the remaining 25-30 starts.

That ain't happening for 95 percent of staff aces and all but the most elite have a handful of embarrassing evenings.

Furthermore, what happens when you bring the innings pitched total down to a more reasonable level?  And then open the discussion to include the next tier of arms?

For guys who are very good, but not running with the very best, the statistical gauntlet becomes even more pronounced.

In fact, actually, my opinion, a statistic like ERA becomes relatively useless when you leave the rarefied echelons of starting talent.  WHIP suffers a similar ignominy as do the other ratios to lesser degrees.

Throw in a little bad luck—of which the Baseball Gods are always in ample supply—and the numbers become criminally distorting.

If you need an illustration, take a walk through the carnage of Barry Zito's season—20 starts, 119 1/3 IP, 6-10, 4.68 ERA, 1.366 WHIP, 90 K, 49 BB, and 14 HR

According to those numbers, a charitable person would be hard-pressed to offer any rosier description than "on the ugly side of decent."

Ask a Giant fan who's been paying close attention and he/she will tell you Zito's been the best starter on arguably the Major's best pitching staff not named Tim Lincecum or Matt Cain.

The only difference has been luck and support. Oh, and experience.

When an evolving flamethrower like the Freak or the Kid gets touched up, he'll be spared the rod.  Both prized ponies are young, more fragile in mind and body, and more protected accordingly.

Not the Z-Man—he gets to wear it for the team and bullpen:

April 16—5 IP, 6 ER, 8 walks plus hits

June 15—3 2/3 IP, 7 ER, 10 walks plus hits

July 2—4 1/3, 5 ER, 8 walks plus hits

July 12—4 1/3 IP, 9 ER, 10 walks plus hits

Totals—17 1/3 IP, 27 ER, 36 walks plus hits

Remove those four starts, and Zito's ERA plummets to 3.09 and his WHIP drops to 1.245.

More importantly, the southpaw has authored nine works where he surrendered fewer than three runs.  Once again for the cheap seats and hard of hearing, he's suffered no more than two earned runs in almost half his starts thus far in 2009.

In 60 percent of his starts, the looping curveball has been touched for south of four tallies.  In 15 of his 20 starts, he has given his opponent no more than four runs.

Yet his overall line would have you believe Barry Zito is barely on the right side of a train wreck.

Time to dial it back a bit—I'm not actually advocating for new pitching statistics.

As I said in the opening, the current data points do a superb job of sifting through the rubble of 162 games and finding the really special pitchers.  If you can throw 200+ frames in a season and finish with an ERA around 3.00, you have accomplished something increasingly difficult.

More dauntingly, taking on the some of these bad riders would be the ultimate in quixotic charges, tantamount to jousting with sacred windmills.

However, fans need to be aware, especially in the increasingly fantastic world of sports, that numbers do not and can never tell the whole story.

As the sample sizes for MLB pitchers dwindle, the metrics not designed to account for such data-shifting evolutionary changes will misrepresent more and more lines a la Barry Zito's 2009 developing atrocity.

I'm sure it's already happening—the San Francisco lefty can't be the only pitcher so spurned this year.

Especially with those artists on the bump, you need to look closer because numbers are not reality in baseball.  Reality can be twisted.