San Francisco Giants: Can Barry Zito Sustain His Newfound Success?


It’s been a wild, wild ride for Barry Zito in San Francisco. After signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Giants in 2006, he’s gone from a lost cause and victim of constant scrutiny, to the chants of, “Barry, Barry, Barry.”

That’s what he heard from a packed AT&T Park crowd on Wednesday afternoon, and deservedly so. The former American League Cy Young winner tossed seven scoreless innings against the Colorado Rockies, and performed well at the plate, going 2-for-3 with an RBI.

Apr 10, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Barry Zito (75) pitches against the Colorado Rockies during the sixth inning at AT&T Park. Photo-Ed Szczepanski-USA Today Sports.

The Rockies offense is no easy assignment. Carlos Gonzalez and Troy Tulowitzki are two of baseball’s most dangerous hitters when healthy, and they also have a host of good complementary pieces–think Dexter Fowler and Wilin Rosario.

So, it’s easy to understand why Colorado entered Wednesday leading the National League in batting average and home runs, and additionally, they ranked top-5 in OPS, on-base percentage plus slugging percentage.

It’s easy to understand your skepticism regarding Zito’s sudden rejuvenation. After all, we are talking about a guy who compiled a dreadful 4.55 ERA from 2007 to 2011, and was left off the Giants 2010 postseason roster. In fact, anyone with good common sense couldn’t even have predicted Zito going from goat to the man in San Francisco in such a short span of time.

But upon further review, sudden might not be the right word to describe Zito’s rejuvenation.

Over his final eight starts of the 2012 campaign, he went 8-0 on the strength of a solid 3.33 ERA, and in three postseason starts (16 innings), he posted a 1.69 ERA. Sure, his success probably crept up on the fans who weren’t paying attention, but the reality is, Zito’s rejuvenation began a while ago. What you’re seeing now is the aftermath–the national attention and praise.

But I can understand if you’re still not sold. I’m with you on that.

Everyone, even the casual observer, can come to conclusion that Zito isn’t a power pitcher. According to Fangraphs, Zito had the second slowest fastball in the majors among qualified starters in 2012.

The only pitcher he ranked ahead of?

R.A. Dickey, who really can’t be included in the rankings because he’s strictly a knuckleball pitcher. So, Zito was owner to the slowest fastball in the majors last year.

Apr 10, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Barry Zito (75) pitches into the seventh inning against the Colorado Rockies at AT&T Park. Photo-Ed Szczepanski–USA Today Sports.

Why does this matter if he uses pin-point command and mixes up his pitches to stymie opposing offenses? Well, frankly, it doesn’t. A hard fastball isn’t a surefire trait for success, and on the same token, soft-throwing pitchers aren’t at a major disadvantage. They just have to be that much more careful because they have less margin for error.

So if it doesn’t matter, why are we talking about it? Simply because Zito has little margin for error. If his location becomes suspect and his off-speed pitches don’t have that extra bite, well, he is doomed. He doesn’t have a powerful fastball to rely on when nothing else is functioning properly.

Per Brooks Baseball, Zito’s primary weapon in battle so far in 2013 has been his slider, which he has thrown 30 percent of the time. Additionally, he has used his curveball 19 percent of the time and four-seamer 23 percent of the time.

Really, it’s hard to distinguish Zito’s curveball and slider. I’d call it a slurve. Truth be told, there isn’t really much of a difference, as Brooks Baseball shows that both are released at the same height, and he’s found success with both pitches: Opposing hitters have a .235 batting average against his slider, and a .143 average against his curveball.

Zito’s fastball, meanwhile, hasn’t been that successful. Opponents have a .294 mark off the pitch, which isn’t great, but it’s expected. If a hitter sits on his fastball, they’re going to put it in play, but that’s exactly why Zito has been successful; his pitch selection has been unpredictable, and his command has been as sharp as can be. It doesn’t matter how hard you throw if those two things are clicking.

This, however, is where the “can he sustain it” skepticism again sets in.

In 2011, opponents hit Zito’s fastball to the tune of a .340 average and his slider to a .333 average. If you recall, Zito only pitched in 13 (nine starts) games during the 2011 campaign due to injuries, and he posted a dreadful 5.87 ERA in the process.

Anyway, there’s a very simple explanation for those two inflated figures: Zito’s slider, which he threw only eight percent of the time in 2011, wasn’t successful, so he turned to his fastball, which we all know isn’t a dominant pitch if not set-up wisely. Then, his curveball basically became the only pitch that kept him alive–literally. Batters hit a mere .178 off his curve.

April 05, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Barry Zito (75) leaves after the end of the top of seventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at AT&T Park. Photo-Kelley L. Cox, USA Today Sports

Take, for instance, his start against the San Diego Padres on July 7, 2011 in which he threw eight innings, allowed one run and struck out seven batters. I know it’s a while back, but dive into the start, and you will see that Zito threw more curveballs than he did any other pitch. A good curve doesn’t make Zito a lock to flourish, but it’s certainly a key to his success, along with his other off-speed pitches, of course.

In a vacuum, if Zito’s off-speed pitches turn against him, he will get hit hard. His fastball isn’t enough to keep him afloat, especially when everyone in the stadium knows it’s coming.

Until Zito’s stuff sees a dip in effectiveness, there aren’t many reasons to think that he can’t keep this torrid turnaround intact. And as crazy as it may sound, the vesting option that he has for 2014–he must pitch at least 200 innings this year for it to vest–may vest after all.

The roller coaster ride continues for Zito, but it’s been rather smooth-sailing lately.