November 16, 2006
Sound the trumpets: ESPN.com's Rumor Central can quiet the Barry Zito trade rumors they have been so fond of for the past few seasons. Untraded to the end, Zito is at long last a free agent, and has roughly zero chance of not finding himself in another team's uniform come spring training. What is a bit more up for debate is just how productive Barry Zito actually can be in his post-Oakland years, and whether or not he will be worth the assumed risk that will go hand-in-hand with the massive contract offers he's sure to entertain.
Barry Zito was drafted ninth overall by the Oakland Athletics in the 1999 out of the University of Southern California at age 21. That season in college, Zito had 154 strikeouts in 113.2 innings, and earned Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year honors. He was previously drafted by the Mariners in 1996 and then the Rangers in 1998, but declined to sign with either, as I'm sure both clubs have tried to forget every time Zito has taken the hill against them in one AL West stretch drive after another.
Zito would start his professional career at High-A Visalia, but found himself in Triple-A Sacramento before year's end:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA Visalia (A+) 40.1 13.84 4.91 2.82 0.67 4.69 2.90 Midland (AA) 22.0 11.86 4.50 2.64 0.41 9.00 6.14
Besides the above, Zito also threw six innings--with six batters whiffing and only two walks--at the Triple-A level, and followed that up by posting a 2.40 ERA in three postseason games. The strikeout rates are quite tasty, and the K/BB ratio doesn't look too bad until you see that he allowed between 4.5 and 5 hitters to reach via the free pass per nine innings pitched. The low RA in Visalia appears to come almost entirely from his almost nonexistent hit rate. With all that out of the way, it's an impressive performance for a 21-year-old in his first taste of pro ball.
For the 2000 season, Zito started out in Triple-A Sacramento before earning a promotion to the major league club' he hasn't pitched an inning in the minors since.
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA Sacramento (AAA) 101.2 8.06 3.98 2.02 0.35 7.79 3.90 Oakland (MLB) 92.2 7.58 4.37 1.73 0.58 6.22 2.91
Here we see a decrease in strikeout rate while the walk rate only improved slightly. Of particular interest is the low hit rate that Zito gave up; to this day--not to spoil the "surprise"--he's maintained a low hit rate in almost every year of his career, excepting his subpar 2004 campaign. His 92 major league debut innings just happened to be of the freakishly-low hit rate variety, and a good thing too, since he was putting plenty of batters on base via walk.
Baseball Prospectus 2001 had some interesting information to divulge in regards to Zito's pre-Oakland days:
Barry Zito doesn't have great velocity, but he's smart, even-keeled, and he's got an incredible overhand curve. He also wasn't exactly your typical rookie in that he'd already received some coaching from A's pitching coach Rick Peterson (as a consultant) before he was even drafted. Watching him carve up the Yankees in Game Four of the ALDS was probably the highlight of the A's season. He may have a rough patch in the first half of 2001, but he's in the right organization to break through it.
Along with his home park, that curve is thought to be one of the significant factors in his low hit rates, which in turn means Zito allows lower-than-expected batting averages on balls in play. It certainly didn't disappoint in any of the next three seasons, as Zito put on quite the show for a few Oakland playoff teams, nabbing a Cy Young along the way:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA BABIP 2001 214.1 8.61 3.36 2.56 0.76 7.73 3.86 .288 2002 229.1 7.14 3.06 2.33 0.94 7.14 3.10 .251 2003 231.2 5.67 3.42 1.66 0.74 7.23 3.81 .244
His K/9 cratered while his walk rate remained relatively steady, but the lack of hits against him continued to generate success. It's fairly difficult and also fairly unusual to remain successful with such a poor K/BB ratio, especially when you're giving up a decent number of home runs, but with all of the foul ground in Network Associates Coliseum coupled with his dominating curveball, Zito produced a great deal of value over this three-year span. Those BABIP figures are ridiculously low, and clearly helped mask his 2003 decline. Oakland's park had a .279 BABIP over this three-year span, whereas the league average was .297.
After the 2003 season, Rick Peterson took off to New York to be the Mets' new pitching coach, leaving Zito and the other two members of the vaunted Big Three behind. Baseball Prospectus 2004 was on top of things heading into '04:
He didn't win the Cy Young in 2003, but he still pitched very well. Analysts are more than a little worried about the trend in his K rate. Zito walks a few guys, has a tendency to throw a fair number of flyballs, and he's thrown a pretty big number of innings over the last three years. That K rate's gone from among the league's best to below league average, and it's not as if Zito, who works to change the eye-plane of the hitter from high to low, has suddenly become Chad Bradford. A high K rate is an indicator of a low future ERA. Zito's performance record is certainly outstanding, but there is a non-negligible risk of a precipitous decline. PECOTA sees regression on the way.
PECOTA forecasted 200+ innings once again, but with a much more hittable Zito present. His 2004 results weren't what you could describe as a pleasant development:
He managed to salvage his strikeout rate, bringing it back above the league-average level, but he was clearly missing something in 2004. His home runs allowed skyrocketed by almost half a homer per nine, and his BABIP shot up by more than fifty points. Opponents hit .288/.365/.442 against Zito on the road, and only .240/.302/.412 in Oakland. This steep split wasn't as much of a factor from 2001-2003, when Zito's opponents hit .227/.295/.352 in Oakland and .218/.299/.322 on the road. The question needed to be asked: Without Peterson around, did Zito's curve lose some of its grandeur?
Baseball Prospectus 2005 seemed to feel that Zito could right the ship, although not quite to 2001-2003 levels:
Maybe the league's seen his bag of tricks often enough. He'll still flash that knee-buckling bender now and again, but it's been two years since has been able to snap those off for strikes at will. Vida Blue didn't age that well either, and he had more talent than Zito.
PECOTA didn't seem overly optimistic, churning out roughly the same numbers or worse for his peripherals. In the face of such grim expectations, Zito was able to rebound somewhat, and I'm sure you can guess how he did it:
IP K/9 BB/9 K/BB HR/9 H/9 RA BABIP 2005 228.1 6.74 3.51 1.92 1.02 7.29 4.18 .249 2006 213.2 6.02 3.96 1.52 1.10 8.42 3.83 .287
Although 2005 was a rebound in the BABIP department--and nothing else, really--2006 looks like Zito should have regressed further, back towards the 2004 levels of blech-ery. However, he somehow managed to post a shiny ERA, which should make potential shoppers somewhat leery, due to the level of uncertainty surrounding what they might be able to expect.
From everything that's been put together, it seems as if Barry Zito will need, in no particular order:
I wish I was kidding about the Milano part, but every pitcher she dates seems to do well during that ttime. I'm not saying correlation equals causation here, but it's best to be prepared when throwing out substantial contracts.
The Mets are the only team that can offer two of those three to Zito, and the flyball portion of his needs wherever he pitches is particularly important:
Year FB% LINERD% GB% IF/F% HR/F P/PA 2004 44.2% 18.8% 37.0% 16.4% 11.5% 4.0 2005 37.4% 20.8% 41.8% 19.3% 12.9% 4.0 2006 45.3% 16.5% 38.2% 13.3% 10.4% 3.9
He gives up a fair number of line drives, and those flyball rates are higher than the groundball ones. Toss in the number of home runs he allows while remembering that he'll probably get worse before he markedly improves, and it may be wise to hold off on showering Zito with scads o'cash. If the Mets get him--and if there's actually something positive that will happen to him back under Rick Peterson's tutelage--then he should be worth the contract. Additionally, from 2004-2006 Shea's BABIP was .291, while league average was .301. If San Diego signs him, Petco (.288 BABIP) may be even better able to do for Zito what the Coliseum did. Beyond that pair of suitors, it's probably best that teams like the Rangers and the Yankees avoid Zito, and better for Zito if he only treats their bids as leverage.
Zito has gained a great deal of fame for some incredible pitching in the past, as well as his reputation as a goofy left-hander. This has kept him in the spotlight for some time in Oakland, even during a time where few Athletics players were given much love by the national media. He'll certainly be paid for what he has done rather than what he will do, but unless the situation turns out to be just right, the club that signs him may very well regret it as soon as year two or three of what will most likely be a much longer deal.