Before Barry Zito ever threw a pitch for the San Francisco Giants, it was believed he would never match the expectations created by his massive contract, but the past two seasons were underwhelming even by those that anticipated the worst. He posted a career-worst ERA in two consecutive seasons, and it wasn’t just a matter of bad luck, as they also happen to be two of his three worst seasons according to Fielding Independent Pitching, or FIP. His last year in Oakland should have set off alarms for the Giants, because that had been his previous worst campaign.
As a result, he has been the go-to punchline for irresponsible spending for a long enough time that it’s hard to believe he may have resurrected his career during the early parts of 2009. That’s the scenario we are looking at now, though, as the lefty has an ERA under 4.00, he’s whiffing 6.3 hitters per nine-which would be his highest season rate since 2005-and he’s unintentionally walking just 2.8 batters per nine, well below last year’s pace, when he issued 92 UIBB in 180 innings. His homer rate is also the lowest it has been since his first year in the league, all the way back in 2000 with Oakland. Is this all just a small sample size blip, or has Barry Zito changed his approach just enough to recapture some of his lost production?
Early indications are that this may not be a temporary improvement, and that Zito’s numbers are a realistic representation of his bouncing back. For one, his ERA of 3.89 is the exact same as his FIP, which means he hasn’t had the benefit of any extraordinary luck. He’s stranding runners around the league-average rate, keeping his homers down, and posting solid enough K/BB numbers. The homers are the one area that give me pause, as pitchers go through stretches where they give up more or fewer homers than expected, but Zito may have that covered as well: his G/F ratio and ground-ball rates are the most grounder-oriented they have been in his career, at 1.3 and 46 percent respectively. In addition, Zito has been inducing popups at a rate that more closely resembles his more successful seasons across the Bay, rather than the paltry totals he’s put up while in San Francisco.
Two things are different about Zito’s repertoire that may be causing these things to happen. For one, his velocity is up. He’s averaging nearly 87 miles per hour on his fastball, and has hit the high 80s during his past few starts. While this may not seem that impressive at first glance, remember that Zito has been trending downward the past few seasons, and averaged under 85 mph the past two seasons. Second, Zito’s curve has more life to it this year than last. If you look at the Pitch-f/x data provided by Gameday, you can see that Zito’s curveball has more horizontal break than it did last year-you’re seeing a lot more curves with a break of -5 or more (meaning it cuts in to right-handers five inches) which is roughly two inches more than what we saw from him last year. He’s also not as reliant on the curveball as he has been in the past, mixing in his slider and changeup-both coming in at the low 80s-to complement his fastball. Those two pitches are much more effective when his fastball has some more heat on it, as they are less similar and can throw batter’s timing off.
For an example of how much difference that extra movement on his curveball makes, look no further than Zito’s numbers against right-handers this year. They are hitting just .234/.309/.347 in 124 at-bats after generally owning him the past three years (.261/.342/.422; that’s also nearly a 60-point difference in Isolated Power). Between the uptick in velocity and the renewed life in his curveball, Zito may have found a way to keep hitters from abusing him. He may not pitch well enough to justify his contract, but at this point, the Giants will take whatever above-average contributions they can from the lefty, and he appears to be capable of providing that.-Marc Normandin
Mechanics and Scouting: Barry Zito has always been known as the prototypical lefty-great curve, goofy head. However, portraying him as a cross between Dizzy Dean and Jack Johnson has never really captured the truth. Zito’s mechanics go back to lots of work in his early teens with pitching coaches to refine his mechanics, plus his work as a pro with Zen master Rick Peterson. To pitching coaches, Zito was overrated when he was winning, but underrated when he was losing.
“He never completely lost his stuff,” said one opposing pitching coach. “He just lost his ability to adjust. There’s a million reasons why that happens-money, coaching, new team. We’ll never know exactly why, but it’s not fair to [Zito] or the Giants to just write this off as a bust.”
That’s not what pitching coach Dave Righetti said in a recent interview with Fanhouse’s Jeff Fletcher, however. Righetti said just the opposite, that Zito “got his stuff back” this year. Some credit that to a new workout regimen, while others say that his mechanical tinkering finally leveled off. He famously showed up to his first Giants camp with a new delivery and lost his release point for that big looping curve. Looking at film and Pitch-f/x data on Zito in 2009, it’s a consistent release that’s allowing him to throw the pitch more effectively. While we don’t have Pitch-f/x info from back in his Oakland years, my guess is that it would look very similar.
One of the keys for Zito’s curve is the shape. More than other pitchers, his curve isn’t a secondary pitch, but helps offset his lack of velocity by coming from a completely different place. If you think of the strike zone as a cube rather than a pane of glass, with the full depth of the plate, Zito’s curve is designed to hit the top of the cube and go down through the zone. If his curve doesn’t have that sharp drop and instead gets more tilt (more like a slider coming through the zone from the side), it not only ends up missing or hanging, it removes the effectiveness of his fastball.
Zito’s physical changes may contribute to a more consistent approach and release point. Early in the ’09 season, it seems to be working.-Will Carroll
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .