If you asked a group of San Francisco Giants fans who was the biggest disappointment on the team over the last few years, you would most likely get a unanimous decision: Barry Zito.
When the Giants signed him after the 2006 season, they thought they were getting an ace. Zito had a stellar career with the Oakland Athletics, posting a 102-63 record to go along with a 3.55 ERA. He was a three-time All-Star with the A’s and won the 2002 American League Cy Young award.
The Giants went all out to sign Zito, offering him a seven-year $126 million deal. Big mistake. In his first year with the Giants, Zito was not horrible, but he definitely was not what the Giants expected. He went 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA.
After this year, Zito never posted an ERA lower than 4.03, and did not win more than ten games (until this year). In 2008, Zito lost 17 games. It was that year that many of the fans turned on him completely. Fans doubted Zito earlier, but it was this year that really established his pattern of poor performance.
No one could believe that the Giants had signed him to such a large contract—the largest for a pitcher at the time—and that he could regress so much. Zito was more than bad—he was awful. There were talks of taking him out of the rotation and putting him in the bullpen. By this time, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain were with the Giants and were performing well. Zito had been passed up.
It seemed like year after year that Zito was getting worse, and Lincecum and Cain were getting better. Zito was not anywhere close to being the ace of the staff. Now, talks of moving Zito to the bullpen were being taken over by talks of eating the rest of the contract and releasing him.
In 2010, Zito was left off the playoff roster for every series. 2011 was a rough year as well, as Zito spent some time on the disabled list. It looked like he would not have much of a season in 2012 and would finish off his contract with the Giants and hopefully sign with a team that would take him at age 35.
But, to the surprise of the Giants and their fans, Zito recovered. He started off this year well, with just a few hiccups, and established himself in the rotation. With Tim Lincecum struggling, it was imperative that Zito hit his stride. He did just that, and gave the Giants exactly what they needed in a solid fifth starter.
He was an extremely important part of the team, contributing to the team’s clinching of the division. Zito finishes with a 4.15 ERA with a great 15-8 record. He might not be in his 2002 Cy Young form, but he definitely gets the job done.
During his major struggles, Zito’s velocity was called into question. In 2002, he threw considerably harder than he did in 2010—and even now. Now, Zito’s fastball is regularly clocked in the 83-87 range, rather than the 88-92.
Zito was never a fireballer, but seeing this much of a drop in velocity was concerning. He never had a major arm injury throughout his career, so the decrease was (and still is) puzzling.
This year, even with the low velocity, Zito has managed to pitch well. It seems as if his location has gotten considerably better, as Zito has only walked 70—14 less than 2010 and 32 less than 2008—when he walked a career-high 102. Lowering his amount of walks is key, because with his lower velocity and tendency to pitch to contact, he gives up more home runs (pitching in AT&T Park is also a help).
For Zito, giving up a home run or two in a game is tolerable—as long as there are not unnecessary runners on base. The Giants have not had much of a problem giving him run support. A surprising note is Zito’s ERA–the exact same as it was in 2010. The perception of Zito could be better because of his record.
Another factor in Zito’s improvement could be the lack of pressure. In the second last year of his contract, he might not put as much pressure on himself to perform. The fans have pretty much given up on him (and his contract) after his streak of bad seasons, so he is pitching with nothing to lose.
This could contribute to his decrease in the number of walks. Zito will be in the postseason rotation for the Giants, so look for him to be a factor in the Giants’ advance into later rounds. If all goes well, Zito might find a suitable home for the 2014 season following up his strong campaign and another good year in 2013 (assuming his option does not vest or is picked up).