Barry Zito redefined himself as something of a cult hero during the 2012 postseason. Game 5 in St. Louis was one of the most important starts in Giants history and that’s no exaggeration. He’s never going to be worth 126 million dollars but after 2012, Giants fans became a lot more tolerant of it now than say, this start.
However, the general thought here entering the 2013 season was that Barry Zito was still Barry Zito. That is, he is an almost terrible pitcher that is okay as a fifth starter. To illustrate this easily, let’s compare his 2010 to his 2012.
2010: 4.15 ERA, 4.25 FIP, 1.79 K/BB, 7,5 HR/FB
2012: 4.15 ERA, 4.49 FIP, 1.63 K/BB, 8.7 HR/FB
Almost identical lines. If anything, he had a better 2010 than 2012. Yet in 2010 he hit arguably the low point of his Giants career, which is saying something, while on the other hand 2012 was so transcendant it prompted a GQ photo-shoot where he is pretending to bowl for some reason.
Here is one of his answers in the GQ interview. Context is not important.
“A baseball bat's probably not gonna get it done, dude. I hate to tell you, because if homeboy's got a gun.... Yeah, man, it's not a safe world out there, dude.”
I like it because he integrated ‘dude’ ‘man’ and ‘homeboy’ all into his answer. This is important.
Obviously, his postseason performance in 2012 was something for the ages, but the fact remained that despite how significant those two postseason appearances were, they were still just that: two starts. Ryan Sadowski once had two good starts in a row. Jeff Weaver and Jeff Suppan were the heroes of the Cardinals 2006 World Series run. Anybody can have a good string of starts, but the fact remained Zito’s entire 2012 season was virtually identical to his 2010 season. So the feeling, at least around here, was that he was going to be the same pitcher in 2013, which is what we was is 2012 and also 2010. And then the 2013 season started.
Zito has a 2.75 ERA this season, eighteenth best among National League starters. His Fielding Independent Pitching line, what his ERA should be based on home runs, walks and strikouts, is 3.68, the best it’s been since 2001. The biggest reason has been his declining home run rate, as he’s allowing .69 (!) homers per nine innings, his best mark since his rookie season in 2000 when he started just fourteen games. Conventional wisdom would leave you to believe this is just small sample size shenanigans and that Barry Zito will return to being Barry Zito anytime now. However, there are some signs that perhaps Zito is not old Zito but is instead new Zito, and his nickname will be New Zealand. These are my jokes.
Prior to last season, at least 50% of the pitches he threw during a game were fastball for the majority of his career. Like most pitchers, Zito worked off of his fastball, and setup all his specialty pitches off his fastball. It’s a great strategy! A great pitching philosophy! The only issue here is that Zito’s fastball sucks.
In 2010, batters posted a dominant .255/.351/.429 batting line against his fastball. In 2011 that mark skyrocketed to .314/.407/.588, although that season was shortened by injury. But, even with the small sample size in 2011, the fact that hitters turned into 2012 Miguel Cabrera against his fastball was a sign that Zito needed to change something. Only took him seven years, but you have to start sometime!
In 2012, Zito added a cutter, but really that was part of a transformation in his pitching style, which started in 2011. Zito needed someway to be more deceptive, and generate weaker contact. Hitters could gear up for his 81 mph fastball, and really he did not have a pitch to mix speeds against that fooled hitters enough. It is not good when you can’t fool hitters with an 80 mph fastball. That’s about as good as my scouting gets.
From 2007-2010, Zito threw his four-seam fastball on 47.7%, 46.7% and 40.8% of time. Then in 2011 that dropped significantly to 27.1% and finally in 2012 went down all the way to 16.2%. In fact, in 2012, Zito’s most highly used pitch, his cutter, was only used 22.5% of the time. This indicates Zito made a concerted effort to mix up his pitches, mainly lower how many four-seam fastballs he threw. This was smart because his fastball is terrible. Pitchers want to lower the amount of terrible pitchers they throw.
It’s not just me! Here’s what Marco Scutaro told Alex Pavlovic in late April:
"He's a different pitcher now," said Marco Scutaro, who played three seasons behind Zito in Oakland. "He used to be all about the fastball and the big curveball, but he mixes pitches better now, and he's added that cutter."
Zito did a good job of lowering how much he threw his terrible fastball, but just as importantly he distributed what type of pitches he threw instead of the fastball. This is where Zito’s new found cutter comes in, which has really been the catalyst for this change. Zito introduced a cutter in 2012, which he immediately threw 22.5% of the time, and it became his most used pitch. Not only that, according to Pitch F/X data, he began throwing a two-seam fastball much more beginning in 2011, and he threw it 20.5% of the time last season. In 2011 Zito introduced the two-seamer at a much higher rate, but not the cutter. Finally in 2012, Zito utilized both the cutter and the two seam fastball. What’s significant about these two pitches is that both of them look like a crappy four-seam fastball. The same arm angle everything, they just have a little extra movement. This is all part of his deception. Hunter Pence tell us more!
"Pitching is about deception, and he's got a lot of deception," Pence said. "He's really smart out there and doesn't give you good pitches to hit. Even his strikes are tough to hit. You think you're seeing a cutter out of his hand and it's really the fastball down the middle. And if you protect too much against the cutter, he'll go back outside. One day I plan on wrenching off his limbs with my teeth and feeding them to the halflings on my native planet. His blood shall serve as wine when we celebrate destruction of earth."
The last part may or may not be true. But the point is, hitters gear up for the fastball, and everything about the pitch seems like a fastball. But both the two-seamer and the cutter have extra movement that run away from the barrel of the bat just enough, that it produces weaker contact.
So, that’s what Zito’s plan was. It’s one thing to have a plan, it’s another to have results. I always planned to talk to girls in high school, but the results are mixed. In Zito’s case, the early returns in 2012 were shaky. The first half of 2012 Zito’s ERA was 4.01 and actually went up to 4.31 in the 2nd half. However, his FIP went from 5.08 in the 1st half, while just 3.81 in the 2nd half, indicating that his ERA should have been lower in the 2nd half. And the peripheral numbers bear out this result as well. His K/BB rate went from 1.15 to 2.68, his HR/9 went from 1.09 to .84. Normally I’m not a huge fan of using first half and second half splits. But in this case, there may be some significance. Zito was still experimenting with his cutter and two seamer for the first time, and because those were both relatively new pitches, he needed sometime to harness control of them. Basically he just he just needed practice with those pitches. Again, this is me just speculating, it could just be those numbers are small sample size with selective end points. But given Zito’s sudden change in pitching philosophy, it’s certainly possible he needed time to adjust his pitches accordingly.
Which brings us to 2013. This season, Zito has upped his cutter count even more, throwing it 29% of the time, where last season he threw it 22.5%. In 2013, it is now by far the most used pitch of any of his pitches.It’s not unreasonable to think that Zito now in his second season with the cutter, has more of a feel for that pitch. Batters are hitting just .256/.326/.282 against his cutter this season, basically Jemile Weeks with less power. Again, I’d have to believe part of the problem last year was that he was still ironing out the kinks of his new approach. Now this season, Zito is more confident throwing the cutter, and he’s increased it’s usage.
And even though I don’t like swarming into the world of intangibles, there’s something to be said for the type of personal triumph Zito had leaping over the hump of Giants respect during the 2012 postseason. This, combined with the fact that he’s had one more season to work on the cutter and increase it’s usage, has been part of the reason for Zito’s resurgence. The deception shows up in the stats as well. Batters are swinging at 31% of pitches out of the zone, the highest in his Giants career. Zito is fooling more hitters, and getting them to chase more outside the zone, generating weaker comment.
This could all just be small sample size. Remember, Zito has done this before. Last season he had a 2.53 ERA through his first seven starts, although that was deflated by a .231 BABIP. Still, if I had to guess, I’d say Zito regresses more towards his career numbers this season and some of his success is small sample size. He’s sporting his best walk rate in his Giants career, walking just 2.5 batters per nine innings. He’s shown exceptional command, which may be due for some regression. But I’d also add a lot more of his success has had to do with Zito than some are willing to admit. He’ll regress some, but this early season start is no fluke. His HR/FB rate is just 2.2% off from his career average. His strand rate is 73.2% right around his career average. His batting average on balls in play sits at .295, which is higher than his career average which if anything indicates he is getting unlucky. His peripherals are not as exaggerated as one might think
I'm not a scout, and I barely know what half the numbers I put in this post mean. Honestly, this was just going to be a post making fun of Barry Zito’s GQ photos. Stupid baseball. But anyways, I'm becoming more and more inclined to believe that Zito truly is a different pitcher, which begs the question as to whether this fantastic start actually is relatively sustainable. And for the first time in my life, I'm leaning towards the answer being yes.