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Zito’s sophisticated slop

by Matt Smith

The Yankees couldn’t escape from their Championship Series predicament, but the San Francisco Giants might after their surprising Game Five victory.

The St. Louis Cardinals were ready to party when heading to Busch Stadium on Friday evening. They were one win away from clinching a return to the World Series and the Giants had Barry Zito on the mound.

What could go wrong?

What went wrong for the Red Birds was Barry Zito finally getting it right. He kept the Cardinals hitters off balance and got the job done by pitching 7.2 scoreless innings, helping his team to a 5-0 win to keep the Giants’ hopes alive.

This was not a case of Zito rolling back the years to his 2002 Cy Young-winning days. Never a hard thrower, Zito’s stuff wouldn’t frighten anyone any more. The big knee-buckling curve isn’t quite so fearsome and he has been far too hittable for the Giants’ liking in recent seasons.

But just as a 99 MPH heater doesn’t guarantee success against the best hitters in the world, a more modest arsenal doesn’t have to condemn a pitcher to an early retirement. With good command of the fastball and a good mix of secondary pitches – plus the odd bit of good luck in batted balls finding fielders rather than grass or the outfield seats – a pitcher can succeed.

MLB.com’s Anthony Castrovince summed up Zito’s performance by stating “you could call his stuff slop if not for the sophistication with which he delivered it”. No pitcher would like to be known for their ‘sophisticated slop’, but I’m sure they would take it if it got Major League hitters out.

Zito more than most would be glad for any compliments he can get, however back-handed they may seem.

He has become a poster boy for ‘free agent flops’ since signing a seven-year/$126m contract with the Giants over the 2006/07 offseason. It was the worst type of free agent contract, one that looked bad from the very moment the player put pen to paper.

Zito had been effective for the Oakland A’s in the couple of seasons leading up to his free agency, yet he wasn’t bowling anyone over with greatness. Even though teams often accept they may have to slightly overpay to acquire a free agent, it’s difficult to understand how the Giants thought his future performances would ever be worth $126m.

Putting the contract into context makes it seem all the more baffling. It was the largest ever contract (in terms of total dollars) given to a pitcher at the time of signing and only four larger contracts have been handed out since. Two came during the current season when the Giants and Phillies locked up Matt Cain and Cole Hamels respectively before they hit free agency, with Johan Santana (6 years/$137.5m signed in the 07/08 offseason) and CC Sabathia (7 years/$161m signed in the 08/09 offseason – since amended by a 5 year/$122m deal this past offseason) being the top two contracts.

Zito had a good run between 2002 and 2005 and even though his performances were trending downwards he deserved a decent-sized free agent deal. However, it clearly stands out as a bad contract when looking at it alongside the others.

Overpays can be brushed to one side if they lead to a World Series victory or two, following the adage that flags fly forever. In Zito’s case, the Giants’ 2010 triumph actually makes his contract look worse as he had pitched so poorly that season that he wasn’t included on the postseason roster.

2012 could be his one remaining shot at redemption. Thanks to Zito’s Game Five performance, the Giants have a chance to win the two remaining games of the series at AT&T Park to make it to the World Series.

If the Giants can do it, and if Zito puts in a decent showing in a World Series start on the way to another victory parade in San Francisco, then history will view the contract in a more favourable light. It will come with an asterisk pointing to a comment saying ‘yes it was an overpay, but …’.

There are some big ‘ifs’ in the equation, but it’s better to have the possibility of ifs than no chance at all.

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1 comment

Todd October 22, 2012 - 12:56 am

To be fair, Zito did not pitch poorly for the entire 2010 *season*. He just had a worse second half than first half, and his first half was very good. It often goes unremarked that he was 5-0 with an ERA under a buck-fifty at one point. Those wins in April and May were important to the Giants, considering that the division race went down to the last day with the Padres. With a lesser number-five starter, who’s to say?

I was looking at his game logs for September, and even those were better than I had remembered. He had quality starts versus Arizona and Milwaukee, and a loss to LA despite his allowing only an unearned run over 5-2/3. But he was awful in his last try of the season, when they were trying to nail it down against San Diego.

The 2012 season is being called Zito’s best in a Giants’ uniform. This is a testament to the enduring power of the W-L record to shape perceptions. His own numbers are very consistent between 2010 and 2012. Numerically, his best year as a Giant was probably 2009, when his personal record was an unimpressive-looking 10-13.

But in 2012, he finished strong, he got a lot of support, and the team won a long string of his August/September starts even when he personally was ineffective. And even before the late hot streak, he was (and continues to be, in the postseason) good at opportune times. So it’s something of a triumph of narrative arc over raw data.


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