It doesn’t take a revisionist historian to understand that the 7 year, $126 million dollar deal that the Giants gave Barry Zito was a bad idea. Looking at the results of the nearly completed deal certainly backs up those of us who thought it was an overpay at the time, but the eroding skills and results during his final years in Oakland showed a guy who was morphing from a good pitcher to an innings eater. Innings eaters shouldn’t get seven year deals, let alone $18 mil a year on top of that.
Zito had the one great season when he stole a Cy Young Award away from Pedro Martinez, but otherwise his key attribute was reliability as he a near-certainty for 34-35 starts a year. His coda with the A’s saw rapidly dwindling ability paired with remarkably fortunate ERA totals that hid from plain sight his drop into mediocrity. The first suspected culprit would be his home ballpark, known for fueling ERAs that easily outpaced the accompanying skill. Alas it was actually his road work that kept him afloat with two sub-4.00 ERAs in his final two years.
The results compared against the advanced ERA indicators further showed the impending doom:
Flash forward six-plus years and it’s not too surprising that Zito’s San Francisco career has yielded 1020 innings of 4.41 ERA, 1.40 WHIP, and 1.58 K/BB. In other words, he has been the innings eater we saw developing back in his late-20s logging 32 or more starts in all but one of his seasons with the other Bay Area ballclub (2011).
Two starts into the final year of this nightmare deal for the Giants has seen Zito mow down his competition for 14 scoreless innings, a 2-0 record, and an even 1.00 WHIP. Maybe it is the difficulty of finding topics early in the season or maybe some actually believe it to be true, but these two outings have spurred talks of some sort of rejuvenation for Zito with some suggesting that a situation may arise where he is on the cusp of 200 innings and the Giants may be inclined to fiddle with him in the rotation to avoid that threshold as it would kick in a 2014 vesting option for $18 million dollars. Slow your roll, folks.
Zito hasn’t yet thrown 200 innings as a Giant and only once has he been better than league average by ERA- registering a 98 in 2009, or two percent better than league average. Meanwhile, his next 2.0 K/BB ratio with the Giants will be his first. Furthermore, we’ve been down this road before.
First off, something about season openers sits well with Zito. In his last four season debuts, he has a 0.96 ERA and 0.68 WHIP in 28 innings with all three runs given up in 2011. He stayed hot in 2010 posting a 1.53 ERA and 0.88 WHIP in 35.3 innings across five stats. His opponents in those five starts included four of the worst offenses in baseball that year: Houston (29th in wRC+), Pittsburgh (28th), LA Dodgers (22nd), St. Louis (12th), and Colorado (27th on the road). The rest of the year he put up a 4.72 ERA and 1.45 WHIP in 164 innings.
He did it all again last year. After kicking off the season with a shutout of the Rockies (in Colorado no less!), he reeled off another trio of gems yielding a 1.67 ERA and 0.93 WHIP in 27 April innings. He deserves plenty of credit for thwarting the Rockies in Coors as they were the 8th-best home offense, but the next three outings came against Pittsburgh (26th), NY Mets (22nd), and Cincinnati (23rd, but in fairness, 17th at home). The rest of the way? He was quite pumpkin-like with a 4.58 ERA and 1.47 WHIP in 157.3 innings.
There is nothing in the 35 year old’s game that suggests these first two starts are indicative of a forthcoming strong season. His velocity continues to drop toward Moyerian levels checking in at 82.9 MPH this year, continuing a four-year plunge from 2009’s 86.5 MPH. It will be a major upset if he is an above average starter for 200+ innings and these first two starts don’t change the odds much, if at all. Fantasy managers, step away from your waiver wires, there’s nothing to see here.