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Friday, April 15, 2011

The Forgotten Ace

Barry Zito is on a pitching staff that has led the league in strikeouts and ERA each of the past two seasons. Barry Zito plays for the defending World Series champions. Barry Zito is making millions upon millions of dollars every year. If you told Barry William Zito all of this when he signed his record-setting seven-year, $126 million contract to go from the Oakland Athletics to their big brothers across the bay, he probably would have been a very happy man. The sad news is that today, Barry William Zito is not a very happy man. After four years and change with the Giants, Zito has become the team’s fifth best starter and would no longer be in the rotation were it not for his monster contract. So the question remains, how did a former Cy Young Award winner go from the height of his craft to not even cracking the postseason roster of a World Series-bound team? What went wrong?

Zito was Oakland’s first-round pick in 1999, and spent only about a year and a half in the minors. In 2001, likely his second-best season to date, Zito went 17-8, posting a 3.49 ERA in his first full season. 2002 was easily Zito’s best season, which saw him go 23-5 with an ERA of 2.75 and he even nabbed the AL Cy Young Award. There were big expectations for Zito in 2003, and while his 14-12 record didn’t quite live up to the hype, he still registered a solid 3.30 ERA and a career-high in innings pitched.

This is where it starts to go downhill. Zito’s 2004 campaign was a foreshadowing of things to come with the Giants. He managed a career-low in wins, innings pitched, WAR, and ERA+, while his ERA, H/9, and HR/9 limped to career-highs. His stats improved slightly in 2005 and 2006, including an All-Star appearance in 2006, but ultimately he was nowhere near the pitcher he was in 2002 and 2003.

Then came the offseason of 2006. Oh, that fateful offseason. The Yankees, Mets, Rangers, and Giants were all interested in signing Zito, but only the Giants and Mets were reportedly willing to pony up the bucks Zito wanted. Of course, Zito wound up signing in San Francisco, a decision that, were it not for a farm system loaded with young arms, would have derailed the entire Giants organization for years to come.

Barry Zito’s first season with San Francisco was expected to be a big one. He was making the transition from AL to NL, remaining in a park heavy on pitching, and was now getting to face the worst division in baseball on a regular basis. Zito then endured a putrid season. He was 11-13 with an ERA of 4.53 and a WAR of 1.5. One may point out that Zito did not get the greatest run support; this is true. However, in 2007 Matt Cain had an ERA a full point lower than Zito’s, yet still went 7-16--- so Zito’s run support could have been much worse. And, of course, an observant fellow will notice that run support does not exactly factor into ERA.

Yet heading into 2008, Giants fans stubbornly stuck by Zito. Instead, Tim Lincecum, in his first full major league season, stole the spotlight, dazzling National League hitters and outdueling aces Johan Santana and Brandon Webb for the Cy Young Award. This could not have been better for Zito, because while fans focused their attention on young superstar, Zito’s 2008 season could not have gone farther in the opposite direction. He managed a record of 10-17, an ERA of 5.15, a negative WAR (-0.6), a K/BB ratio of 1.1, a WHIP of 1.6, a BB/9 of 5.18 and an ERA+ of 86.

Needless to say, by 2009 the Giants were running thin on patience. What ultimately kept Zito in the rotation was the money the Giants were stuffing into his wallet year after year. And, to be honest, he had nowhere to go but up, seeing as he was one of the league’s worst starting pitchers in 2008.

Over the past two seasons, Zito has gone 19-27 with an ERA of 4.10. At this point, the Giants will gladly take a .500 record and an ERA of 4.00 if Zito can give it to them. Expectations have dropped a long way for the man once considered to be in an elite club. Stuck at the short end of a rotation absolutely loaded with young talent, Zito is left to sit back and wonder: what went wrong?

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