Breaking down Barry Zito
Beware the cloud of doom lingering over the northern corner of the Giants clubhouse at AT&T Park. Over the past several seasons, that cloud was provided by Barry Bonds, whose surly demeanor got worse and worse as he chased the all-time home-run record amid rumors of steroid use. Now Bonds is gone, but the unpleasantness lingers.
Barry Zito's locker is right next to the one Bonds used to occupy. And as the former Cy Young winner's performance has worsened, so has his mood. A yoga-practicing surfer with a taste for meditation and playing rock guitar, Zito was never the typical major leaguer -- and his unique, fun-loving personality was as much a part of his appeal as his success on the mound.
But since he came to San Francisco before last season after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract, that likeable guy, and his success, has disappeared. Zito, who turned 30 on May 13, has retreated into his own shell, speaking a little quieter and generally making all conversations with him awkward. When you are the first Giants pitcher to start the season 0-8 in 118 years, lose your velocity and command and subsequently become the most expensive bullpen pitcher in the history of the game, you'd probably be a little frustrated, too.
Fans have wondered what happened to the guy who, after debuting at age 22 in 2000, went 47-17 in his first three seasons, culminating in a dominant 2002 when, as the Oakland A's ace, Zito went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA and beat out Pedro Martinez for the AL Cy Young award. Then, as now, his fastball rarely topped 90 mph, but he had excellent control and could vary his pitch speed with precision. Above it all, though, he was a throwback to Sandy Koufax: a high-kicking lefty in tall socks who threw a massive curveball that came in at neck-level before dropping through the strike zone and eventually landing a foot over the plate -- the so-called "12-6" curve.
How things have changed. Since winning that award, Zito has been a .500 pitcher, going 68-68, and his .371 winning percentage since arriving in San Francisco is the seventh-worst among NL starters. He has emerged somewhat from his winless wilderness to begin this season, improving his record to 2-9 and lowering his ERA to 5.83 heading into his start Friday night against Oakland, nearly two runs less than it was in late April. But he's still a long way from his dominating days. He's lost five to seven miles an hour of velocity off his fastball, can't locate as well and is missing anything resembling aggressiveness on his first pitch.
But if you take a closer look, it becomes clear that the question everyone is asking --"What's wrong with Barry?" -- isn't the right one. The question should be, why are we expecting so much from him? Here are five reasons Zito may never again be the ace the Giants were hoping he'd be.
The first pitch
More than any at point in his career, Zito is working from behind in the count. Through his most recent start last Sunday, only 53 percent of his first pitches are strikes, a stat that puts him ninth worst among all starters, according to Elias Sports Bureau. At his best, Zito threw a first-pitch strike around 58 percent of the time -- a shade higher than the MLB average. That may not sound like a big difference percentage-wise, but over the course of an entire season, that's about 30 more batters he's chasing from behind.
"He's not trying for a first-pitch strike," observes Mets center fielder Carlos Beltrán, a player Zito has historically owned -- Beltrán is hitting .200 through 37 plate appearances against him over six seasons. "Every time you get behind, you have to throw a fastball right down the middle to get a strike. That's the reason why he's getting hit."
With Zito's fastball lingering in the low 80s, and his curve not locating as well as it used to, that's a giant hole he's digging for himself.
In Oakland, Zito enjoyed one of the biggest pitcher advantages there is: McAfee Coliseum, which has the largest foul territory in the majors. For a pitcher like Zito who, over his career has largely been able to keep batted balls in the infield, that was an enormous boon: According to Hardball Times, the percentage of fly balls hit off him that stayed in the infield hovered between 13 and 19 percent from '04 to '06. By contrast, AT&T Park has one of the smallest foul territories in baseball, which eliminates a large percentage of possible outs from pop flies. Zito's percentage of infield flies was less than nine percent in '07, and around 11 percent this season.