Breaking down Barry Zito (cont.)
Was Zito's unique form an aberration to begin with? That may be going a little far, but there is evidence that his mechanics and delivery have set him up for a quicker decline in skills over his career. Kyle Boddy runs the Web site DrivelineMechanics.com, which is devoted entirely to pitching mechanics.
Boddy, a high-school coach and former college pitcher, argues that pitchers whose arms are not fully in forward movement when their front foot hits the ground put an inordinate amount of stress on the muscles and ligaments in their shoulder and elbow. The subsequent violent "snap-back" takes its toll over time. And even though a pitcher may not have obvious injury problems, it creates enough wear and tear to cause a sharp decline in skills. Former Braves phenom Steve Avery is perhaps the best example, says Boddy, of a modern pitcher whose poor mechanics doomed him to early retirement.
Zito is certainly a pitcher guilty of this (as evidenced in the video here -- pay attention to where his left arm is when his right foot hits the ground). Assuming this flawed motion is indeed contributing to minute physical breakdowns in his arm, that may explain why Zito's control is off and his velocity decreasing. Nearly all his stats have been trending steadily downwards: He currently has career worsts in ERA (5.83), slugging average against (.487), strikeouts per game (4.3) and a projected career-high in walks (a whopping 120).
His own performance aside, the Giants themselves are perhaps Zito's worst enemy. During his seven seasons in Oakland, the A's never averaged less than 4.09 runs per game of support for Zito. Even in his worst year in Oakland -- '04, when he had a 4.48 ERA -- the A's offense nearly equaled that, providing 4.41 runs per game.
Contrast that to the woeful Giants, who average just 2.8 runs per game in Zito's 13 starts this season.
Defensively, the Giants are averaging 1.3 errors per Zito start. Overall, the team is only averaging about one error every other game. Zito seemed to turn a corner after he was recalled from a brief stint in the bullpen on May 7, with three quality starts in his first five appearances, and didn't allow more than three earned runs in any of them. For his troubles, he was rewarded with one win and two losses.
"He's making some good pitches, but we're not helping him much," says Giants manager Bruce Bochy, stating the obvious.
Above all, Zito's mammoth deal may be the biggest factor working against him. And that's not all his fault. After the '06 season, the Giants earmarked a huge chunk of change to chase a marquee free agent, preferably a pitcher to shore up one of the worst rotations in the National League. At the time, they needed something, anything, to take the focus off the backlash surrounding Bonds.
Zito was a simple solution. He was already an icon in the Bay Area and was perhaps the sexiest name on the market. None of the other teams chasing him was willing to match the Giants' offer of $126 million -- that made the choice easy for Zito and especially his agent, Scott Boras.
Still, the writing may already have been on the wall. Zito was the third pitcher to sign a contract in excess of $100 million, after Kevin Brown and Mike Hampton, both of whom never had a season as good as before they signed their mega-deals. (Last winter, Johan Santana became the fourth pitcher with a nine-figure contract, but it's too soon to know whether he will validate those dollars or not.)
"My body feels good and I just have to keep going," says Zito of his struggles. "We get paid to have a short-term memory, so I just need to go out there and work harder."
Hopefully Zito remembers his magical '02 season well. It may end up being the best memory of his career.