Barry Zito, and That Age-Old Demon Hag, Wins

You love me! You really love me! (Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

It’s a lazy Tuesday afternoon, I’m off of work, and instead of doing something constructive around town, I find myself drawn into writing about the Giants. I haven’t sat down and written specifically about the Giants since I shut down the ol’ Stankeye blog last year, and it’s a weird feeling. It’s time to dust off the old Giants part of my brain and remember how to rant insanely and hate on Pedro Feliz. I’m sure it’ll come back to me quick.

The Giants are currently 84-63 and are eight games up on the second-place Dodgers in the National League West. It would take a faceplant of proportions never seen before in Bay Area sports for them to fail to make the playoffs at this point. Through all the inconsistent play, through all the shoddy bullpen performances (I’m looking at you Mr. Casilla), and through all the Melktastic bumps in the road, there the Giants are, cruising to a division title. Some might argue, with their 78-69 Pythagorean Record, that they would be the worst team in the NL playoffs, but I think you can agree with me when I say that those people can pull their lips over their heads and swallow.

So we’re discussing the Giants. To be totally specific, we’re going to be discussing Barry Zito, the formerly much-maligned, lavishly-rewarded starting pitcher who went bust almost the second the Giants handed him a seven-year, $126 million contract back in the winter of 2006. Why are we talking about Zito, as opposed to, say, Buster Posey, who is having the best season by any catcher in Giants history? Because I’m going to the game Thursday, and Zito will be pitching, and because it’s my poorly-maintained personal blog, goddammit. Shockingly, Thursday will be the first time I’ve ever seen Zito pitch in person at a ball game. I’ve seen Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain a billion times (and even Brad Penny!), but never Zito.

Since donning a Giants uniform in 2007, Zito has gone 55-69 with a 4.49 ERA and a less-than-stellar 1.56 K:BB ratio. His ERA+ is 91 in that span, meaning that in a more hitter-friendly environment his ERA would likely be even worse. The Giants will pay him $20 million in 2013, the final year of his contract and, as the final kick in the ass, will pay him $7 million to go away in 2014 (or else pay him $18 million to come back. Ha!).

Zito and his onerous contract have been part of the Giants for so long that there’s going to be somewhat of an empty void when he leaves. Zito’s inconsistency has hung over the Giants like an omnipresent mist for the past few years, and when it’s gone, I’m sure I’m going to feel like McNolte did when Stringer Bell got blown away in The Wire. Zito has been an antagonizing presence for years, and when he’s gone, my sense of purpose will go with him.

Over the years, I’ve done a total 180 on Zito. When he was first signed, and when he initially struggled, bottoming out with a miserable 2008 (when he was relegated to the bullpen temporarily), I was on the front lines of those who called for the Giants to cut him, eat his contract, and drag him out onto Market Street and beat him. Since then, I’ve gone from this…

…to actually being one of his biggest supporters among the Giant fan base. Yes, you read that right. Every time Zito makes a start, I probably want him to succeed more than anybody. Zito is ripped a new one by the national media every time another “worst contracts in baseball” article is published on (seemingly every month), and I personally get tired of seeing it. There’s this idea, spread by a lot of national sportswriters, that athletes, not just Zito per se, tend to stop trying once they get that big dollar contract, content to live a life of doing the backstroke in a pile of coins and naked women, while letting their skills erode and drinking the tears of the betrayed fans who once loved them so. I don’t know if it’s just latent jealousy on the part of these writers, or maybe they’re just being dicks, but it seems like the second a player is given a big contract and underperforms, even slightly, they’re accused of being shiftless fumps who are all about the cash.

This is bullshit. When an athlete gets a reputation as being a waste of money, I imagine they take it the hardest of anybody. No one, in any industry, wants to be seen as being crappy at their job, and unjustifiably compensated, to boot. I really doubt Zito is an exception. The guy is a former Cy Young winner, he’s won 157 major league games, and I’m sure he has a ton of pride. If I had to guess, I’m sure he works his butt off in the offseason and in between games to live up to the expectations set by his contract. It must have absolutely killed him to be left off the postseason roster in 2010, and you can bet he’s going to be highly motivated to avoid the same fate in this year’s playoffs.

Anyways, the point. I came around on Zito after a couple years, but this year it seems that the entirety of the Giants’ fan base is warming to him, as well. I saw a comment on Twitter (I don’t remember who it was, or I’d plug you, dude!) that Zito has had more standing ovations at AT&T Park this season than in his first five seasons combined. I completely agree. This is the first year, in my opinion, where Giants fans actually seem to be openly rooting him on, instead of regarding him as an albatross who should go away.

In 2007 and 2008, he was mediocre-to-awful, and fans never let him hear the end of it. His struggles were, of course, made worse by the contract that was then fresh in everybody’s memory. In 2009, he was actually pretty good, and it was his only season as a Giant thus far where his ERA+ was better than league average. Still, Lincecum and Cain were having great seasons, the Giants were becoming good again, and fans were busy complaining that the team would have been better if they could have spent the Zito money on something else.

In 2010, Zito got off to a hot start and was decent overall, but any good will he earned with the fans was torpedoed when he collapsed down the stretch, right when the Giants needed him most. His crappy second half culminated in a woeful performance against the Padres in a potential division-clinching start in the 161st game of the season, a start that probably cemented Bruce Bochy’s decision to leave him off the postseason roster. In 2011, he was hurt most of the year and was awful when he wasn’t stuck on the DL.

This year, he started off well by throwing a complete game shutout against the Rockies in Coors Field in his first start of the season, and he proceeded to post a 1.67 ERA in April. When I go root him on in San Francisco on Thursday, he’ll carry a 4.21 ERA into the game, right about where he’s been throughout his Giants career.

Once again, it seems the fans have been more on Zito’s side this year than ever before. Curiously, though, this isn’t his best year as a Giant. Not even close. In 2009, he posted an ERA+ of 105 and had his best K:BB ratio as a Giant. He was legitimately good that year, not just the adequate fifth starter we’re willing to settle for now. In 2010, overall, he was better also, with a 94 ERA+ and better peripherals.

This year Zito has a decent ERA, but his K:BB ratio is not good, and it’s clear that he’s been one or two bad pitches from having an ERA a half-run higher. To wit, his xFIP (ERA adjusted to take away team defensive contributions, essentially) is an ugly 5.02, his highest since 2008. His strikeouts have declined to the lowest rate that he’s posted as a major leaguer, and he’s still walking the same number of hitters. Under the surface, he’s on very thin ice. So why has fan opinion suddenly turned on its ear this season?

Well, I’m pretty sure the culprit is that old rascal known as wins. You see, Zito this season has a record of 12-8. Barring an epic meltdown over the next few weeks, he’ll finish with a record above .500 for the first time as a Giant. I think, subconsciously, fans are viewing his season as more successful because he’s above water in the win-loss column. Compare that to 2009, when he was a clearly better pitcher, but his record was 10-13, and his season was greeted with general apathy. If, with everything else being equal, his record were reversed and he was 8-12, would he have received so many standing O’s and be seen in the brighter light by fans? I doubt it.

While most of us who read baseball blogs and haunt the various saber-sites around the Internet understand that wins are an antiquated means of measuring pitcher performance and need to die, we often forget that the fair-weather fan understands no such thing. I’d say a majority of fans at the ballpark on a given day just look at Zito’s over-.500 record and believe that he’s finally performing the way the Giants thought he would when they brought him in. It goes to show that, even as the wins stat is going the way of the dodo, its ghost still has a stranglehold on the national baseball consciousness.

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