Monday, September 30, 2013

Thoughts on Barry Zito

There are many ways to look at a baseball contract and a player's value.  For the purpose of this post, I am going to simply stipulate that most baseball contracts are determined by a player's WAR record and projection and by that standard, Barry Zito's contract was very bad.  Instead, I am going to focus on some other aspects of Barry Zito's tenure as a San Francisco Giant and try to show that his contract was not the Apocalypse of the Giants it has been made out to be.  Before I dive into it, I would also like to thank Shankbone and his terrific blog You Gotta Like These Kids, linked to the left, for doing the heavy lifting and posting a lot of the stats I am going to use in this post.

First of all, there are intangibles.  Now, I would be the first to agree that "intangibles" are no reason for pay a ballplayer $126 M, but they are not nothing either.  For all the disappointment and frustration heaped on Zito, especially in the first few years of the contract when it looked like the Giants would be paying him forever and his contract would be the barrier to countless potential championships, Zito showed up for work every single day and with a good attitude.  Even when he suffered the ultimate indignity of being left off the postseason roster in 2010, he did not complain.  Here is where you get the added benefit of that intangible.  If the guy who is being paid $126 M doesn't complain about being left off the playoff roster, then what grounds does anyone have to gripe about their situation?  Who else thinks their situation is more important than the needs of the team?  For the remaining future of the franchise, any player who thinks they have a gripe will be pointed to Barry Zito in 2010.  Nobody is bigger or more important than the team!

In a similar vein, his Strikeouts for Troops charity was a stroke of genius and represented the Giants organization in a tremendously positive light.  The Giants don't just have a fanbase.  They have built a fan community, and the whole vibe of the charity was one of community and taking care of our own.  It dovetailed right into the way the Giants stepped up for Brian Stow and his family.  What other team in sports is more embedded in their community than the Giants are right now?

On to some stats.  Everyone said or thought in the early years of the Zito contract, that it would be an "albatross" contract.  "Albatross" meant that the cost of his contract would prevent other, better, players from coming to the Giants and thus shut the door on any possibility of a championship during the term of the contract.  Whether Zito's contract prevented other, better players from coming to the Giants, we will never know.  We do know that the Giants won the only two championships in their 55 years in San Francisco during his contract.  It also did not prevent them from acquiring and retaining homegrown talents like Matt Cain, Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum, Madison Bumgarner, Pablo Sandoval or for trading for and keeping an expensive player like Hunter Pence.

We also know that Barry Zito contributed to those two championships.  In fact, the Giants probably would not have won either of them without Barry Zito!  The lasting image most people have of Barry Zito and the 2010 postseason of of him sitting quietly in the dugout, bundled up in his jacket.  One could only imagine what was going through his mind, but he never once complained so far as anyone has been able to dig up.  What a lot of people forget is that before his game collapsed down the stretch, he pitched 19 Quality Starts that season with the Giants winning many of them.  Again, we will never know if some other player or combination of players who the Giants might have acquired along the way instead of Barry Zito might have won more games for the Giants, but I'm quite convinced that without him and with a replacement player in his stead, the Giants would not have so much as reached the playoffs, let alone win the World Series!

As for 2012, I don't think there is much question about the contribution Zito made to that team.  From his first start of the season in Colorado to his string of 15 starts in which the Giants won to his amazing performances in the postseason, well, the Giants simply would not have won it without him.  I cannot think of any reasonable alternative player or players who would have made it any better, and it's tough to see anyone doing it better.  Championships are never won by a single player alone, but there are always players you would not have won without.  Barry Zito was one of those players in 2012.  The Giants, quite simply, owe their 2012 Championship Trophy to Barry Zito!

There are a lot of teams out there who would gladly pay a player $126 M if they knew that player would bring them a single World Series Championship.  Barry Zito definitely did that and contributed to a 2'nd!

Lastly, whether you believe in God or the baseball gods or a higher power or simply The Fates, life often works in strange and unexpected ways.  What if Barry Zito had come in and won the Cy Young Award in his first couple of seasons with the Giants?  Would it have been enough to win the World Series given his supporting cast?  Probably not!  Would it have been enough to prevent the Giants from drafting Buster Posey in 2008?  Quite possibly!  Would the Giants have won the World Series in 2010 and 2012 without Buster Posey?  Probably not!

You know, maybe Dave Cameron is right!  Maybe there really is pixie dust in the air in San Francisco!  Maybe there is something in the water!  Would I do it all again if I was in Brian Sabean's shoes? Does this make me want to be less analytical about current and future free agent signings and trades?  No  it doesn't.  In  a different time and place, that wonderful chain of events would not happen again!  You cannot plan Magic or Miracles and you can't outguess The Fates.  What you can do, though, is understand that there are more ways of measuring the outcome of a contract than by it's WAR score.

Barry Zito's contract was bad, but as the old expression I grew up with said, all things worked together for good in the end.  He's been a good Giant!


  1. Good post Drb. Barry Zito was true profesional, a class act, and a Good Giant. It was awesome to see him go out the way he did during the last game. The fans cheering him after he got Kotsay and some of the players and coaches taking pictures with him. There was a time when it seemed like his contract would never end and its amazing that he ended up contribting heavily to 2 WS titles. Its amazing that Zito and Renteria, 2 players the Giants signed to bad contracts, contributed big time to their WS titles.


  2. It's interesting when one looks like, one wonders why one got all so worked up for nothing.

    Of course, when you are in the middle of it, you don't think that way.

    In any case, one should be extremely cautious about flipping one's statistical finger at the baseball gods. When you pitch a no hitter, it's better to not change your underwear. You want to savor it for a while...the no-hitter, I mean. Let that visual feedback or mental image feedback work in your favor, like Belt's and Noonan's machine (I think that's what it was).

  3. It should be 'when one looks back..."

  4. Thanks for the shout out, although I'm not sure I put any real stats except for QS ratio in my post about Big Game Barry Zito.

    There is a subset of saber guys who refuse to look beyond WAR values and good deals. Accountants eyeshade is important, but there are other considerations. Plus I really think WAR doesn't address the uniqueness of each individual 33 start, undervalues relief pitchers, overvalues utility guys who don't face front line pitching, and possibly overvalues OBP, although that one is a bit out there. Plus the always hazy defensive values/UZR.

    Zito was good, he was bad, he was unpredictable. I think Sabean just paid a lot of attaboy lip service saying he'd re-sign him. What is valued by GMs is consistency and durability. Durability is seriously undervalued.

    1. I'll buy that it values OBP too high. Can't quite quantify why, but I just refuse to believe that Brandon Belt was a better hitter than Hunter Pence this year, particularly if the point of the game is to produce runs.

    2. This following is a nice philosophical question nothing to do Belt vs Pence, as far as I can tell:

      If hitter A drove in 80 runs of which, say, 30 runs tied or won a game and if hitter B drove in also 80 runs of which only 20 tied or won a game, the rest being in blown out losses (again, for example), would we then say that not all runs produced are the same?

    3. I did put some real stats recently, but not QS: he had a 3.35 ERA to the first start of August for Zito, then he just lost it for the remaining games, mostly, though he did have a nice 3 game stretch in the middle of the dreck (10 starts, 11 appearances) where he contributed to the Giants streak of starts where they gave up 3 runs or less (and then 4 runs or less). His ERA was still 3.98 as of Sept 19th, 2010, which is excellent for any team's #5 starter. And FYI, he had 14 QS per the PQS methodology in 2010 (out of 33 starts). And I count 19 QS using the traditional 6+ IP and 3- runs given up.
      Plus, his stability was something overlooked, WAR values it by being a counting stat, but analysts do not value it when considering the domino effects that happens to a team when you don't have a pitcher you can just turn to every 5 games and hand him the ball. As bad as any fan has thought of Zito, he's never been (by ERA) worse than a mid-rotation starter during most of his Giants career, until really, this season when he was mostly bad. He got one too many years on his contract.

      But fans don't think of how valuable it is that we can turn to him reliably, start after start, instead of being forced to bring up a newbie and see how he does, and most times, he's not all that great, and you just switch from one starter to another, and none of them are performing even average. Whereas Zito just chugged along, up and down, but mostly average. He was much better than replacement player for much of his Giants career. But he just wasn't what his paycheck said he should be, and many fans couldn't move their green eyeshade beyond that.

      Zito wasn't what his paycheck was, but he at least was an average pitcher throughout most of his time with the Giants, someone you could reliably write into the rotation, someone who didn't become a cancer in the clubhouse, forcing his release (like Rowand and Tejada or AJP), someone who we could not have won a World Championship without, he delivered when Lincecum could not in 2012, and he will always have THAT on the back of his baseball card. And he pitched well for most of 2010, as noted, his ERA was still under 4 with a couple of weeks left in the season.

    4. I understand what Sabean meant about doing the Zito signing all over again, I think he was really touching on what all of us feel about this, but just having problems voicing it without looking like a company man: we would not change one detail of that experience because we are aware of the unintended consequences of such changes, and who knows what would have happened if Zito not been signed?

      Clearly, we probably would not have drafted Posey, while Zito was 11-13 in 2007, the Giants were 14-19 in his starts, and we ended up tied with Florida but got the fifth pick probably due to a poorer record in 2007. Had Zito pitched to his contract, lets say the Giants were 19-14 instead. That would have tied us with the A's for the 12th pick. The A's got Jemile Weeks, Cards got Brett Wallace, Twins got Aaron Hicks, LAD got Ethan Martin, Brewers got Brett Lawrie (best pick after Posey in first round), Jays got David Cooper, Mets got Ike Davis, Cubs got Andrew Cashner, Tigers got Ryan Perry, and Mets got Reese Havens. Maybe the Giants might have gotten Lawrie, but he certainly would not have led the Giants to two championships, he's been good enough, just not great.

      And who knows what would have happened in 2010 or 2012? Let's say we signed someone really good, like Johan Santana, if he were actually available. The Mets paid him $90M for 2010-2013, but he pitched in only 50 starts in those years, 29 in 2010 and 21 in 2012, but while his ERA was 2.98 in 2010 and he would have helped win the first championship (but we didn't need his help), he had a 4.85 ERA in 2012, and he was shut down by mid-August and we would have had to turn to someone in AAA, Penny, Loux, Petit, Hacker. He would not have been there in the playoffs for us, pitching the playoffs of a lifetime.

      None of us would change one iota of that period, and that includes signing Zito to his horrendous contract, and perhaps saying it in that way makes it more palatable, more understandable, why anyone would say they would sign Zito to the same contract all over again. Because you don't know what would have happened if you didn't.

    5. BLSL- I see what you are saying but in most cases, if you get a sample size large enough, clutch vs non-clutch evens out with a few relatively rare exceptions.

      ogc, I agree. I think if Sabes was presented with a similar pitcher to Barry Zito today, he would not sign him to that kind of a contract, but that is a different question than would he sign Zito back in 2007 if he knew the outcome would be exactly what it turned out to be. Sabes did specifically mention the 2 championships, so I think he was thinking along similar lines to what we have said here. If he could sign Zito knowing that he would have a poor WAR score but would contribute to 2 championships, then hell yes, of course he would take that and consider the $126 M well spent!

  5. Zito felt like a bad 7-year marriage. Some good memories, mostly bad. But the sex was great!