Barry Zito

Barry Zito seeks his own ‘Redemption (Vogel)Song’

Baseball fans have always been fascinated with youth and the future, but never more so than the post-steroid (chuckle) era. The worst possible sin in 2011 is to leave a past-his-prime guy out there if an exciting prospect’s behind him, and veterans more than a half-season removed from productivity are considered dead weight. That’s why as I’m writing this post, many Giants fans are dreaming of Brandon Belt and Gary Brown starting for the Giants in August and September.

That’s the crazy thing about Ryan Vogelsong. He was a prospect whose potential greatness was delayed. So it’s like the Giants opened up a shiny new present that they already got years ago, then re-gifted it to Pittsburgh, then saw it pass through their circle of acquaintances, and then found it for $1.00 at some flea market in the parking lot where the drive-in movie theater used to be. I’m the same age as Vogelsong, so to see him pitch like an absolute demon is inspiring. It makes me feel like it’s possible to figure it all out and become a starting pitcher write about sports for money someday.

If a guy like Vogelsong can turn it all around at 33 after a career marred by injury and poor control, isn’t it at least possible that Barry Zito, a guy who turned 33 a few weeks ago, is ready to pitch better as a San Francisco Giant than he ever has?

Zito just pitched a complete game shutout for the Fresno Grizzlies against the Salt Lake Bees, only allowing 2 hits and 2 walks (1 of those free passes to pinch-hitter Reggie Willits, whom I love because his last name is a town I’ve driven through probably 489 times in my life). Extra Baggarly said his breaking pitches had a lot of late movement, and he’s probably going to start again for the Giants soon, maybe as soon as Sunday.

After watching Vogelsong once again seize on all that talent which made him the key piece of the Jason Schmidt trade on Wednesday night, one has to wonder if all Zito needed was some time alone to think about things without games to constantly prepare for. Vogelsong’s had plenty of time to think. Tommy John surgery, traveling to and playing in Japan, getting released by the Phillies (why does it seem like that little bit of info is going to be repeated again and again and again as 2011 progresses?). Zito’s failure to live up to his mega-deal has always coincided with a regular, durable, mediocre workload, until he followed up a fluky car accident with a fortunate foot sprain.

Yes, fortunate. Because I dare you to name the Cal Ripken of pitching. Because Zito wasn’t getting any better, and he’d never gone to the DL in his entire career. Because Zito’s never had a chance to take a deep breath and watch the game happen without him due to reasons beyond his control.

With Vogelsong pitching so well, there was no pressure on Zito to come back. Nobody who works for the Giants has pestered him, saying, “Hey Barry, you feeling better? Because we could use the help…”

Zito’s inability to dominate has been blamed on two things he’s always lacked as a Giant: velocity and command. Vogelsong’s career makeover is because he suddenly started throwing strikes, with a 2011 BB/9 (2.35) lower than any Giant not named Sergio. What happened there? Is Dave Righetti that good? Or is Vogelsong’s All-Star worthy first half simply a combination of talent and situation that illogically came together perfectly at age 33? Zito has more talent than Vogelsong (forget velocity, the guy didn’t win a Cy Young and have multiple contract offers over $60MM because he sucked), but each outing it seemed like he was battling his previous bad outing, and it was a cycle that never ended for four seasons in San Francisco.

Zito’s not guaranteed to achieve greatness ever again on the mound. He’s not even guaranteed a full-time spot in the rotation. But as hard as we’ve been on Zito — and I’ve made my fair share of snide comments — we could be looking at one of the best redemption stories in baseball.

Behind Vogelsong’s of course.

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