Is Barry Zito in line for the NL Comeback Player of the Year award?

Alright folks, show of hands — how many of you predicted Zito would drive in more runs than he allowed against the Braves yesterday?

That’s what I thought.

Zito’s 7-inning shutout gem against the hottest team in baseball right now is another in a growing list of eyebrow-raising starts. He hasn’t quite pitched well enough to move out of the fifth starter spot yet, and at times, he’s even reverted back to his 2011 form. But this latest win has brought him to an 8-6 record and a 3.76 ERA, in the process bringing me to ponder the question:

Should Barry Zito be considered for Comeback Player of the Year?

I know, I’m starting to sound less like Ruthless Sports Guy and more like Zito Sports Guy with all these pro-Barry posts, but I believe it’s worth discussing now.

Let’s imagine that Zito pitches out the second half of season basically the same way he pitched the first half. Say he pitches a couple more gems as well as a couple more forgettables. He would end the season with a record of 16-12 and an ERA somewhere between 3.75 and 4.00. Will that be enough to earn him the award?

Why he probably won’t win it

I was a big advocate for Ryan Vogelsong winning the NL CPOY in 2011, an award that went to the Cardinals’ Lance Berkman. It was widely speculated that Berkman got the nod over Vogelsong because he returned from an injury to have a spectacular season; one that landed him a World Series ring.

This is a trend. 10 of the 14 CPOY winners since 2005 (both AL and NL) returned from some sort of injury to win the award. Zito has, of course, remained physically healthy for the vast majority of his Giants career, so if there’s a player in the NL who is returning to prominence after a 2011 injury, they may get the nod here.

Zito’s numbers are not eye popping, and that is certainly working against him. A 3.75 ERA is pretty good for a fifth starter, but there’s still a lot of baseball left to be played. Should that number end up anywhere over 4, it will be a major strike on his chances.

Zito also faces some more notable competition in his quest for NL Comeback Player of the Year. Should RA Dickey, the Mets’ knuckleballer that went toe-to-toe with Matt Cain for the starting spot in the All Star Game, continue his fantastic season, Zito can probably forget the award altogether.  Going from 8-13 with a 3.28 ERA to 12-1 with a 2.66 ERA in a half season’s time is hard to argue with. Dickey has been THE story in the National League this year, so Zito will need a little help from Dickey if he wants to gain ground.

Why he might win it

Zito has been terrible for the entirety of his career with the San Francisco Giants (but tell me something I don’t already know, am I right?). Since 2008, he has never pitched to a winning record or posted an ERA under 4. His best season prior to 2012 was 2009 (10-13, 4.03 ERA).

*note: I hate win-loss record as much as the next BASG commenter, but these are the stats that are widely considered when evaluating candidates for this award, so they are worth mentioning.

That being said, let’s look at some of his statistics, all of which point to a notable improvement. His ERA+ is 93 (up 34 points from ’11), his WHIP is 1.372 (down .026 from ’11) and his rWAR is 0.4 (up from -0.6 in ’11).

What can’t be quantified by any stat is how he has contributed to the Giants in the midst of Tim Lincecum’s struggles. The Giants have taken the lead in the NL West in large part due to some quality outings from 4 of their 5 pitchers. This has been the case in years past, except the one starter who wasn’t performing then was always Barry Zito. When the pitching staff couldn’t find a way to solve the Arizona Diamondbacks to open the season, it was Zito who got them rolling with his complete game shutout in Colorado. He took part in one of the three home shutouts that the team pitched against the Dodgers. Had he been up to his usual antics in the first half of the season, San Francisco would still be looking up at Los Angeles in the standings.  Simple put, the team needed Barry Zito to stand and deliver in Lincecum’s absence. So far he has.

Call this some midseason fodder for the discussion boards. At this point, no one knows how the second half will play out. I’m far from uttering the words “Happy Zito Day” every fifth game, but for now, I’ve been satisfied with his season.

Of course it’s secondary to the primary goal – helping lead the San Francisco Giants to a postseason berth – but Zito should put Comeback Player of the Year in his sights, and continue to pitch like he wants it.

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