Barry Zito has walked 80 batters in every season except for two: his first, when he walked 45 batters in 92 2/3 innings (4.37 BB/9, second highest in a season of his career behind 2008, his worst year as a Giant), and two years later, when he walked 78 in 229 1/3 in the year he finished 23-5 and won the Cy Young. Every other year, 80+ walks. And every year he’s been a Giant, his FIP (Fielder Independent Pitching based on an ERA scale) has been less than the 4.89 it was in his last year in Oakland. We all know what the biggest sports cliche of the last decade is, and it suits Zito’s run with the Giants almost too perfectly.
Barry Zito walked a bunch of guys in the last series of the regular season, and then walked a bunch of guys in his first Spring Training game, so now the Giants are supposedly ready to buy him out. The following is from Bruce Jenkins’ story, if you haven’t already read his carefully orchestrated needle-mover:
A source close to the team indicated Tuesday that there is “exasperation” with Zito, that his status as the No. 5 starter is “definitely not safe,” and that the team would even consider buying out his expensive contract before Opening Day if that’s what it takes to say farewell.
Zito has the rest of spring to either resurrect his worth to the Giants or show an opposing team that he’d be valuable in a trade, according to others familiar with the situation. Meanwhile, the Giants will take a close look at 16-year veteran Jeff Suppan (three shutout innings against Milwaukee on Monday), Class AA left-hander Clayton Tanner and other options for the No. 5 slot.
Sure, and beer will be 50% off on Opening Day.
This is hard for me, criticizing the great Bruce Jenkins, the guy who’s successfully utilized and preserved a very effective column-writing style for decades. For the younger bloggers out there, the ones who can’t remember a life without the internet (or even the days of dial-up connections), disagreeing wholeheartedly with the newspaper establishment is easy. They’re behind the times, getting their information from old cigar-chomping scouts without even checking Fangraphs or Baseball Prospectus. The new writers grew up in a world where a pitcher’s win/loss record was seen for the misleading mirage it is. To them, the idea that the RBI is an antiquated stat is as easy to comprehend as a stop sign.
Still, as an impressionable lad, Jenkins was one of the guys I read regularly as a kid at my breakfast table while eating Cocoa Pebbles, the newspaper spread out across the entire table while SportsCenter (which used to be good, trust me) aired in the background. If there was a better way to prepare one’s self for school in the morning, I never tried it. And on the weekends, his “Three Dot Lounge” column was required reading. In between waiting for Sports Illustrated, The Sporting News or even Sport Magazine to arrive in the mailbox, reading the sports section every morning was the only way a kid in Eureka could find out what was happening across the nation, and it was the only way to follow Bay Area sports other than watching the relatively few games available on TV.
That’s why it hurts me as an adult to realize that last night, my childhood hero (before newspapers exploded my dream was to have my own column in the Sporting Green, just like Jenks) entered the batters box and dug in with his theme for the season: get rid of Barry Zito. Just like a few years ago, when Jenkins would recite the same old meme about the Giants holding onto Barry Bonds for too long and for all the wrong reasons, and how it was time to get rid of him. Now, with the Giants garnering more interest from locals than ever before, but with no controversial stories to tell (even Mark DeRosa’s wrist and Pablo Sandoval’s belly have been rendered irrelevant, at least for a while), this Zito thing is the angle du jour.
Still, as a 33-year-old who still hasn’t been kicked out of his mom’s basement (in a writing sense, anyway), I’m in between. On one side, there’s the rational, numbers-based crowd who rightly tells us Zito has been the exact same pitcher his entire time with the Giants.*
(*Except for 2008, which was pretty bad … and after that season he made a renewed commitment to fitness. Or have you already forgotten the multitude of stories about Zito playing long toss across some canyon with Brian Wilson, after which they’d skip arm in arm to Charlie Sheen’s house and brainstorm plot points for “Two and a Half Men.” WINNING.)
The other side, a side that includes Jenkins and perhaps a few Giants employees, says Zito is frustrating to watch (true), he often lets innings get away from him (also true), and that his reputation as a big game pitcher for Oakland hasn’t led to similar results in San Francisco (true if ONE GAME AGAINST THE PADRES is a large enough sample size for you).
The problem with Zito isn’t that he can’t get hitters out, but that he walks too many people. That was the crux of Jenkins’ column, this idea that walking Prince Fielder twice (among others) the other day shows Zito hasn’t gotten the so-called wake up call getting left off the postseason roster was supposed to produce. But the crazy thing is he’s the same strike-averse pitcher he always was (Zito would probably rather be described as “strike-averse” than “ball-friendly”), and as mentioned earlier, he’s pitched just as well in every year with the Giants as he did in 2006 with the A’s (when he finished 16-10).
Even though the Giants shouldn’t have expected much more than they’ve received, here’s the five ways Zito failed in their eyes since joining the team.
1. Money: third-largest contract for a pitcher, ever. (Yeah, I know … “Thanks, Capt. Obvious.”)
2. Run support: Barry Zito’s run support per 9 innings since 2007 (3.88) is lower than any pitcher in baseball except Matt Cain (3.72).
3. Popularity: the Giants overestimated how much love a league average pitcher would receive due to off-field factors such as charity work, looks, local fame and the ability to play John Mayer songs on his guitar.
4. Traditional numbers: after finishing at or above .500 and pitching at least 213 innings in each of his full seasons as an Athletic, he hasn’t reached .500 or pitched 200 innings in any of his years as a Giant.
5. Body language: it’s been terrible at times, leading Bruce Bochy to treat him like boyfriend would treat his girlfriend’s chihuahua, if the dog was in his girlfriend’s life first, wore rhinestone-adorned outfits, and bit him all the time. Zito’s whole act, where he looks pissed when Bochy comes out to get the ball, quickly hands the ball to Bochy without looking at him, and then curses into his glove while heading back to the dugout, is pretty tired and seemed to be getting worse as 2010 wore on (as anyone remembers the Krukow “clown” incident could tell you).
Okay, we all know signing Zito was a regrettable decision, but is Jenkins reporting what the Giants want him to, or is this about grabbing some headlines in a changing Bay Area media landscape that hasn’t exactly led to an increased profile for Jenkins? In fact, with so many MSM reporters/columnists, websites, bloggers and radio/TV yakkers fighting for a piece of the attention pie (and yes, I’m hungry too), not to mention the white noise created by millions of voices on social networking sites, Jenkins is far less prominent than he was even 10 years ago.
20 years ago, his was THE voice around here. Scott Ostler was the funny guy who won awards, Ray Ratto was the grumpy guy who turned phrases, Lowell Cohn was pissing people off, Joan Ryan was telling human interest stories, Glenn Dickey was beating us over the head with obviousness, and, right or wrong, Jenkins was the guy who crafted the local narrative most people agreed on.
Beating up on Zito is nothing new; neither is the Giants’ desire to motivate him to perform better, or that the Giants would be open to trading him to a team willing to pick up at least a little salary and maybe throw in a middling prospect or two. However, the idea that they would buy him out is preposterous, unless Zito was a bad teammate (and nobody’s claiming that), and the Giants surely don’t want “possible buyout” as the week’s talking point since it lowers Zito’s already minuscule trade value.
If the Giants are going to pay Zito $64.5M over the next few years, it’s not a stretch to assume they’d rather spend the money on as many mediocre innings they can squeeze out of him than pay to watch him pitch with renewed vigor for the Padres on a veteran’s minimum salary.
This was a powerful, agenda-based column written by a man who knows how to write powerful, agenda-based columns. Will Zito possibly lose his job to a guy like Suppan in April if Suppan is clearly out-performing Zito? Sure. But the idea that they’re going to buy him out if he walks 5 more guys in his next Spring Training outing, while he’s still getting a feel for his pitches against live hitters and his dad’s heart condition weighs on his mind, has about as much of a chance of happening as the Giants releasing Barry Bonds before he was set to pass Henry Aaron.