Thursday, April 23, 2009

Zito: Good So Far, Actually and Relatively

Wow, what about that start by Zito? Seven shutout innings, only 6 hits, no walks, plus 5 strikeouts. He is at his best when he is striking out guys and not walking that many. His K/BB ratio is now over 2.0, which is where good pitchers are, and his K/9 is much over the 6.0 rate that good pitchers need to strikeout in order to be effective in preventing runs.

High K/9 and Fastball Velocity (Relatively)

In fact, he's actually been pitching this well in his previous starts this year, as shown by his high K/9 in his prior starts. He's always been a bit wild, resulting in poor K/BB ratio overall, but the sign that he's doing OK with his pitching is when he's able to continue to strike out batters regularly and keep his K/9 high, relatively, which he was not able to do while a Giant until late last season. And he has been within 1-2 K of his IP each game this season, resulting in a fine overall 7.3 K/9 for him.

When he is most effective, at least prior in his career, he was able to keep his K/9 relatively high, which he has been able to do each game so far this season. He suffered from bad luck on hits his first game, poor command and bad luck (in terms of timing and relief allowing his runners to score) in his second game. Those are what you have to put up with to get games like his third game, at least from what I have observed from looking at all his individual games started.

Hopefully he can continue this and stay consistent over the full season. It's a good start for him overall, a 5 PQS start, as he's been a very slow starter for us in the past.

And that's a good sign as that is what he did for Oakland, get a 5 PQS start early. For us, he didn't get his first 5 PQS until July 5 last season (in that 10 strikeout game), until May 30 in 2007. In 2006, his last good season, he had it in his second start of the season, and in 2004 and 2005, his third start (like this season), fourth start in 2003, first start in 2002, and fourth start in 2001.

High (Enough) Velocity

And all the reports I've been seeing says that his velocity is in the high 80's, which is where he needs to be to be relatively effective with his curveball. When he is on, he is a bit like Big Daddy Reuschel, in that he relies a lot on his defense while piling up a good amount of strikeouts as well.

But when you operate like that, you will have games where the other team just dominates you. They keep pounding out the hits that the defense doesn't get, because they just fall in. That's where keeping his strikeout totals high helps, reducing the number of possible hits, plus that usually means fewer walks too, relatively. And he needs his fastball in the 88+ MPH range for his repertoire to be effective.

Skies Are Not All Clear, But Looking Good

Ideally, though, when he is really on, he strikes out more than his IP on a regular basis, and particularly over at least a three game stretch. By that observation, he's not quite there yet, but I'm OK with baby steps as long as they are positive steps, as we still have 5 more years of his contract, and all at the highest values now, so this is when we really need him to be at his most effective (not that we didn't before, but it's two years and counting now, so we cannot wait much longer).

The good news is that he has been pitching in a way that is effective for him since mid last season, punctuated by his 10 strikeout game that showed he's back, but really started two starts before that. It just came all together in that game. And he has continued that during the rest of the 2008 season and now into the beginning of the 2009 season.

Pitching Rotation Strategy

That is the only way to show the efficacy of the strategy that the Giants is employing, and which I've been touting as a good way to build a team, which is having a full staff of starters who are capable of throwing a good start every game. For most teams, the hitters know who the two pitchers of any team's staff they would like to avoid, perhaps three pitchers for better rotations, knowing that they get a "rest" facing 1-2 of the other team's poorest starters during any series.

But with a rotation like ours, there is no rest anywhere when everyone is on. Zito, as we all know, is one of the weak links, a reputation he has rightly earned with two seasons like the ones he delivered to us so far. Sanchez is also a weak link in that he has not proven to be durable enough to last a full season as a starter at the MLB level. He pooped out mid-season in 2008, but was very dominant for that first half of 2008. But with both looking like they are in a good spot right now, plus Johnson and Lincecum showing that they refound what was lost for a couple of games, and Cain being his steady best, the other team has no easy game.
  1. Lincecum: his funky delivery, high 90's fastball
  2. Johnson: 6' 10", lefty, and pitching effectively and efficiently
  3. Cain: righty professional killer
  4. Zito: lefty with the drop-dead gorgeous curveball that is greatly enhanced by high 80's FB
  5. Sanchez: lefty with a great fastball (for lefty), mid-90's, with life and sink
When you have a whole staff of pitchers capable of dealing a DOM (PQS of 4 or 5) start a larger percentage of the time, the other team will struggle to consistently beat you, as each game will be close and tough. As I've noted in my PQS reporting, a pitcher with DOM% of 40-49% is a good pitcher (means 40-49% of his starts are DOM starts), above 50% is great, above 70% is
elite. Here is our pitcher's PQS, either seasonally or indication of potential:
  1. Lincecum: 67% in 2007, 79% in 2008; he has been 74%+ since second half of 2007
  2. Johnson: 58% in 2006, 60% in 2007, 53% in 2008; been 57%+ in 4 of 5 half seasons, last three seasons (injured second half of 2007)
  3. Cain: 52% in 2006, 56% in 2007 and 2008; been 50%+ since second half of 2006, reaching 60%+ in 3 of those 5 half-seasons
  4. Zito: he has been under 40% for the most part since second half of 2006, except for 60% for us second half 2007. But he had 40% in 2003, 47% in 2004, 66% in 2005, and 41% in 2006, showing that when he is effective and on his game, he can be a very good pitcher for us, which would be particularly deadly for us in the back of the rotation
  5. Sanchez: 45% overall in 2008, but 53% in first half of 2008
As anyone can see, whereas most teams have maybe 1-2 great starters on their rotation, we have 3 great starters with Lincecum, Johnson, and Cain, with Lincecum and Johnson being particularly dominating a large percentage of the time. Zito, when he is on, could be a team's #2 starter with his low 4's, high 3's ERA when he is going good. That is great when he's your #4 starter. To top it off, Sanchez has shown that he's capable of being a great starter, based on his first half of 2008, and it appears that only stamina is holding him back from joining Lincecum and Cain as a great starter, and he's our #5 starter. How good is that when our #5 starter is capable of, for extended stretches, pitching as well as any other team's #1 and #2 starters?

This is why I'm not as worried about the lack of offense as others. If the team can just score 4 runs regularly, we can rack up a lot of wins and be competitive in this division. It won't take much on the offensive side to boost our winning percentage when the pitching staff is this dominant up and down the rotation.

And as far as I'm concerned, this year is all about learning about our young hitters and giving our young pitchers more experience. I want to see at least .500 because I think they are capable of that, but the main thing for me this season is learning who can be complementary players going forward and who we need to replace, either with prospects or free agents.

I also want to see how it works having a rotation so dominant up and down. If we are to drink the kool-aid and follow Baseball Prospectus's advice, you want a high K/9 pitching staff. If we have a dominating staff up and down, that will contribute greatly to that metric. And, while they are on opposite sides of their careers, I view how Randy Johnson does in our rotation, assuming he's still good, as an audition for how our rotation will look once we let him go and add Madison Bumgarner to the rotation.

As noted, with such a strong rotation, there is no rest for the other team, they will struggle every other game with one of our starters. That probably won't matter as much in the regular season where teams face you for 3-4 games, but in the playoffs, they can face you 5-7 straight times, and if our guys shut them down, they will struggle with their confidence, they will start to press. Still, I think teams see what the Giants did to the last team, so there should be some carry forward, and this weekend against the D-backs should be a good test, both because of how well we've been pitching, but also because they were a team we beat upon the weekend before.

I think we have a great chance to win the series. Of course, any series with Lincecum in it will be one where we have a good chance to win the series, particularly since he is not facing either Webb or Haren, but their middle rotation guy, Doug Davis. Then Johnson faces Scherzer, as age faces youth, and Cain faces Garland, which should be the toughest matchup. I doubt we sweep, though that's a possibility given the streak the pitchers are on (confidence and pride - in not being the one to screw things up - and talent will keep it going for a while I think), but we should win two of three, I think, and crawl within 1 game of .500, particularly with some of our coldest hitters warming up plus going to a hitter's park like Arizona.


  1. Lincecum was dealing. It's great that he is back on his game. With his weird delivery it's up to him to figure out any kinks in his mechanics himself and it's a great sign that he was able to right himself so quickly.

  2. Man, I agree 1,000%! He's not just back on his game, though, but raised things a level, I mean, double digit strikeouts and I think he only gave up one walk the two games, that is dealing!

    Yes, it is great that he righted himself so quickly this time, it took him about a month the only other time he has struggled.

    Though I suppose Daddio probably was viewing his video for clues as well.

    And, really, how unusual is that to be able to say, in basically his third season that there's only really been two times in his career that he has struggled?

  3. Re_Zito:

    Teddy Mitrosilis just wrote an article on this on MVN, saying that Zito could still be a capable number 4/5. While he will never live up to that contract, he might be a nice boost, overpaid or not.

    Bumgarner=dirty, by the way. The Giants really do have the making of an excellent pitching staff.

  4. Finally, people are listening! (Thanks for the link, BTW!) I have been writing since Zito was signed that he does not have to be the top pitcher in the rotation in order for his contract to be good.

    First, I have some problems with some things said in the article.

    Really, "Zito only cracked 15 wins once"? I thought we bloggers have advanced enough that we don't go to that old-fashioned "Wins is good" mantra.

    And "four seasons of mediocrity"? Those four seasons were ERA's of 3.30, 4.48, 3.86, and 3.83, or ERA+ of 134, 101, 113, 116, which are very good ERA+, not mediocre.

    In 2003, he was 7th out of 41 qualifiers among 14 teams. That roughly made him a #1 starter in AL that season.

    In 2004, he was 20th out of 44 qualifiers among 14 teams. That roughly made him a #2 starter in AL that season.

    In 2005, he was 20th out of 45 qualifiers among 14 teams. That roughly made him a #2 starter in AL that season.

    In 2006, he was 10th among 40 qualifiers among 14 teams. That roughly made him a #1 starter in the AL that season.

    That is hardly mediocre.

    In addition, he is not governed by DIPS. A study by Tom Tippett showed that there are many classes of pitchers who outdo what DIPS says most pitchers cannot do, and Zito is clearly part of the "crafty lefty" category who are able to keep their BABIP low, which offsets both their high walks and low strikeouts, relatively.

    The problem for Zito is that instead of using his talents the way he knew how to, he was mentally thinking through everything (yes, he is not as zen as he seems), and he basically regressed to being in Little League, when you seize up and do poorly because you are thinking through everything instead of letting your muscle memory take over and do what you know you can do.

    As I noted in my analysis long ago, based on salary trends, Barry will only be paid like an ace this season, and more like a middle rotation guy for all the other seasons (though given the slowing economy, the growth rates probably don't hold and he'll be ace-paid for the next couple of seasons, at least).

    Still, given that low bar, he has still not performed up to par. He was a middle rotation in 2007, back-end in 2008, but we still have five more seasons and he has a nice start this season, particularly since he's normally a slow starter.

    As I noted starting last season, when he is throwing strikes and getting strikeouts, he's a good pitcher. He can throw strikes more readily when his velocity is in the high 80's. I was just hoping for 87 MPH, but he's been regularly in the 87-89 MPH range, so he's actually been better than I hoped.

    His BABIP has been .286, which would seem regularly or even low to some strict DIP's followers, but his career BABIP is .268, so he's actually suffering from some bad luck (Tom Tango's study showed that it takes about 7 seasons worth of data to be able to say that a pitcher's BABIP is statistically significantly below the .300 mark that most pitchers bounce around. He's a crafty lefty, only he hasn't been so crafty the past couple of years with us, until the end of the 2008 season.

    Hopefully he can continue to do this well, it would be great if he can achieve a mid-3 ERA (ERA's in AL is inflated by DH, so his actually should have gone down in the NL) but even if it was around 4, that would be great to have in the back of any rotation, let alone up top.

  5. I should have wrote "... that would be great to have up top of any rotation, let alone in the back of the rotation."



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