First off, I just want to note that this was just Zito's first spring outing. Yeah, it was horrible, but it was not surprising because in recent interviews he talked about wanting to compete and prove himself as a starting pitcher. And we all saw what happens when Zito feels pressured to perform well: 2007 and 2008. Plus spring training is time to try out new things and get the cobwebs out. If he is pitching like this on the last day of spring, then I can understand the consternation.
I also see people like Jenkins talking about how he hasn't had a winning record yet with the Giants - really, are we still discussing that? - and those people miss that he's been pitching out of position with the Giants over the years, he's been mostly slotted as the #2 starter of the team, facing other team's #2 and he's has not been a #2 starter, performance-wise generally, for the Giants, he's more a #3 now, and was #4/5 in his first two seasons. He was facing guys better than he was, generally.
Of course, obviously, on the Giants, with the rotation we have, he's clearly #5 and the only reason he's slotted #4 is that Madison Bumgarner is still young and they might need to skip his spot during the season to ease the pressure of too many innings on his body, if necessary (I think he'll be fine, baseball guys that work on farms tend to be very strong and healthy). That would put him up against guys at his talent level regularly and he should have a much better record in 2011 pitching there than any previous year as a Giant. By 2012, he should be the #5 starter and kick butt there. As a #2, he was like a high school student facing college students, but as a #4/5, he'll be the high school student facing middle school students, he'll be that much better, from a wins perspective.
Ignore the Contract
People tend to fixate on that contract. I understand that. But that is water under the bridge, spilt milk, or whatever cliche you want to use to convey that it is gone forever. Some people think the Giants can buy him out, but in baseball, there are no buyouts, you owe the ballplayer every cent in the contract and the union will fight to the death to make sure that happens, they will not save money with a buyout, it is not coming back.
That is, it is not coming back, unless we give him a chance to shine. People forget how dominating he can be when he is on. How soon people forget that without him red-hot in early 2010, the Giants would have been a dreary experience. He was 6-2 in his first 8 starts, 2.15 ERA, and without him the Giants were 15-13.
People also forget that he only got three years left on his contract, meaning that he could be dealt by mid-2012, at which point, there would only be 1.5 seasons left and roughly a little more than $35M remaining. At that point, a team desperate for a healthy, functioning starter should be willing to split halvesies (or close to that) with us on his contract in order to continue contending. There are always teams like that, who lose a key starter or just want to shore up their rotation, as that would work out to roughly $10-12M per season for that team to pay Zito,
But that won't happen unless the Giants continue to use him and give him the opportunity to show what he got. And put him in position to do well. And what he got ain't half bad, it is actually good.
Focus on the Performance
The thing is that most people is blinded by the contract, which I admit is pretty shiny, but people need to look at the numbers and see that Zito is not that bad. The focus should be on whether he would be good in our rotation or not.
Sure, his first two years were bad, but with ERAs of 4.03 and 4.15, those are not bad at all. It was right around average in 2010, above average in 2009, where he was 26th among qualifying starting pitchers in the NL. That is a pretty good pitcher, which the contract - and the other Giants starters - makes people forget. Average is actually pretty good in the majors, that is one of the tenets of sabermetrics, why we set the replacement player level so low, to show that average players add a lot of value too in the MLB.
|LgAvg per 180 IP||4.22|
|LgAvg per 180 IP||4.03|
A pitcher like that is that much more valuable on the Giants because he should be, and now is, in the back of the rotation. There, he will be facing pitchers who are not as good as he is and he should start winning a lot more games than he had in the past with the Giants, which should quiet those luddites still worried about a pitcher's W/L record. The improved offense will help out there as well (which I'll cover in a post soon as new updated projections are released), as the Giants offense is much improved over the models of past seasons, particularly if Pandoval is back to 2009's standards and especially if Belt is as advertised.
If Zito can continue pitching as well as he has over the past two seasons, his poor first two seasons of his would be forgotten by MLB teams' management, the GM would focus on 3.5 seasons of sturdy, average to above-average performance, during mid-2012 season. With the Giants chipping in around half, particularly if the other team don't have to give up a good prospect, or even give us a bad contract in return, Zito would definitely be tradeable at that point.
But to just dump him and go with someone else is the height of irrational behavior, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. With Zito actually pitching well, it would be fiscally and operationally irresponsible for the Giants to just release Zito. Why paid for Zito anyway and still have to go out and get a functional #4 starter? Unless, that is, he is becoming a poisonous cancer in the clubhouse, which I would find hard to believe, but it is not like he's a personal friend, he just does not project that persona publicly.
That Bruce Jenkins is writing that it is a Giants insider is one who is espousing such a stance is scary. If the insider is high enough, then my opinion of Giants management would fall down a notch or two.
Personally, if I were the Giants managing owner, I would seek out this leak and either fire or demote the person. The Giants are finally getting to the point where, with some patience and hand-holding, we can actually trade the contract (and I realize Zito has a no-trade contract, but he's got to be ready to move on by then if he's skipped over again in the playoffs in 2011). Zito obviously needs hand holding, he is not as Zen as he appears in interviews, but a leak like this could hurt Zito's mental state when we need him to be as loosey goosey as he can be and pitch like he is capable of, which is still pretty good.
This only drops a large stone into the gentle pond that is his mind and start a tsunami going. Why take the risk and make Zito useless, like he was in 2007-2008? Then he would really be a #5 starter or worse. A guy with a 4 ERA pitching 4th or 5th in the rotation is golden. Someone with a 5-6 ERA is like the other teams.
Most Teams #4/5 Starters Not As Good as Zito
I went through each 2010 NL team using Baseball-Reference.com and compiled who their 4th and 5th starter was, by ERA. For example, the Phillies 4th and 5th starters were Kyle Kendricks with 4.73 ERA and Joe Blanton with 4.82 ERA. They were forced to use Blanton in the playoffs while the Giants felt safe leaving a much better pitcher in Zito off their playoff roster. Think the Phillies wouldn't have minded having Zito instead? How about the Braves, Jair Jurrjens with 4.64 ERA and Kenshin Kawakami with 5.15 ERA? Could have used a Zito too.
Reds had Mike Leake with 4.23 ERA, close, but after a very hot start he was so bad at the end they sent him down to the minors, otherwise his ERA would have been much worse, so really it was Homer Bailey with 4.46 ERA and Aaron Harang with 5.32 ERA. The Cards picked up Westbrook and Suppan, both who did well, but prior to that they had Blake Hawksworth with 4.98 ERA and Kyle Lohse with 6.55 ERA as their #4 and #5.
Overall, the #4 starter had an average 4.70 ERA (just average of ERA, not combined IP and ER) and the #5 starter had over 5 ERA, as only 4 had ERAs under 5 and 2 had ERAs over 6. There was only one #4 or #5 starter in the NL in 2010 with a lower ERA than Zito's 4.15 ERA (Vicente Padilla with the D-gers). Zito would have been the second best among those pitchers.
Why? Why? WHY?
So how exactly is Zito having a 4.03 and 4.15 ERA the past two seasons hurting us? Sure, his contract is IMMENSE, I get that, but as a part of a major league baseball team, Zito is an asset, above average, really, over the past two seasons. Why would or should the Giants just release Zito? There is no good reason for this to come up and yet somebody did, stirring the pot, for no good or legitimate reason other than to get something off their chest.
Why take the chance to cripple the pitcher from the get-go? We already know from 2007-2008 that Zito does not pitch well when he feels pressed to do well. He is his at his talent level when he's comfortable and loose, not when he is tense and pressured to do well, at least with the Giants he has been like that (some note how tough he was in playoffs with the A's; that was then, this is now).
If the person were legitimately worried about winning this season, then cracking Zito in the head with a 5-iron isn't the way to do it. Having a happy, healthy, functioning Zito is.
Myth: Giants Just Squeaked In
This Giants insider reportedly brought up the point that the Giants just squeaked into the playoffs in 2010 and thus cannot risk any games with Zito starting. This is just hogwash, though understandable. The Giants were not lucky to get in, the Padres were lucky just to be in that position. People just don't understand how unlucky the Giants were to get put into that position.
First, if the umpire didn't call Ishikawa out because the catcher made a good effort, the Giants win that game and would have won the division before the ending Padres series. There would have been no torture in that series, no failing (Zito) or hero making (Sanchez).
Second, the Giants RS and RA was good enough that their Pythagorean calculated to 94 wins, or two more wins than they actually had and they would have been 4 games ahead at the end and again would have won the division before that ending series.
Third, in fact, probably the reason they were negative was that while SF and SD were about even in record, the Padres won the series 12-6. If the series had ended 9-9 instead, the Giants would have won running away, ahead by 8 games. If the Giants had just won one of those Padres win, and we are talking one of the 6 wins above .500, the Giants would have again won the division before that season ending series.
Lastly, the Giants were not lucky that the Padres lost 10 games in a row at the end of the season, the Padres were lucky that their pitchers pitched way above their talent level in the first half of the season before regression to the mean took them back to us in the second half of the season. Both Wade LeBlanc and Clayton Richard pitched way above their talent level in the first half - 3.30 and 3.33 ERA respectively - before falling back in the second half - 5.91 and 4.30 ERA respectively. They are good pitchers, just not as good as they were in the first half.
In addition, they benefitted (i.e. was lucky) from Jon Garland being better than he normally is for the 2010 season. Career 4.42 ERA previous to joining the Padres, his career best as a full-time starter was 3.50 ERA in 2005 but his next best was his 4.01 ERA in 2009 and 4.23 ERA in 2007. He had a 3.47 ERA in 2010. Part of that was his new home, 3.00 ERA there, but he still pitched well on the road, 4.01 ERA.
Giants Looking Good, Not Lucky, But Not With Bad Barry
So it was not the Giants being lucky where they ended up, they were basically exactly where they should have been, it was the Padres who were lucky they were where they were at the end, not the other way around. With an improved offense (soon to come) and our normally great pitching (past two seasons), the Giants should win the NL West running away if everyone performs as expected or near so. It would require a number of players under-performing for them to not make the playoffs in 2011 - isn't that so much better than in the past when it would require a number of players over-performing to make the playoffs? It should be an even better season than 2010.
But not if Zito is pitching like the Bad Barry that he was in 2007-2008. Then we would be lucky to make the playoffs. This Giants insider just chopped our team's chances to repeat in the knee and brought us to the ground. I hope it was worth it to that person. Hope the Giants can pick themselves up and play as they can and should. I think they can but you never know. Putting a stick into the hornet's nest is never a good thing.