Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Giants Fans' Zito Misconceptions

I've been seeing a lot of fan comment about getting rid of Barry Zito and some saying that Jeff Suppan, anybody, would be better. No, they would not. Zito is actually good - with or without our rotation.  Bruce Jenkin's recent column just takes the cake, with a Giants insider reportedly one of those who are tired of Zito and want to just dump him.

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.

Rk Tm ERA ▴
1 Chris Carpenter STL 2.24
2 Tim Lincecum SFG 2.48
3 Jair Jurrjens ATL 2.60
4 Adam Wainwright STL 2.63
5 Clayton Kershaw* LAD 2.79
6 Javier Vazquez ATL 2.87
7 Matt Cain SFG 2.89
8 J.A. Happ* PHI 2.93
9 Wandy Rodriguez* HOU 3.02
10 Randy Wells CHC 3.05
11 Ted Lilly* CHC 3.10
12 Johan Santana* NYM 3.13
13 Dan Haren ARI 3.14
14 Randy Wolf* LAD 3.23
15 Josh Johnson FLA 3.23
16 Ubaldo Jimenez COL 3.47
17 Joel Pineiro STL 3.49
18 Ryan Dempster CHC 3.65
19 Yovani Gallardo MIL 3.73
20 Carlos Zambrano CHC 3.77
21 Bronson Arroyo CIN 3.84
22 John Lannan* WSN 3.88
23 Kevin Correia SDP 3.91
24 Ross Ohlendorf PIT 3.92
25 Jon Garland TOT 4.01
26 Barry Zito* SFG 4.03
27 Chad Billingsley LAD 4.03
28 Jason Marquis COL 4.04
29 Joe Blanton PHI 4.05
30 Zach Duke* PIT 4.06
31 Max Scherzer ARI 4.12
32 Roy Oswalt HOU 4.12
33 Doug Davis* ARI 4.12
34 Aaron Harang CIN 4.21
LgAvg per 180 IP 4.22
35 Jonathan Sanchez* SFG 4.24
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2011.

Rk Tm ERA ▴
1 Josh Johnson FLA 2.30
2 Adam Wainwright STL 2.42
3 Roy Halladay PHI 2.44
4 Jaime Garcia* STL 2.70
5 Roy Oswalt TOT 2.76
6 Tim Hudson ATL 2.83
7 R.A. Dickey NYM 2.84
8 Ubaldo Jimenez COL 2.88
9 Clayton Kershaw* LAD 2.91
10 Mat Latos SDP 2.92
11 Johan Santana* NYM 2.98
12 Cole Hamels* PHI 3.06
13 Jonathan Sanchez* SFG 3.07
14 Brett Myers HOU 3.14
15 Matt Cain SFG 3.14
16 Chris Carpenter STL 3.22
17 Tommy Hanson ATL 3.33
18 Hiroki Kuroda LAD 3.39
19 Tim Lincecum SFG 3.43
20 Jon Garland SDP 3.47
21 Anibal Sanchez FLA 3.55
22 Chad Billingsley LAD 3.57
23 Wandy Rodriguez* HOU 3.60
24 Ted Lilly* TOT 3.62
25 Johnny Cueto CIN 3.64
26 Mike Pelfrey NYM 3.66
27 Livan Hernandez WSN 3.66
28 Clayton Richard* SDP 3.75
29 Ian Kennedy ARI 3.80
30 Yovani Gallardo MIL 3.84
31 Ryan Dempster CHC 3.85
32 Bronson Arroyo CIN 3.88
33 Derek Lowe ATL 4.00
LgAvg per 180 IP 4.03
34 Barry Zito* SFG 4.15
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/2/2011.

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.

Foolish Thinking
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.

12 comments:

  1. Zito as a 5th starter is an asset to the team. His contract cost outweighs that value, but, as you point out, that's a sunk cost. People need to get over it.

    Where we differ - I have little doubt that Giants' management was aware and authorized the comments. And that they came from the guy who has the best relationship with the Bay Area media. (Search the last year or so of on-the-record comments from someone in baseball operations, you'll come up with one and only one logical suspect).

    So, nobody's going to get fired over this. I think it's just going to blow over.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I see your point about Giants management, and thus I'm afraid then as this is a stupid move on the part of management.

    The person who has the best relationship with Bay Area media who is from baseball operations would appear to be Evans (Sabean detests the media, particularly Barbieri; Bochy tolerates the media but I would not say he has a great relationship with the media; Tidrow and Barr hardly talks to the media; whereas Evans had his own show on Urban's show on the weekend, which, sniff, is no longer, bad move KNBR or whoever made that decision, as much as I love Marty Lurie, Urban was also that good too).

    It will blow over if Zito pitches well. If Zito stinks, I will blame this stupid public relations nuclear bomb of an idea for motivation. You don't motivate people, particularly athletes, by sniping to the media anonymously.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Answering jcsnotes made me remember something else about Zito's struggles. I've learned from my life experiences that there are good and bad aspects of any event, no matter how sad or hurtful it may be.

    As much as I would have wanted Zito to pitch as well as his contract money demanded, the flip side is that because he did struggle, the Giants got into good draft position and were able to select Buster Posey and Zach Wheeler. One more win in 2007 and the Marlins and perhaps the Reds would have had first dibs on Posey and we would have ended up with someone else. I cannot imagine winning without Posey if we had selected any of the following draft picks that other teams selected.

    Life always hands you different domino runs, depending on which domino you knocked down. Maybe if we don't sign Zito, we sign someone else to a smaller contract or maybe Correia would have gotten his chance sooner, but he does better than Zito and we end up with Smoak instead, as many misguided Giants fans wanted. We certainly don't win if that had happened, heck, maybe Huff doesn't sign, knowing he might get pushed out once Smoak comes up, that would have been a double-blow to our 2010 championship reality.

    You can rail if you want about Zito's big contract, but as much as it hurts to hold onto that contract, it feels much better to be able to take a picture next to the 2010 World Series Championship trophy. That most probably does not happen if the Giants did not end up with Posey, I don't see us winning with Molina as our playoff cleanup hitter and catcher.

    Many fans forget that there is a chain of events that occur, you take the good with the bad, and hope you end up ahead in the end. I think we did, as Giants fans, end up ahead with signing Zito.

    Obviously, it does not come from Zito doing something good for us, it came from him being bad, but life is funny sometimes.

    ReplyDelete
  4. OGC: In general I enjoy your blog, but you are making an false assumption here that I see promulgated all over the blogosphere:

    A pitcher's "slot" (e.g. #1, #4, etc.) determines the slot of his opposing number on game day. It just doesn't. After the first two weeks of the season, #4s are routinely facing #1s and #5s are going against #2s.

    Slots matter in the playoffs, but not in the regular season b/c teams play different schedules, teams shift their rotations, and SPs get hurt.

    Thus, claiming that Barry was "facing the other teams #2 starter most of the time" is just false. I don't disagree with you that he's a league average pitcher (about 2.0 WAR) and that Jenkin's article was ridiculous...but please help us all by not repeating the slotting myth.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Oh, and another thing: ERA is a useful metric and you did a good job in your analysis with it, but a much better stat is ERA+, which is adjusted for ballpark. Barry's ERA+ for the last four years;
    2007 99
    2008 86
    2009 106
    2010 98

    Where 100 is league average.

    He's a league average pitcher, or a #3 on a league average team. He will, on average, be facing clearly superior pitchers 20% of the time, somewhat better pitchers 20% of the time, somewhat worse pitchers 20% of the time, and dreadful guys who should be in AAA 20% of the time. The other 20% of the time, he'll be facing the other Barry Zito's of the NL.

    He's an average pitcher and he'll face, on average, get this --- AVERAGE pitching. There is no "slot" dis/advantage. He'll toss 200 innings and give us a low 4's ERA or an ERA+ of about 100. That's worth about $10MM a year.

    The Giants will have to "eat" the other $8MM, but there are no other league average pitchers in the system who are not already in the rotation.

    ReplyDelete
  6. Thank you Jewy for your kind and pointed comments.

    I generally agree that a #2 don't always face a #2 opposing them, and it is true that injuries, changes, and whatnot, can and will change a rotation. But from my experience playing fantasy baseball, when multiple pitchers pitch on the same day, they tend to pitch together going forward for that half of the season. Yeah, one might go ahead or behind a day, but then the schedule brings them back together. Most of the time, I find them pitching together on the same day.

    Of course, that is my impression, and not, as you correctly note, a truism or research finding, so I apologize for not making my position clearer.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Did not catch your second comment until after I commented.

    Good point, I'll try to use that, assuming it is available, good advise, thank you.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I agree that Zito's contract should not be a factor in judging his usefulness to the team. I also agree that it would be stupid to just eat his contract or even trade him for partial contract relief unless there is a clearly better pitcher who can step in to replace him at near league minimum salary. Suppan ain't that guy and neither is Clayton Tanner.

    Having said all that, I can certainly understand why some people in the Giants organization might be getting exasperated with him. It's not all that unusual for veteran pitchers to come to camp having worked themselves into near mid-season form and dominate the first several starts until the hitters catch up. If there was ever a time when a pitcher might want to do that, it would seem to be after they were humiliated by being left off the playoff roster. There is just no way Zito should be approaching this Spring Training business as usual!

    When Timmy had a bad month and got called out for his conditioning, he immediately fixed the problem and came to camp this year throwing 93 MPH. When Matt Cain was called out for his conditioning, he started running up and down the stairs at AT&T Park. Ditto Madison Bumgarner. When Pablo was embarrassed by his obesity and lack of conditioning in the post-season, he took it to heart, worked out with a former Olympic decathlete, came to camp 35 lbs lighter and hitting bombs all over the place.

    With Zito, the only news we got out of his offseason was pictures of Burrell and two girls in bikinis at Zito's house. Maybe this is all unfair to Zito. Maybe he worked his butt off this offseason and just had a bad day. From all appearances, though, Zito is just continuing business as usual, which for him is not good.

    Zito really wasn't good at all in the second half last year. I'm starting to wonder if maybe this is the year his numbers completely crater. The good news is if they do, the Giants sound like they are prepared to move on.

    ReplyDelete
  9. It seems likely that Zito will be the best #5 starter in the majors this year. That alone will provide the Giants an opportunity to scoop up a TON of wins solely due to the mismatch between Zito and the various vagabonds other teams trot out roughly every 5th day. Why would any sane person want to just throw away such an obvious advantage?

    ReplyDelete
  10. Two thoughts.

    First, what I noted on other sites is that when Zito feels pressure to compete, at least with SF, he is totally wild. He already said in interviews that he feels the pressure to do more.

    Second, I just realized that any insider who don't know that you can't buy out anybody in baseball, except for the full amount, because the players association wouldn't allow that to ever happen, shouldn't be anybody really high up in the organization, because anybody high should know this already.

    Of course, if it is somebody high, then I, as noted, will question the abilities of the front office management, Sabean and gang could be good at selecting personnel, but if the front office don't know simple financial details like that, we need a new front office.

    ReplyDelete
  11. Oops, didn't finish thought: then it is not surprising that Zito was totally wild in his first start, he gets all amped up and can't recover from it, like Sanchez in the playoffs after tripling, or Lincecum in his first World Series start.

    ReplyDelete
  12. So, I looked at a two month sample from 4/19/10 to 6/20/10 from last year's Giant season. Pitchers faced their "slot peers" (i.e. ace v. ace, #3 v. #3) in exactly 11 of 56 games, or 19.6% of the time.

    Not scientific, I know, but nonetheless an empirical indication that a random distribution of slot appearances exists. If there's a more robust study out there, I'd love to see it. Until then, I'm pretty comfortable that Zito didn't face other #2's a disproportionate amount of the time. For the record, he had two out of eleven starts vs. #2s in my sample.

    ReplyDelete

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