Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Zito a Changed Pitcher?

There is a nice article by Mychael Urban about Zito's return on  It noted one major change that Zito made while out on the DL:  dropping the slider from his repertoire.  This is significant, he notes, because Zito added this pitch after his Cy Young season, as that is what Zito is about, trying to improve himself, constantly.  It was bad because the slider has to be thrown from another arm slot and, so the thinking goes, throws Zito out of his rhythm when he throws his signature pitch:  his 12-to-6 curveball, which, ideally, has to be thrown from the overhead position, to have the greatest effect.

Urbs said that this curve is back in spades, and that is what made Zito successful previously, the inability of hitters to distinguish his curveball from his fastball, which while slow, is like 100 MPH when compared to his curveball.

Why So Long?

This for me brings up a lot of questions.  This is all very reasonable thinking that makes a lot of sense, but why did it take 9 years for someone to make this discovery?  I love Rags, but shouldn't he have been able to spot this?  Tidrow?  Any of the other pitching experts we have?  The article did mention a number of mechanical flaws that were fixed as well, so I assume they had a hand in those, but still, given how much this all makes sense, why wasn't this figured out sooner?

I can see why he might have finally figured this out during this period.  He's in baseball mode now (rather than off-season mode) but was unable to do anything baseball related while he's recuperating from his injury.  He's always been a thinker and I imagine he thought a lot about baseball and himself while he was down.  Sometimes epiphany finally comes when you least expect it.

And I can see why the Giants might not have noticed it initially.  This is something that happened long ago, after his Cy Young year with the A's, that's like a generation ago in baseball years.  But given his struggles with locating pitches while he's been with the Giants, one would have thought somebody would have noticed something that seems so elemental, as it is explained in the article, at some point in the prior four seasons.

Where's the MPH?

In addition, while this is all and good, Zito has lost another couple of MPH from his fastball again.  He was not able to pitch well like that, as his first two seasons demonstrated.  Once he got his fastball velocity back up to the 87 MPH level, then he's been pretty good (and he has been the past two seasons plus;  low 4 ERA plus lots of innings pitched is worth a lot, though obviously not as much as we are paying him).

The interview with him noted that he got stronger as he got to the 5th inning, so perhaps it is just a matter of him really being still in spring training mode and building strength in his arm.   That rings true with me, I imagine that he could not do anything to keep his legs in shape in the early parts of his DL since he had to keep pressure off his feet while recovering from his injury.  Still, most reports I've seen says that he only got to mid-80's "heat", and as I noted, he's never been effective while working in that range of velocity.

And, OK, he did have this problem with the slider the past couple of years too, so that is something different from the mid-80's Zito we saw in 2007 and 2008.

Encouraging, But Baby Steps: Won't Get Fooled Again

Still, in the final analysis, this is very encouraging news.  If getting rid of the slider helps him be more consistent with his ability to locate his other pitches for strikes, that has to be good, as his problem before was all the inconvenient walks.  And they invariably often scored.

And he did very well in his first start, but I think this will be a start to start acceptance that this is something that is real and not another soundbite that gives encouragement to the fans but ultimately fails us.  As it has many times before, like last season, when he started out great, but petered out by the end of the season.

I'm hopeful but cautious to believe that this time he finally figured it all out.  The article makes a lot of sense about how it affected his pitching to his detriment.  If he can bring low-to-mid 3 ERA performance to us, imagine what a 6-man rotation we would have, where every pitcher is capable of giving us a low-to-mid 3 ERA performance - or better  for some - from 1 to 6.  Not only would our starters be fresher at the end of the season, this has to extend their careers a little, I would think, just from the lack of extra work and stress on their arms.

Even a return to his 2009-2010 form would still be good, as that would be enough that he could pitch and there would not be that big a drop-off in performance, but when there is an off-day, he would be the one who is skipped in that run through the rotation.  Though that could be anybody in the rotation should the GIants decided that a starter needs a one start break to freshen up.   I am still worried about the long-term effects of all the extra pitches they threw last season due to the playoffs, hence my hope that the Giants go with a 6-man rotation.  Perhaps the Royals doing it will give them the confidence to go with it.  Well, that and a big lead over the rest of the NL, we still have to wait for Sanchez to get off the DL before a 6-man rotation would be doable.


  1. OGC, I don't see the Giants going to a six man rotation even when Chez returns from the DL, for reasons we've discussed before. Moreover, Chez has some experience pitching with success out of the bullpen as well. So, assuming everyone is healthy and Zito isn't pooping the bed, Jonathan is likely headed for the bullpen after the ASB. The big question is: who gets sent out? My guess is Mota.

  2. just watch Zito win the Cy Young next year and sign a multi-year $17M per contract with someone.

    Seriously, though, I always wonder about this kind of thing - yes, sunk cost, but that aside. wouldn't you think a MLB franchise would have everyone and their brother going over every player with a fine-tooth comb? Tea leaves? Underground spectrascopes?

    Silly, I know, but when you've got a pitcher in the rotation where adding 1 WAR equals $2-3 million, that buys a lot of expert opinions.

    Despite the struggling offense, the Giants are going to win the division anyway, so I can see the wisdom of having a long-man out of the bullpen - save some pitch counts.

  3. Thanks for comments.

    I agree, Jewy, a 6-man probably won't happen: I still think that there are a lot of benefits if the Giants would do that. If we hope to get anything good for Sanchez in trade, he has to start and do well. We won't get much if he is in the bullpen.

    And yeah, I think Mota goes, he actually was the weak link last season, I was surprised he was retained, though he had done well for us initially but faded recently. He was one of the worse relievers in the second half of 2010 on the team, but not as bad as Zito was doing, else Zito probably would have gotten that last spot.

    Marc, if I remember right, we have Zito signed to 2013, with an option in 2014 that he can vest with enough IP in 2012-13.

    The problem with all the people using sunk cost as the reason to dump Zito now is that they do not have a finance or econ degree, or in any case, just do not understand the concepts of sunk cost.

    What these people are missing is that while the cost is sunk, it is not like Zito is not providing any value, he is just not providing enough value to match his salary. Sunk cost would make sense if the player's value on the market is near zero.

    I think the way Zito pitched the last two seasons would have been worth maybe $9-12M on the free agent market. Fangraphs undervalue him greatly because it assumes a BABIP of .300 and he is one of the rare pitchers who can keep his BABIP significantly below .300.

    DFAing Zito would just toss that away value for nothing, when you still owe him roughly $60M. It is a classic case of throwing out the baby with the bath water. And I would bet that he would sign with LAD, both for location (his home is there) and revenge/retaliation. And most pitchers pitch better at Dodger Stadium (lots of pitchers have benefited greatly pitching there one season, resulting in low ERA, get big contract - Chan Ho Park! - and do poor elsewhere; not really hard analysis to do, been doing it for years now...), so not only would he be pitching for the hated Dodgers, he would be doing well for them, raising ire of more Giants fans, yet it would have been their fault for pushing the Giants to release him.

    But I say that to say that, I don't think the Giants would DFA him unless his ERA is way over 6 and he's not doing anything to make them think that he can still pitch even close to average.

  4. FYI, here is how sunk cost should be properly interpreted.

    A project has had the investment of $5M in study and development. That money is gone, no value to accrue from that $5M in the future. Do you invest more money to pursue that opporunity? Human behavior is to see the $5M and sink in more money. But that money is sunk - i.e. provides no future value - and should not matter in any future decision making.

    Another example would be buying an option on a plot of land, say, $10M and you just spent another $10M drilling holes to find oil but finding nothing so far. That is $20M spent so far, with no chance of future value. Do you spend the money to drill another hole?

    Again, human nature is to drill another, you just spent $20M on nothing. But the right course of action is to check whatever factors you normally check to decide whether to drill or not, whether geological studies, geologist expert, or whatnot (your tea leaves :^). That $20M should not factor into the decision.

    In Zito's case, people see the $126M as a sunk cost, which is true in that sense. That money is gone no matter what.

    But the proper decision becomes "Does Zito provide more value than the 12th pitcher on the roster, if he's a reliever, than the 5th starter, if he's a starter?" As that is what is what matters since the cost difference between Zito and that pitcher, cost-wise, is negligible (if other pitcher guaranteed, no diff; if prospect making minimum but with options, it would actually cost the Giants more to carry this player over Zito, though negligibly more). That is the proper question to answer.

    Zito has been among the best starters in the NL over the past two seasons, despite his ups and downs. It is not his fault that he's still the 5th best pitcher on this rotation, he would be among the best 3rd pitcher for all the NL teams, and would be a #2 starter for a number of NL teams, based on qualifying innings and best ERA.

    That is what these "fans" are throwing away by wanting to DFA Zito. And probably what LAD would pick up, adding insult to injury.

  5. (by the way, I was being silly in my previous post)

    The correct concept for Zito is marginal opportunity cost, which is what you describe in your fourth paragraph.

    DFAing him is the absolute stupidest choice out of all possibilities. That's not drilling a hole, it's throwing money down the hole you already drilled.

  6. "I think the way Zito pitched the last two seasons would have been worth maybe $9-12M on the free agent market."

    When I read this I stopped reading. You gotta be kidding, sarcasm, no?

  7. Sorry Marc, that was not directed towards you, just against those who use sunk cost incorrectly when applying it to Zito.

    Statman, perhaps my memory on this is off, but pitchers like Ted Lilly, Hiroki Kuroada, they got $9-12M in recent seasons, and I think that Zito has been around where they have been in recent years, when you account for LA's pitcher's park.

    Basically, average to slightly above average type players been getting in the $9-12M range in recent years and Zito has been around there the past two seasons, among qualifying starters in 2009-10, Zito would be a low #2 or high #3 starter in the NL. Being a reliable innings eater has some value.



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