Tuesday, October 1, 2013

The Curious Case of Barry Zito

On the afternoon of Tuesday, September 29th, Barry Zito walked in from the bullpen in the top of the 8th, the score 7-6 Giants over the Padres.  He struck out retiring veteran Mark Kotsay on three pitches and then walked off the field to a roaring ovation.  You'd think Zito had just thrown a perfect game or was retiring as one of the most dominant pitchers in San Francisco history, but you'd be totally wrong.

Such is the case with Barry Zito who, after signing a 7 year, $120 million contract in December of 2006, went on to become one of the worst free agent signings in baseball history.  The strikeout of Kotsay marked the official end of Zito's tenure with the Giants and a merciful conclusion to the behemoth nine figure contract which saw Zito go 63-80 with a 4.62 ERA.  Yet Giants fans were ecstatic for his token appearance.  Is it because his contract was finally coming to an end and he wouldn't be paid $20 million to go 10-15 anymore?

No, it's because Barry Zito is a frickin' champion.

Six of Zito's seven seasons in San Francisco saw him put up sub-.500 records.  He never reached 200 innings like he had in his 6 full seasons in Oakland (not counting his rookie season).  He was constantly scrutinized, criticized, and booed loudly for a great portion of those seven seasons.

And he never, ever, NOT ONCE, complained about it.

Zito didn't pitch like a $120 million man but he did his part and acted like one and did everything professionally.  He never blamed the front office and never blamed the fans for his struggles.  He simply blamed himself and took all of the criticism like a pro and continued to go out and do his best every single start.  Some may think that he just dogged it after signing that massive contract but I don't believe that's true at all.  I mean, here's a guy whose fastball is in the low 80s now.  Even fuckin' Tim Wakefield's knuckleball can go faster than that.

For five years this guy was the punchline of all jokes, the pinnacle being that he actually really did help his team win the 2010 World Series by NOT pitching.  Plus with guys like Lincecum, Cain, and Bumgarner shutting down the National League, suddenly Zito's struggles weren't all that apparent.  But then 2012 happened.  Zito went an amazing 15-8 as the Giants cruised into the playoffs.  They fell behind 0-2 to the Cincinnati Reds in the first round when Zito was given the ball to try and extend the series.  He didn't even last three innings before being pulled for ineffectiveness, but the Giants managed to win that one as well as make an epic comeback to win the series.

What Zito will be most remembered for is his next start: Game 5 at St. Louis with the Cardinals leading the series 3-1.  The Giants needed something, anything out of Zito and what they got was 7+ shutout innings that set the stage for a winning streak that would win them another World Series.  The second thing he'll be most remembered for is his Game 1 of the World Series start vs. the Detroit Tigers where he out-dueled Justin Verlander to take the victory.  Barry Zito won his second championship, but this one he earned with grit.

He was horrible in 2013, but so was the rest of the team.

So that brings us to last Tuesday where he received a huge standing ovation in his final Giants appearance.  Honestly, had he not won those playoff games I still think he would have received it because he was a professional every single day and an all around good guy.  Not sure what his future holds, but I predict the A's will bring him back on a two year contract worth the league minimum.  Book it.

Click here to see the amazing ovation he received following the strikeout.  His teammates in the dugout even shoved him back onto the field so he could be applauded.  And he actually laughed and smiled.  In that moment he was an A again, where it doesn't matter if you succeeded or failed, but just as long as you tried your best.

Zito kinds reminds me of another left-handed curveball guy named Shawn Estes.  Most people will remember Estes as a journeyman and for hitting a home run off Roger Clemens, but Giants fans remember him as a guy who was electric at times but otherwise unreliable.  He went 19-5 with a 3.18 ERA in 1997, his first full season in the majors.  In 10 seasons after that, he never had a sub-4 ERA again.  He had a couple decent seasons here and there, but could never replicate the stuff that won him 19 games.  I think it's a case of two guys who relied so heavily on their curveball that once guys figured out how to hit them then that was it.  Or if they couldn't get their curve to work then they were just sitting ducks.  Granted, Zito had far more success than Estes, even winning a Cy Young award, but if the curve wasn't falling then all he had to fall back on was an 81 MPH fastball, and that's not gonna get the job done.

Shortly after Zito signed with the Giants he set a career goal of winning 300 games but it's pretty obvious that unless he turns things around and pitches well into his 40s, that's not gonna happen.  But I think he could still be a serviceable player without the weight of $120 million on his shoulders.  Each season I always thought "okay, this is the season he turns it around!" and likewise almost always drafted him to my fantasy teams.  Wherever he winds up next season I'll probably do it again because I think he can still somewhat resemble the pitcher he once was.

Even if he can't he goes out of San Francisco as a champion, and a well deserved one at that.  Thanks for always being a professional, Barry.  Keep it real.