From Zito to Zero to Hero?

Wednesday, February 02 2005 @ 10:37 AM EST

Contributed by: Craig B

Gitz asked me whether I thought Barry Zito, following his down year in 2004, was a good candidate for the "buy low, sell high" theory of player acquisition.

First, let me say that there could be two reasons to definitely stay away from Blithe Barry. If flakes tend to have shorter careers, then you'd want to avoid him. Luckily, I've never seen any evidence that the more free-spirited player tends to have a shorter career.

Likewise, if his arm was chancy you'd obviously want none of him. I don't have any insight into Zito's health - that's clearly an important issue for a guy who's been worked fairly hard. Of course, he's got the kind of body that people think can handle a heavy workload (if you believe in that sort of thing). Problem is he's a curveballer, and even though he throws more fastballs than curveballers of the past he may be a longterm arm health risk. PECOTA, not that it takes pitch types into account, thinks Zito is a fairly good bet to escape injury based solely on the information it uses, as it projects Zito to make 30 starts this year, a high number (since PECOTA projections are made by averaging over every possible eventuality, including injuries, players with high starts are considered by the system to be more resistant to missing time due to all factors, including injuries).

The most important aspect of whether Zito would be a good acquisition or not, though, is performance. As far as those aspects go, it's true that Zito was less effective last year than in 2001-03 but the degree was exaggerated - primarily because baseball writers tend to base their judgment of a pitcher's effectiveness based on his win totals, and Zito was just 4-7 at the all-star break, so we got an extensive round of "What's Wrong With Barry Zito" stories that colored our perceptions of him. Zito and his teammate Mark Mulder had seasons that were basically identical, but because Mulder won 17 games no one is suggesting his imminent collapse.

I only watched Zito pitch twice last year - a bit of his start against Toronto where he was brilliant, and a game late in the year against the Mariners that was on Diamond Surfing. He looked the same pitcher to me, so I have no insights there. Those reports I have seen on Zito that talk about the '04 downturn tend to question his pitch location early in the count. Maybe - but his walk rates were not up, and his pitches per plate appearance barely moved.

Zito's ISO against - especially his home runs allowed - did go up some, even though his G/F ratio didn't. That would most likely be the result of leaving a few extra pitches up, which in itself is not a harbinger of a longterm decline. His K rate went up, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio went up, so why was he giving up over a run more per game?

Batting average. Zito's BAA went from .218 in '02 and .219 in '03 to .263 in '04. And that was with a supposedly much-improved defense behind him. Given his pitch numbers, walks, and strikeouts, I'm quite pleased (thanks to all that wonderful DIPS research) to call 80% or more of that just plain bad luck, and I'm betting Zito's BAA will be closer to .220 than .260 this year.

Generally, I have a very hard time believing anyone who says Zito's declined since his Cy Young year, because I can't square that with the tremendous pitcher I saw (we all saw) in the Division Series against the Red Sox in '03. But that's besides the point. I think the numbers give the cue - Zito should be fine. PECOTA expects him to pitch like a #1 starter this season - he's in the Top 30 in expected VORP.