Requiem For a Zito

It seems like only yesterday that my radio alarm clock woke me up with the somewhat startling news that Barry Zito had signed a seven-year, $126 million deal with the Giants. If I remember correctly, back then it was sort of assumed that Zito would sign with the Yankees or Red Sox or Mets, or some other team with money pouring out of every orifice. His signing with the Giants seemed to come out of left field. As I groggily processed the news that morning, I had immediate mixed feelings. Zito was a Bay Area mainstay and I had always liked him on the A’s, but dang if seven years wasn’t a really, really long time.

That was December 29, 2006. Now, seven years later, it’s hard to believe that I’m sitting here cranking out what amounts to a eulogy for Zito’s Giants career. As I write this, the seemingly never-ending Zito contract has finally, mercifully, ended. It came to its conclusion on a Wednesday night game in September of 2013, a game that the Giants won over the Dodgers, 6-4. A contract that became one of the most notorious and controversial in all of baseball, at long last no longer a swinging albatross hanging on the neck of the franchise. With Zito having ridden off in the sunset ($7 million buyout in tow), Giants fans can turn the page on a pitcher who had been among the most polarizing in the history of the franchise. He started his Giants career as one of the most maligned pitchers in the history of the franchise, but finished riding a groundswell of goodwill following a pair of World Championships. So, when all is said and done, how will Zito fare in the annals of Giants past and Giants yet to come?

The Zito signing was riddled with controversy from the second it was inked. A staple of the early-00’s A’s teams that made the playoffs every year from 2000 to 2003, Zito was already a popular personality in the Bay Area. He won 102 games in seven seasons in Oakland and earned extra points with fans for his free-spirited nature and affinity for guitar-playing. In more than 1400 innings with the A’s he put up a solid 3.55 ERA, good for a superlative 125 ERA+ (i.e. ERA adjusted for league, park, etc.). It was obvious that Zito was going to cash out that winter, especially given that he was easily the best free agent starter under the age of 30 that offseason. It was equally obvious to anyone paying attention that there were red flags abound for any team intent on signing him.

Zito’s control, always shaky, was more problematic than ever in his last season with the A’s, as he posted his highest walk rate since his rookie year. He combined this with decreased velocity and fewer strikeouts, and that’s typically a recipe for impending decline. To make matters worse, there was ample evidence that Zito’s sub-4.00 ERAs in 2005 and 2006 were largely an illusion brought on by good luck and a really good A’s fielding unit. To wit, in 2006, Zito’s FIP (basically, ERA independent of factors out of a pitcher’s control) was 4.89. A wise franchise might have thought very carefully before negotiating a long-term deal with Zito’s agent, the notorious hard-baller Scott Boras. Instead, the Giants got raked over the coals.

The Giants handed out what was then the most lucrative contract ever given to a pitcher, and Zito became the team’s de facto ace. On Opening Day 2007, he pitched decently in a loss to the Padres. He then got lit up in his second start against the Dodgers, and it was all a disappointing mess from there. Casual Giants fans who equated big money with ace pitcher-status were shocked to come to the park to see that Zito was throwing a fastball that topped out at 85 mph. As the 2007 season careened into an inevitable second division finish, Zito became, unfairly or not, a whipping boy.

Zito finished his first year with the Giants at an unimpressive 11-13, with a 4.53 ERA. Not horrendous, but certainly not worthy of the $10 million he made that year. Unfortunately, it only got worse in 2008, as Zito led the league with 17 losses, posted an ugly 5.15 ERA, and was quickly headlining every “Worst Contract in Baseball” article on the major sports sites. Giants fans completely turned on him, and his contract was seen as a roadblock preventing the Giants from making competent moves.

Then, suddenly, Zito became good again. Not many people realize this or remember, or care to remember, but in 2009 Zito was a darn good pitcher. Despite a 10-13 record, Zito posted his best ERA (4.03), ERA+ (105), strikeout rate (7.1), and K:BB rate (1.90) as a Giant. He had some extra zip on his fastball and he finished what was easily his best year as a Giant. Unfortunately, fans at that point mostly just saw his sub-.500 record and focused on his still-onerous contract, and failed to give him any credit for his role in the team’s resurgence that season.

Zito started 2010 like gangbusters, going 4-0 in April, and looking like he was going to carry over his effectiveness from 2009. While his final season totals don’t look too bad, by the end of that season, Zito had completely fallen out of favor with…well, everybody. Zito went 2-10 in the second half, right as the Giants were fighting tooth and nail for their first playoff berth since 2003. Zito was no help to the Giants in the 2010 stretch run, and his poor pitching culminated in a disaster in the penultimate game of the regular season, when he was knocked out of the fourth inning of a game that could have clinched the division. He was then subsequently left off the postseason roster and watched from the sidelines as his teammates won the World Series.

Zito’s fall into seeming irrelevance continued in 2011, when, for a cool $18.5 million, Zito gave the team 53 injury-riddled innings and a 5.87 ERA. The only silver lining to Zito’s 2011 was that his injury gave rise to Ryan Vogelsong’s career resurgence. Otherwise, fans at that point were just ticking down the days until the contract was over. Zito headed into the 2012 season projecting as the highest-paid fifth starter in human history.

Then, a crazy thing happened. Zito threw a complete game shutout in his first start of the season, at Coors Field, no less. It was the first (and only) shutout of his Giants career. Zito would go on to win fifteen games, including five in the month of September, as the Giants won the National League West. He then won Game Five of the NLCS against St. Louis, shutting out the Cardinals into the eighth inning. A loss in that game would have sent the Giants home for the year. Then Zito started Game One of the World Series, and beat Tigers ace and reigning AL MVP Justin Verlander, handily. The Giants won the World Series, and this time Zito was the toast of the Bay Area. Those boos that had rained down on him the past few years? Yeah, now they were standing ovations.

Zito wasn’t all that good in 2012, as a matter of fact. Yeah, the win total was nice, but his 85 ERA+ was mediocre and he was essentially only a five-to-six-inning pitcher. For all his heroics in the World Series and NLCS, some forget that he couldn’t get past the third inning in his first round start against the Reds. He was much better in 2009, and better in 2010 (and probably 2007), but after his performance on the 2012 postseason stage, no one cared. Honestly, who could blame them?

So five years of ill feelings went down the drain with one postseason. Suddenly, Zito was back in fans’ favor, and it wasn’t completely out of the realm of possibility that the Giants would pick up Zito’s $20 million option for the 2014 season. In 2009 or 2010, that concept would have been unfathomable.

As we know, Zito’s 2013 season was a disaster, and his numbers on the road would have sent small children running away screaming. He started off decently in his starts at home, but eventually just started pitching poorly everywhere and the Giants decided to let him ride out the season in the bullpen. He finished at 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA, and the front office was content to give him his buyout and say sayonara.

Zito’s final totals with the Giants: 63 wins, 80 losses, and a 4.62 ERA. The ERA translates to an 86 ERA+. He struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings, while walking close to four. If you don’t count his injury-plagued 2011, Zito averaged roughly 181 innings per year, and was a key starter on two World Championship teams. For all the contempt Zito got over the years, that ain’t bad.

Was he worth $126 million in the baseball world? Of course not, but how bad was he, really? Look at it this way: Fangraphs calculates something called WAR dollars, where they attribute a dollar amount to a player’s production and compare it to how much the player made in real dollars. Zito made $126 million form 2007 to 2013; he accumulated $79.3 million WAR dollars over that same span.

This stat shouldn’t be seen as the be-all, end-all by any means, but it gives you a general idea of what Zito was worth. The Giants didn’t get equal value for their money, but he was hardly a Mike Hampton-style disaster. Plus, if you want to complain about Zito not living up to the generous dollar amount, think about who should really be to blame here. It was clear to many, many people that Zito wasn’t a superstar pitcher when he became a free agent after 2006. Should we blame Zito for doing what we all would have done and signing a big contract for a ton of money, or should we blame the Giants brain trust for offering him such a ridiculous deal in the first place?

Zito will generally be remembered fondly by Giants fans not only because of his 2012 postseason, but simply because he just never complained. When he was getting booed, he didn’t whine to the media or flip fans the universal peace sign. When he was left off the playoff roster in 2010, he didn’t sulk and leave the team (like a certain right fielder did that year). He took it like a man and was there to celebrate with his team and the fans. When he came off bad seasons in ’07 and ’08, instead of snapping at hostile media members, he worked out all offseason and had a solid 2009 and 2010.

Seven years is a long time. I remember after the 2008 season thinking that this was a contract that was going to be a boogeyman that would haunt me forever. I used to run a blog back in 2007 and 2008, and I said and posted a lot of really nasty things about Zito. Years later, I look back at that and just sort of shake my head. There are players who, when struggling, deserve our derision (I’m looking at you, Armando Benitez). Zito wasn’t one of them. All those years after my radio woke me up and told me that he was going to be donning the Orange and Black, I think it’s safe to end by saying that yes, Zito was a Good Giant.