Baseball Toaster Catfish Stew
STOP CASTING POROSITY! An Oakland Athletics blog.
Frozen Toast
Google Search
Catfish Stew

02  01 

12  11  10  09  08  07 
06  05  04  03  02  01 

12  11  10  09  08  07 
06  05  04  03  02  01 

12  11  10  09  08  07 
06  05  04  03  02  01 

12  11  10  09  08  07 
06  05  04  03  01 

12  09  08  01 

12  11  10  09  08 
Email Us

Ken: catfish AT zombia d.o.t. com
Ryan: rarmbrust AT gmail d.o.t. com
Philip: kingchimp AT alamedanet d.o.t net

Ken's Greatest Hits
28 Aug 2003
12 Jan 2004
31 May 2005
11 May 2005
29 Jun 2005
8 Jun 2005
19 Jul 2005
11 Aug 2005
7 Sep 2005
20 Sep 2005
22 Sep 2005
26 Sep 2005
28 Sep 2005
29 Sep 2005
18 Oct 2005
9 Nov 2005
15 Nov 2005
20 Nov 2005

13 Dec 2005
19 Jan 2006
28 Jan 2006
21 Feb 2006
10 Apr 2006
16 Apr 2006
22 Apr 2006
7 May 2006
25 May 2006
31 May 2006
18 Jun 2006
22 Jun 2006
6 Jul 2006
17 Jul 2006
13 Aug 2006
15 Aug 2006
16 Aug 2006
20 Aug 2006
11 Oct 2006
31 Oct 2006
29 Dec 2006
4 Jan 2006
12 Jan 2006
27 Jan 2007
17 Feb 2007
30 Apr 2007
27 Aug 2007
5 Sep 2007
19 Oct 2007
23 Nov 2007
5 Jan 2008
16 Jan 2008
4 Feb 2008
7 May 2008
20 Jun 2008
4 Feb 2008
Zito Thoughts, Part 2 of 3
2007-01-04 00:20
by Ken Arneson

Part 1 here.

"Barry Zito is going to start sucking any day now. He's in decline. He's been lucky. He's losing it."

I've been hearing words to that effect from the numbercrunchers for about four years now. I didn't believe it then, and I don't really believe it now, either.

Rich Lederer described the issue well:

To Zito's credit, his actual ERA has consistently defied his FIP and DIPS calculations, as well as his PECOTA projections. He is obviously doing something well that isn't being captured in these systems.

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Nate Silver found that if you use Zito's past ERA as a predictor of his future ERA, his new contract is actually worth the money. If you use his peripheral numbers, the Giants are paying double what he's actually worth. Silver writes:

But while ERA is a very useful backward-looking metric — it's helpful in settling Cy Young Award debates, for example — it's not such a good forward-looking metric. A pitcher's peripheral statistics predict ERA much better than past ERA itself.

I'd agree with that 99% of the time, but I can think of several reasons why Zito may be an exception to the rule. Consider:

  • These systems make predictions based on the fact that similar players perform similarly. But really, who is similar to Barry Zito? Sinker-slider pitchers are a dime-a-dozen, new flamethrowers appear every year, but a lefty with a big, tight curveball like Zito's are quite rare. Knuckleballers are probably more common sight.

    The curveball sets up a core pitching pattern that is unique, I believe, to Zito. More on this in part 3.

  • DIPS and FIP are supposed to be better predictors of future ERA than ERA itself, but in Zito's case, his ERA has been less than his DIPS ERA every single year, missing by an average of 0.77.
    Year   ERA    DIPS   Diff
    2000   2.72   3.88   1.16
    2001   3.49   3.67   0.18
    2002   2.75   4.07   1.32
    2003   3.30   4.24   0.96
    2004   4.48   4.53   0.05
    2005   3.86   4.51   0.65
    2006   3.83   4.87   1.04

  • 2004 is the one year where his ERA and DIPS agree that Zito is a mediocre pitcher. But 2004 is also unique in that Zito tried a new delivery out of the stretch, standing more upright instead of hunched over. He did this, he said, to try to take some pressure off his left knee, in which he was apparently having some tendonitis.

    Again from Lederer:

    The most obvious abnormality is Zito's outstanding career Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of .269 (vs. a more normal league-wide rate of about .300). It should be noted that the one year (2004) in which Barry had a BABIP of .300, his ERA was 4.48.

    Whether it was the tendonitis or the altered delivery, Zito's usual ability to reduce BABIP vanished in early 2004. His BABIP in the first half of the season skyrocketed to .317. Zito abandoned this stretch delivery after the all-star break, and went back to his old one. His BABIP returned to a more Zito-like .278 in the second half.

  • Feeling that perhaps the league had gotten used to his core pitching pattern, Zito reinvented himself in 2005. Rather than change his delivery as he did in 2004, he changed both his pitching repertoire (adding a slurve and a two-seamer) and his approach at the beginning of that season.

    The changes during 2004 and 2005 make me suspect of any trend analyses of Zito. To me, there are basically three Zitos: the three-pitch Zito from 2000-03, the failed experiment of 2004, and the five-pitch Zito from 2005-06. If you include 2004 in the analysis, you're including an anomaly. And if you just look at the last two seasons, is two a big enough sample size to identify a trend?

  • Another thing that makes me skeptical of the "Zito is losing it" arguments is that in recent years, Zito has gotten off to slow starts. He's had horrible Aprils, and then afterwards, has settled down and had typical Zito performances throughout the summer months. Here are his career ERAs in April and August:
    Year   April   August
    2000    --      2.72
    2001   4.58     1.02
    2002   4.81     2.16
    2003   2.63     3.93
    2004   6.83     3.48
    2005   6.60     2.13
    2006   5.93     3.40

    Since 2002, only once has Zito had an ERA over 4.06 in any May-August month, and that was in the anomalous 2004. For the bulk of the season, Zito has been as steady as they come.

    If there's one thing to be concerned about, it's that he has had ERAs over 5.00 each of the last two Septembers, which may indicate some fatigue.

  • Many argue that Zito is a fly-ball pitcher who has been greatly helped by the large foul territory and the damp air of the Oakland Coliseum. And yet there's this: his career ERA is better on the road (3.44) than in Oakland (3.66).

    Last year, he had a road ERA of 2.97, but an ERA at home of 4.71. Obviously, the big foul territory isn't really a big part of his success.

  • I've also heard many arguments that Zito has been helped by the A's great outfield defense. Funny, I seem to remember that when Zito came up, the A's outfield defense consisted of Ben Grieve, Terrence Long, and Matt Stairs.

    I've probably watched at least half of Zito's career starts, and my memories aren't exactly overflowing with images of Mark Kotsay running down a bunch of balls in the alleys. I have more memories of worrying that Long or Eric Byrnes would flub another easy catch.

    In other words, I'm not buying the idea that there is much correlation between the quality of the A's outfield and Zito's ERA.

  • In fact, I'd guess that Zito has such a low BABIP because he makes batters hit easy-to-catch fly balls. He keeps his BABIP low by inducing batters to hit weak fly balls. Zito is consistently among the MLB leaders in popup percentage. Adam Morris broke it down at Lone Star Ball:

    Zito is getting almost twice as many pop ups from righthanded hitters than the general pitching population is. So while Zito is inducing fewer ground balls than the average pitcher, he also isn't giving up a ton of fly balls...instead, he's just getting more popouts.

    For most pitchers, a ball in play is a ball in play, and a ball hit in the air is a ball hit in the air. DIPS theory holds that once the ball is hit in play, what happens to it is almost entirely up to the batter. But Zito seems different. He gets batters to hit the ball up, but not far. He gets lots popups on the infield, and just as many shallow fly balls that have no chance of becoming doubles, triples, or home runs. Much of the time, these lazy balls in play are easily catchable outs.

    In other words, perhaps it's Zito who is making the outfielders look good, not the other way around. Is this possible? Can Zito control where batters hit the ball, when other pitchers seemingly can't? How does a fly ball pitcher with an 86-mph fastball even make it out of A-ball, let alone flourish in the major leagues?

It seems to me that Zito presents a one-man sample-size problem. His style and approach are so clearly unique, his numbers so consistently non-conformist, with a big shift in style in recent times, that you'd be wise in this case to take what the numbers are predicting with a big grain of salt. Or better yet, a big grain of scout.

In my next entry, I'll try to scout Zito, and figure out what he does that helps him defy conventional statistics. Then we'll combine the stats and the scouting, and decide if the Giants are crazy or not.


On to Part 3...

2007-01-04 07:24:54
1.   Rich Lederer
Good article, Ken.

If I have a concern, it has to do with Zito's history of starting slowly (as you showed in the monthly splits). His record contract for a pitcher, coupled with an ERA near 6.00 in April (should that happen), would most likely result in a lot of second guessing in the media and boo birds in the stands. How Zito responds to such adversity and pressure would probably be the key to the rest of his season.

For Zito and the Giants organization, here's hoping he gets off to a good start and avoids what could turn out to be an ugly scenario.

2007-01-04 07:44:20
2.   standuptriple
FYI, Zito took out a full page ad in the sports section of the Chron today thanking the A's org, fans and even media.
2007-01-04 12:47:57
3.   Voxter
The thing that would worry me about Zito is less his relative lack of strikeouts but that, between walks and HBP, he put 114 men on base without making them swing the bat. Even if you do have an ability to get outs on balls in play, that's going to catch up to you eventually. He's always walked guys, but the jump in that rate (99 BB, 13 HBP in 2006, the former a career high and the latter equalling a career high) is scary.

His ERA may never match his DIPs or FIP indicators, but guys on the bases are guys on the bases, to some extent.

Comment status: comments have been closed. Baseball Toaster is now out of business.