We completed Part 2 (Part 1 here) with the question, is Barry Zito really an exception to the rule, a pitcher who can reduce batters' batting average on balls in play? If so, how does he do it, and what makes him different?
I'm just a fan, not a scout, but I have watched a lot of Barry Zito, so I think I have some idea of how Zito approaches batters.
Zito's approach is a lot more complex now that he has five pitches instead of three. I think it's useful to go back to 2000-2003 when Zito had only the fastball, curve and changeup, and study his basic three-pitch approach. To narrow it down further, we'll focus just on right-handed batters.
So here's the plan. It all starts with the curveball.
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Zito doesn't actually throw his curveball all that often--maybe 15-20% of the time. But Zito's curveball sets up everything else. Without it, he's a mediocre pitcher who has to survive with a good changeup, and below-average fastball.
To throw his curve, Zito grips the baseball very loosely in his hand. Occasionally, Zito will end up on blooper reels, becase the loosely-held ball will slip right out of his fingers. But somehow, this loose grip helps him get a tremendous rotation and break on the pitch. It's almost certainly the best curveball of this generation.
When it comes out of his hand, the ball looks like it is going to end up high and just out of the strike zone to a right-handed batter:
And then it breaks, and ends up down and over the plate:
That's a very difficult pitch to hit. Major league hitters can hit it, but only if they know or can guess that it's coming. If they're guessing something else, and it lands in the strike zone, forget it.
So to prevent the batters from just sitting on the curveball, Zito uses his fastball to keep them honest.
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Zito's fastball, a four-seamer, is usually only 86-88mph, although he can touch 90 on occasion. So he can't overpower anyone with it. However, he uses the threat of the curveball to trick the batter into swinging at a bad fastball.
Remember where the curveball starts out? High and away to a right-handed hitter. Zito will often throw his fastball to the exact same spot where the curveball starts out:
You can't hit that pitch hard, if you hit it at all. It's too far off the plate to reach with the good part of the bat. Most hitters who make contact on that pitch hit the ball off the end of their bat, and the result is a weak popup to second base or right field.
Normally, a batter wouldn't even think about swinging at a pitch in that location, but because the curveball starts out with the same trajectory, Zito can often induce batters to chase there, where other pitchers can't.
Now, you can't just keep throwing the same pitch up there, because eventually the hitters adjust and start to lay off. So Zito keeps batters honest by hitting the outside corner with the fastball as often as he throws it outside:
That's the pitch the batter wants to hit. A good batter will lay off the curve and the high-and-away fastball until he has two strikes, and sit on that 86mph fastball on the outside corner. That's like hitting in batting practice! No problem, right?
Right, except then there's...
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Zito's curveball is spectacular, and gets all the press, but his changeup is also a great pitch. The release point is exactly the same as his fastball, but it's 10-13 mph slower, usually around 72mph. So when Zito throws it to the spot where the hitter is waiting for that fastball:
it actually ends up right about here:
What often happens is that the batter will get his hips started too early, and hit the ball using only the strength of his arms. Zito takes all the power out of the swing, so what happens is usually a weakly hit ball. If our RHB tries to pull it, he hits a grounder to the left side; if he tries to go the other way, it's usually a popup or a lazy fly towards center or right.
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Now we come to the final, and key, piece to Zito's approach. So far, all the pitches we've looked at have been on the outside part of the plate to a right-handed batter. Zito gets the batters looking and thinking and leaning outside corner, outside corner, outside corner...and then he comes in with his fastball, on the inside corner here:
It's the same height as the fastball the right-handed batter wants to hit on the outside corner, so he's tempted to swing at it. However, the batter has a really hard time getting the barrel on the bat on that inside pitch. He'll often hit it with the thin, handle part of the bat, and end up hitting a weak popup to third base or left field.
Zito probably gets more outs with this pitch than any of the others.
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And that's Plan A, in a nutshell.
If Zito does, in fact, defy conventional DIPS theory with this, I think it's the combination of those two fastballs--the one up and out of the zone, and the one on the inside corner--where it happens. He's getting people to hit the ball not just on the upper half of the bat for popups, but on the end of the bat (up and away) or on the handle (inside corner), as well. The ball hits the weakest part of the bat, and makes for some very easy-to-catch balls in play. All from an 86-mph fastball, fooling batters thanks to one wicked curve.
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When Things Go Wrong
Some days, when Zito has good control of all three pitches, Plan A works like a charm. On those days, like in Game 1 of the 2006, Zito can outpitch the Johan Santanas of the league. Other days, however, some adjustments need to be made.
Zito probably goes to the mound with all three key pitches working maybe a dozen times a year. The other 20 or so times, he'll have trouble throwing strikes to varying degrees with one or two pitches.
His worst innings/days are when he's having trouble with the release point on his fastball. His fastball isn't good enough to throw down the middle of the plate and get away with it. When Zito misses on that inside fastball, and the ball leaks out over the plate, it tends to travel a very long distance. So Zito tends to err on the side of caution. He'd much rather walk a guy than throw him an 86mph batting-practice fastball down the middle of the plate. Sometimes, he'll find his release point with the next guy, or he'll use his changeup to get the next guy out, and be fine. Sometimes, though, he pays for the walk, and the result is a bad inning.
A more common problem, however, is that he can't find the release point on his curveball. Since the curveball sets up a whole sequence of pitches, he has much more trouble getting batters out if they know he can't throw the curveball for a strike. They can ignore the high fastball, sit on a fastball or a changeup, and have a much better chance at hitting the ball hard.
This became such a problem in 2003 that Zito would often begin a game without throwing a single curveball until about the fourth inning. If he didn't show that he couldn't throw the curveball for a strike, the threat still existed that he could. This strategy worked for awhile, but it seemed to catch up to him in 2004. Batters made him establish that he could throw the curveball for a strike before they chased that outside fastball.
On his very worst days, which happens two or three times a year, (unfortunately one such day was in the 2006 ALCS against Detroit), Zito can't find either his fastball OR his curveball, (or maybe the umpire can't) leaving him with nothing but a 72mph changeup to get people out with. People praised Detroit's for taking some sort of brilliantly intelligent approach against Zito, but I found that argument silly. The Tigers would have looked just as foolish as Minnesota did the week before if Zito could throw his curveball for a strike that day.
When Zito gets clobbered, it's says more about Zito that day than it does his opponent. Zito has allowed seven or more runs in a game eleven times in his career. Know which team has given him such a clobbering the most?
Tampa Bay, three times.
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The New Pitches
You can pretty much draw a chart depicting how many runs Zito will give up by how many pitches he has working on a given night:
It was after the last Devil Ray buttkicking that Zito implemented his radical change in approach, changing from a three-pitch pitcher to a five-pitch pitcher. He added a two-seam fastball, and a slider.
I honestly can't see the difference between Zito's two-seamer and his four-seamer, but since 2005, he seems to be able to get more ground balls when runners are on base than he used to. I think he uses it when he needs to throw a strike, and the hitter may be looking for that four-seamer. It has just enough of a difference in movement to get the batter to hit on top of the ball, especially on that inside fastball. The result has been an awful lot of ground balls to Eric Chavez.
The slider is mostly a weapon for Zito to use against left-handed batters, but Zito will also throw it in there against righties to try to steal a strike every now and then. It's a pitch that starts out here:
and ends up here:
Again, this is another pitch that, if hit, often gets hit right at Eric Chavez, and now, presumably, Pedro Feliz. Fortunately for Zito and the Giants, Feliz seems to have some pretty good range at third.
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These extra pitches give Zito more options when he gets in a jam. Too often in 2003 or 2004, Zito would get into a game/count situation where he only had one or two choices of which pitch to throw. The batters would foul off a bunch of tough pitches, and he'd have to come right in there again with the same pitch. Eventually, the batter would wear him out, and either hit him, or get a costly walk.
Now, Zito can toss in the slider or two-seamer when he's in a jam like that, and give the batter something else to think about. He has more ways of getting batter out these days, and he's a better pitcher for it.
But these extra options come at a price. Zito wanted to implement the slider way back in 2003, but then-pitching coach Rick Peterson didn't let him, because when he throws it, his arm angle is slightly lower than with his fastball, curve, and changeup. With two separate release points to worry about, finding those points can be a problem.
In the two years, since he added the slider, he's had more walks and hit batsmen than any previous season. He's had a particularly hard time in the first few weeks of the seasons, with April ERAs over 6.00 each of the last two years. He does seem to find his groove after awhile, however.
But it is something to be concerned about, if you're a Giants fan. I see no evidence that Zito's stuff has declined, but there is evidence that his control is faltering, and that batters have adjusted to him more and more over the years.
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On the other hand, Zito is switching leagues. He'll be facing a whole new set of batters who haven't seen Plan A before. He may not have to use the slider and two-seamer all that often, and perhaps he can go back to that three-pitch sequence, and lock in that release point earlier in the year.
But that will only last so long. Eventually, batters will learn his sequences, they'll learn how to figure out what's working and what isn't in a particular game, and adjust their approach against Zito. And then Zito will have to adjust back. Can Zito keep those two release points under control for the next seven years?
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I love watching Barry Zito. When that curveball is working, and those batters are flailing at that fastball up and away, and turning themselves in to pretzels trying to hit the jammer, there aren't many pitchers more fun to watch. And I'm sure he'll have plenty of those days over the next seven years. But there are too many warning signs, both from the stats and from the eyes, that Zito's control may be wavering, that there might be too many days where Plan A is not in effect, to make risking that much money on him a wise choice.
I find it a perfectly plausible scenario that the Giants will get their $126 million worth from Barry Zito. But if you'll notice, there were a lot of "however" and "maybe" and "perhaps"-type words in the last few paragraphs. The Giants could be getting a perennial Cy Young candidate, but they could just as easily be spending superstar money for an average player. If I'm spending $126 million, I want a lot more certainty, and a lot fewer maybes.