Rob Neyer thinks that Barry Zito is losing it. He has two pieces of evidence: (1) his hit rate is extremely low, and (2) his strikeout rate is falling.
Well, this blog wouldn't be living up to its name if we didn't argue with that. Let's separate the evidence into its two parts.
First, the hit-rate argument. Neyer says:
He was very, very lucky. Hit-lucky. In both seasons, only 25 percent of the batted balls in play fell in for hits. That's exceptionally low unless you're a knuckleballer, and Zito's not.
This is the DIPS argument, that pitchers don't control batting average on balls in play, batters do. DIPS assumes that BABIP is all luck, and if you even that luck out, you can predict a pitcher's future ERA with DIPS better than you can with his real ERA.
Recent scrutiny of DIPS has found some exceptions. Some pitchers do demonstrate some control over BABIP. Knuckleballers. Extreme flyball pitchers. Lefthanders. And the most recently discovered exception, pitchers who get lots of infield popups. Zito is three of those four. And perhaps his curve ball is so darn good it has the same effect as a knuckleball.
Zito led the AL in both popups (78, 2nd place 58) and foulouts (32) in 2003. Popups and foulouts almost never fall as hits. In that sense, a popup is almost as good as a strikeout. If Zito creates popups at a higher rate than anyone else, his BABIP should be lower accordingly. And it is. His real ERA has been lower than his DIPS ERA every single year of his career, usually by a wide margin:
Year ERA DIPS
2000 2.72 4.00
2001 3.49 3.63
2002 2.75 4.01
2003 3.30 4.11* (*estimate)
Zito's done this four years in a row. And when someone can do something consistently and repeatedly, I call that a skill, not luck. So I don't buy the DIPS argument with Zito. I think the problem here is with DIPS, not Zito. Zito is a DIPS outlier.
The strikeout/walk rate argument is a bit more alarming. His ERA is still pretty darn low, even though he's striking out fewer batters every year. More balls are being put in play every year. The question is: are those missing strikeouts being turned into popups (almost as likely to be an out as a strikeout), or other types of balls in play (less likely to be an out)?
Well, I haven't seen any popup stats for any years except 2003. But I would doubt that more than just a fraction (1/3? 1/5?) are being turned into popups. That remaining fraction is likely to be turned into hits at a league-average rate. So in that sense, Neyer is right: his ERA is likely to go up if the falling strikeout trend continues.
Even so, I'm not going be calling for Billy Beane to go trade Barry Zito anytime soon. I'll take off my stathead hat and put on my scouts hat, and tell you why I'd keep him: the hope of a fourth pitch.
Barry Zito is a three-pitch pitcher: fastball, curveball, changeup. That's it. When he has all three pitches working, he's darn near impossible to hit. Example: Game 2, 2003 ALDS.
But when he loses the touch on one of those pitches, he's suddenly a two-pitch pitcher with a mediocre 88 MPH fastball. He's wily enough to be able to take those two pitches and get through the order twice without too much damage. But on those nights, he usually struggles to get through the order a third time. I've seen it happen many times. Example: Game 5, 2003 ALDS.
Zito is only 25 years old. It's not too late for him to find a fourth pitch: sinker, cutter, splitter...some other weapon to put in his arsenal. If he had one more pitch, one more way to throw the hitters off balance, he'd have a much better chance of getting through those innings where he is struggling with control.
Zito fiddled with a cutter last spring training, but abandoned it when the season started. So I know he's thought about it. If he could find that extra pitch, I think he'd win several more Cy Young Awards. In fact, I think he would be so good the Hall of Fame couldn't take him. When he gets too old to last five or six innings without getting tired, he'd go to the bullpen and be the best old LOOGY in baseball. He'd be his generation's Jesse Orosco or John Franco, only better. Barry Zito would pitch forever.