Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I Love It When The Zombies Change The Station...

  • And sing along to a different tune:

All the title of this posting is reminding me of is the A-Team and George Peppard as John Hannibal Smith, and his catchphrase: "I love it when a plan comes together"; which in turn reminds me of the Family Guy episode when the crew decided to go around "helping" people as the A-Team.

But I digress...

There's a new bit of zombie-ing going around in recent days. It's called: "Let's take a second look at Barry Zito".

Whereas he was the epitome of evil amongst pitchers and overly paid free agents who declined almost immediately upon getting their massive contract ($126 million for 7-years), suddenly, Zito's 200 innings and serviceable performance isn't all that bad anymore. They're now saying that he's actually "solid"; that his contract is irrelevant to what he brings to the table once you get past the contract (and it's taken them three years to come to this conclusion).

Here's Rob Neyer's blog posting on this subject; it also links Craig Calcaterra:

Craig makes a good point about Barry Zito, who says he wants to be really good again:

    Barry Zito is not worth his contract and given that the guy will make $20M+ in 2013, he never will be. And with Tim Lincecum -- and Matt Cain! -- around he will never be the Giants' number one guy.

    But there's every reason to think that he can be a useful part of the Giants rotation for the next several years. He's durable, reliable and if last year is any indication, he's showing that he can learn to pitch without his young man stuff. Indeed, he even flashed some genuine brilliance in a couple of starts against the Rockies late in the season. Plus, seeing he's lefthanded, there's every reason to think that Zito could chug along for many, many more years and wind up with well north of 200 wins.

    That doesn't make him an ace or anything, but the mere fact that Brian Sabean decided to grossly over pay him doesn't render him a punchline.

I was thinking exactly the same thing just the other day.

Look, the contract has been a train wreck, and will continue to be a train wreck. The train wreck's not been as ugly lately, but Zito's never going to be worth $20 million and that's what he's going to earn through 2013 (in 2014, the Giants can pay him $18 million to pitch or $7 million to go away).

He's not worthless, though. Before Zito, the last contract that looked so awful after a couple of years was Mike Hampton's eight-year, $121 million deal. While they were eventually able to trade Hampton for some useful players, they essentially wound up spending $52 million for one decent (14-13, 5.41 ERA) season and one lousy (7-15, 6.15) season. Zito's already given the Giants two seasons better than Hampton's best, and for less money per season (not to mention inflation).

It's fair to bring up Zito's salary when discussing the Giants' finances, because his contract presumably does prevent the organization from doing some other things. But Zito's good enough to pitch (and start) for most teams in the majors. There's little reason to bring up his $126 million contract after every bad start. The joke just isn't funny anymore.

Neyer's right about the true hideousness of a contract and it's something the stat zombies usually ignore. The only reason to rip on a contract given to a certain player----regardless of how good or bad he is----is if it prevents the club from doing something else they need to do. If a team like the Cardinals pays Matt Holliday $120 million, but they're still able to ante up cash to fill other holes, then who cares if they "overpaid" on Holliday?

What difference----aside from one-upsmanship; the "we're smarter than you because we paid less" nonsense; or implications of getting value for money----does it make to them how much money a player gets?

They never have an answer.

So, is Zito going to be worth that money? Will he be a pitcher you'd pay $18-20 million a year for through 2014? Of course not. But it's done. There's nothing that the Giants----aside from Zito getting hurt a la Mo Vaughn and the club being able to collect insurance money----that can be done to change it.

But what of Barry Zito and the Giants?

You want the real lowdown on Barry Zito and the Giants?

Here's the real lowdown on Barry Zito and the Giants.

In the winter of 2006-2007, the Giants were faced with an uncertain future of "Life after Barry" as in Bonds. Bonds was entering the final year of his contract and there was no way, no how, no chance of the club re-signing him no matter what. The Giants were aging and declining; saddled with contracts for veterans that were essentially unmovable. The biggest name on the market was Barry Zito----2006-2007 MLB Free Agent List. So the Giants, needing to move forward with a new face of the franchise as the sun set on the Bonds era, jumped in and grabbed at the top name from across the San Francisco Bay.

Zito was coming off a very good 2006 season with the Athletics (16-10; 3.83 ERA; 221 innings; 211 hits; his usual 99 walks; 151 strikeouts); plus he outdueled Johan Santana in game one of the ALDS before getting shelled by the Tigers in the ALCS. He was the big name----the only name----on the market that had the star power and familiarity with the Bay Area to make the prospect of Bonds's final season more palatable to a fan base for whom the besieged slugger could still do no wrong.

Giants GM Brian Sabean is not stupid. In fact, he's quite smart. For years, the Giants were called "geriatric" and ripped for bringing in one veteran after another to surround the still all-world Bonds with players from whom they'd know what to expect to try and win immediately. Knowing that some of the contracts for the likes of Dave Roberts, Ray Durham, Mike Matheny, et al were unlikely to be fruitful by their conclusion, they signed the players anyway knowing that they had to surround Bonds with veterans.

As controversy surrounded Bonds and his time as the Giants centerpiece was drawing to a close, they had a choice: move forward and wait for Bonds to depart and hope that they could replace him with a glossy name; or jump in, grab a player with a quirky enough personality to make him interesting and on-field ability to place him at the forefront. With the 2007-2008 list of free agents looking even worse than the year before, they grabbed Zito and they paid him a lot of money.

He was up-and-down in 2007, but pitched okay; he looked terrible in 2008 as his velocity was down to the low 80s (if that) and his sharp breaking curve was gone. In 2009, he pitched better, but was similar to what he'd been in 2007. His velocity crept back up to the upper 80s; and his curve regained some semblance of its sharpness. Even as his record was nothing to brag about (10-13), his ancillary numbers were quite solid (4.03 ERA; 192 innings; 179 hits; 81 walks; 154 strikeouts). If the Giants were a better hitting club, Zito would've won 16 games easily.

What also has to be taken into account is how Zito is utilized by manager Bruce Bochy.

An ace pitcher is given leeway to work his way out of trouble. Zito has lost that cachet with his manager. Because his command is poor and he racks up high pitch counts; because his stuff has become so pedestrian; because he blows up at a second's notice and gives up a hit, a walk and a 3-run homer before a reliever can even get his warmup jacket off, Zito is not accorded the rope that Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are.

By the fifth inning, even if he's rolling along with a 2-hit shutout, Bochy already has it in mind how much longer he's going to be able to go with his starter. The Giants popgun offense made this a necessity to win games. They couldn't afford to see a 3-spot go up on the board in the sixth inning, so concessions were made and a seeming lack of respect for a pitcher with Zito's resume; with his salary; and with a Cy Young Award in order to achieve that ultimate end----winning.

It wasn't personal. Zito didn't like seeing his manager ambling out to the mound in the fifth and sixth innings, motioning to the bullpen and taking the ball when he'd give up little more than a single and a walk, but it was the right thing to do. Neither Zito nor his manager had any margin for error because of Zito's stuff is still good enough to get hitters out; but not good enough to give him "one more batter" that the Johan Santanas are going to get.

So what is Barry Zito now? Is he "solid"? Is he a "sunk cost"?


He's a serviceable third starter from whom the club knows what to expect; they've come up with a plan for utilizing him whether he likes it or not. If he were pitching for the Yankees, Red Sox or Angels, he'd win 18 games simply because of the lineups and bullpens. But he's pitching for the Giants, who didn't have the offense to pick him up when he got yanked after 5 innings and 100 pitches. He's still capable of pitching a great game; but he's always on the hair trigger to seeing things explode. The manager knows this; and while it's a something of a slap in the face to Zito, the Giants are using him correctly.

In retrospect, you see how smart Sabean and the Giants actually were. They ran the club according to circumstances. With Bonds, they went for it; post-Bonds, they brought in Zito to give them that recognizable name as they restructured the organization. Look at them now. Even though their offense is still lacking that one big basher, they have enough pitching to counteract that problem and contend; in addition to that, the farm system is loaded with prospects both on the mound and at the plate.

There was no agenda; no template of "this is how we do things" a la Billy Beane and Sandy Alderson; no one treating the strategy as an end rather than a means to getting the job in creating a winning club. Post-Bonds could've been an organizational apocalypse; it could conceivably have taken the Giants 8-10 years to recover from the wreckage.

It took three.

The Giants are poised to jump back into the post-season in part because the signing of Zito gave them time to build again. And they have.

As time passes, the terrible contract will fade into memory if the Giants win. And they will. Zito can be a part of that even if he's not the centerpiece. He'll never be the Cy Young contender he once was, but a a mid-rotation starter, he's a useful component to a contending team. If that happens, who really cares about his contract?

  • I forgot one under the radar bust out yesterday:

Whoops. My mind lapses sometimes.

Only sometimes.

Okay. All the time.

Anyway. Here's one name that I intended to mention as an under the radar player to watch for 2010.

James McDonald, RHP--Los Angeles Dodgers

Some things are worth waiting for even if they don't come until August.

I love his stuff and I'm waiting on him.

The Dodgers need a back-of-the-rotation starter and he's going to get a shot at taking the job, but he has to find some command. I saw McDonald for the first time when he was a surprise addition to the 2008 playoff roster and he came into game 2 of the NLCS. After a few pitches and seeing his 94 mph fastball and off-speed overhand curve, I said, "Where'd this guy come from?!?"

He's tall and thin; his motion's a little herky-jerky with an awkward way of getting his arm into position to come as far over the top as he does; this can contribute to his lack of control; but he's proven everything he can prove in the minors; he showed flashes (aside from his control problems) in the majors; and at age 25, it's time to make his mark. There's a dominating starter in there and he has to put it all together to prove it.

The Dodgers might have to stick him in the rotation and leave him there to figure things out, which is risky in a tough division; but as a fifth starter at the beginning of the season, they can do it and hope he'll get his groove on by the dog days.

I think he will.

All good things to those who wait...


She-Fan said...

I have no personal affection for Zito or the Giants, but I hope Zito has a good season and redeems himself. You're right - the contract was what it was.

Jeff said...

Excellent piece on Zito. Well put. I think a lot of people lose sight of how that contract came to be (including myself). Considering the facts, I still refuse to stop bashing Zito (for now). His failure is my gain... and I am a sick, sick man. Hahahahahaha!

Gabriel said...

And after all, if you get anything more than that from Barry Zito it'd be a bonus.