Giants fans are going to be shocked by what they see with Barry Zito this season. Zito will be shocked, too, as he struggles to stay above .500.
Zito is a flyball pitcher. Last year, he had a great defensive outfield behind him with the A’s, with three players who had played significant stretches in center field: Milton Bradley, Mark Kotsay and Jay Payton.
The Giants’ outfield doesn’t approach that standard. Randy Winn is not as good as Bradley, Dave Roberts isn’t as good as Kotsay and Barry Bonds ... well, Bonds was a great defensive outfielder in the ’90s, but he’s below average now.
Prediction: There will be many times this season when a batter hits a fly ball that Zito expects to be caught. But, ohmigawd, there it is falling in for a double or triple.
Zito’s second problem is that he’s extraordinarily dependent on the umpires. When they won’t call his 12-to-6 curve a strike, he has no out pitch — and he piles up the walks, 99 last season. Since he won’t adjust his pitching to the umpiring, his pitch count soars and he comes out early, explaining, "I was trying to be too fine out there."
His third problem is that the velocity on his fastball has declined.
Zito’s fastball was always marginal, seldom getting into even the low 90s. Now, it’s more in the 84-85 mph range.
It isn’t just the speed of pitches that is important, but the range between high and low among a pitcher’s main pitches. Jason Schmidt could throw an 85 mph changeup which was effective because it was 10-12 mph slower than the fastball hitters were expecting. Zito throws a curve in the low ’70s, but the difference between his fastest and slowest pitches is narrowing.
When Zito had more support from umpires, a better fastball and a strong outfield defense behind him, he had a Cy Young year in 2002. Since then, his numbers have trended down. To be successful, he will need strong run support. But last year’s Giants were only tied for 10th in the National League in runs scored. And it’s hard to see how this year’s team will be more productive.
Zito’s signing was a desperate move by the Giants. They had badly misjudged the free agent market and underbid for the two most productive offensive players available, Alfonso Soriano and Carlos Lee. Meanwhile, after promises of a younger team, they had continued to sign older players.
They desperately needed to make a big splash in the free agent market, so they paid Zito far more than he’s worth. A pitcher who seemed to be headed toward a five-year, $75 million contract suddenly signed an eight-year contract that could bring him $136 million. For that money, the Giants could have gotten Soriano, who would have been an offensive anchor for years.
Zito brings some personal positives to the Giants. He is a very personable young man, cooperative with the media, friendly to fans. The Giants like to think he will be the face of the franchise over the length of his contract.
But to fulfill that role, Zito has to be a standout pitcher. He no longer has the ability to do that, and .500 pitchers don’t cut it as the face of the franchise.