Thursday, March 10, 2011

A Creepy Kind of Love

Last week I bought the The Hardball Times 2011 Baseball Annual. I wasn’t planning to buy it when I got to the bookstore, but I was frustrated with my inability to find any other book I wanted to purchase. I scanned through the table of contents to ensure that I would be interested in at least a handful of articles, and the section on the future of fielding sold me.

Today, I flipped open to a random page in the back and about had a heart attack when I saw “The Curious Case of Barry Zito” by Max Marchi. If I were to show you the extent of my fascination with Zito’s career from 2006 (when I started watching baseball and the A’s, telling myself from day one that I would never be a Zito fan and then failing miserably) until now, you might suggest that I look into hiring a therapist. Or perhaps not, since you’re reading this blog. People seem to tolerate the eccentricities of others when they themselves are interested in the ephemera.

Starting into my life as a baseball fan, Zito captivated me with his curveball. I’m sure that others of you, whether you want to admit to it or not, have admired that old 12-6 of his. I used to say, “When he’s got that curve looping and his fastball locating, he’s one of the best in baseball.” I may have been exaggerating a little, but come on. You haven’t experienced baseball until you’ve watched some accomplished slugger watch that curve fall in for a low strike, caught looking, and that baffled expression settled across his face as he walks to the dugout.

So I eagerly dove into this article over my lunch break, stopping to explain to co-workers why I was so excited for this piece. “I’ve been keeping track of his fastball velocity since 2008, I’ve analyzed his starts the best I know how, read everything anyone’s written about him, and listened to everything he’s ever said to the media. Here’s someone who’s taken the time to look deeper into the numbers than I have the ability to do, and I want to see if we’ve come to the same conclusions.”

Yeah, I got some strange looks.

I, like everyone else in baseball, was of the general opinion that the 7-year, $126M contract the Giants offered Zito was absolutely ridiculous.* Despite being an irrational fan of his, I couldn’t see anything he offered the Giants, even off the field, to be worth that much. I checked up on his numbers after the deal was announced and was flabbergasted to see that he’d somehow managed to notch up 16 wins. Surely the Giants weren’t looking solely at that?

Marchi notes that if we look at statistics which actually mean something, Zito’s 2006 year was actually the worst of his career. Stupid San Francisco, right? His 2007 and 2008 seasons were pretty bad, but not as bad as ESPN made them out to be -- which is where I jump in to say I told you so -- and the shocking thing was that in 2009, Zito got better. And not just better, but arguably good.

What Marchi is really after, however, is figuring out why this happened. Going in, I had my guesses. One doesn’t read, hear, and see everything Barry’s done in the baseball world since 2006 and not have a pretty decent grasp of what’s going on with his numbers. His velocity increased, despite pitchers’ tendencies to throw softer as they age and Zito’s being on the wrong side of 30. Marchi doesn’t make a guess as to why the velocity increased from 2008 to 2009, and only tosses out “one wonders whether Zito had some minor physical problems during that period” as something to consider. I’ve had particular interest in fastball velocity** so I’ll focus my comments on velocity, not the difference in movement of Zito’s pitches from 2008-2010.

So here’s where my scary memory comes in. There are three things I’d like to mention, gathered from various places around the web, but all mentioned at one time or another during The Unicorn Hour, a radio show Zito periodically does with Mychael Urban.

1. Regarding Marchi’s throwaway comment about a possible injury, Zito had a wrist injury in late 2007. I remember being shocked that he mentioned it with Urban [at 10:30], not having read anything about a wrist injury in specific or any injury ever.*** That immediately explained away a lot of the confusion I’d had about just why he was so bad in 2007. Then I had two thoughts that made me think a little harder. The first was me wondering why he hadn’t admitted earlier that he was injured, in a get-off-my-back-I’m-hurt-that-explains-my-suckitude kind of way. The second thought was that of course he didn’t talk about the injury, because then it would seem like he was making excuses. So there’s that.

2. Zito spent the 2008-2009 off-season training with none other than Brian Wilson. They cite long toss sessions over canyons as one way they kept in shape for baseball. It’s a well-documented fact that typically, Zito doesn’t do a lot of off-season workouts. He’s been quoted multiple times as saying, “You can’t pull fat.” (Maybe Rich Harden should take that advice?) I have to imagine that one off-season of actually working out could be at least partially responsible for an increase in velocity.

3. The New Windup premiered in Spring Training of 2007 was ditched that same day. Marchi seems to make the claim that that particular new delivery was the same one he used throughout 2007 and 2008. Zito says [at 2:14] that his 2008 windup was the same one he’s always done and that everyone knows. Now, Urban does quote Rick Peterson as saying Zito’s a tinkerer, but it’s unclear if Marchi is aware that the infamous failed delivery change died a quick death a few moments after it was debuted. (For what it’s worth, Zito has always seemed bitter about this whole incident.) Zito did, however, remove the over-the-head hand movement that he used with the A’s, but still kept the high leg kick. Marchi presents convincing evidence that Zito’s release point has dropped and I won’t argue with that.

I can’t express in words how excited I was to see a whole 7 page article dedicated to Barry Zito’s turnaround. As far as the numbers go, I was not surprised by anything presented. I’ve been keeping track of Zito’s fastball and curveball velocities from 2008 literally pitch by pitch, so seeing the velocity jump from 2008 to 2009 was not at all surprising to me. It seemed a bit incomplete, however, without the references to Zito’s minor wrist injury in 2007, his 2008-2009 off-season workouts, and the 2007 Delivery Debacle. But that’s all fixed now!

Next up: A complete analysis of Barry Zito’s hitting and how it’s improved from 2007-2011.

(Totally kidding.

Or am I?****)

*Listing his reasons for choosing the Giants, Zito claims in Part One of The State of the Union that there was more money on the table with another team. I choose to believe him because I’m a sucker, but just about everyone else I’ve talked to about this has called bullshit. [You can download from that link, FWD to 10:36] Additionally, I’d like to comment here that Zito was dead-on about the Giants being a championship team in a few seasons.

**In particular, Zito’s velocity in relation to how well he pitches, and Rich Harden’s velocity in relation to how healthy he is.

*** Clearly I missed the Spring Training article I cited above, which I hadn't read until today. I've spent about three hours listening to various Zito/Urban interviews trying to find that quote in particular and only found it after I'd given up. The audio for the August 24, 2008 interview, taped live, was running in the background of my clackity-clacking keyboard tapping elsewhere about Rich Harden's Italian sportscar body. Yeah, what? Exactly.

****You totally thought I’d forgotten to close my parenthetical, didn’t you?