Saturday, October 20, 2012

Barry Zito and social media create magic

Barry Zito, the man most associated with bad baseball contracts, just pitched seven and two-thirds shutout innings against the best hitting team in the National League to send the National League Championship Series back to San Francisco. The Giants, dodged behind a 1-3 series disadvantage, avoided an elimination in St. Louis and lived to play another day. Zito averaged around 84 MPH on his fastball and topped out at 86. But the Cardinal hitters could not get the sweet part of their bats on anything Zito threw and lost the game, 5-0. Zito's performance rode along with a wave of hashtag heaven on Twitter as #rallyZito began spontaneously in the late hours (West Coast time) Thursday night and produced thousands of tweets. While perhaps schadenfreude for Cardinal fans, it was a magical moment for baseball as performance and a social wave aligned.

Just in case you are one of the few not familiar with the Barry Zito saga, it began in the year 2000 as a 22 year old Zito hit the big leagues for the then flying Oakland Athletics. After an impressive rookie season, Zito won forty games combined in 2001 and 2002 and won the Cy Young Award in the latter of those two seasons. The A's made the playoffs in all three of his initials seasons.

For those paying attention, Zito's numbers started to lag after the 2002 season. He did go 55-46 over the next four seasons with Oakland and was durable and reliable. But his strikeout rate dipped, his homers per nine rate rose as did his ERA.

Many in the analytic community were paying attention and went agog when the Giants signed Zito to a free agent contract for seven years at $126 million starting in 2007. The six seasons that have already expired during that contract included 2012. In those six seasons, Zito's numbers look like this:

  • 58-69 with an ERA of 4.47. A WHIP of 1.404 and a strikeout to walk ratio of 1.58. 

After compiling an rWAR of 29.2 in his seven years at Oakland, he has compiled only 3.8 in six years with the Giants. Things got so bad that he was left off the post season roster in 2010 and it was whispered that the Giants were inventing injuries to keep Zito from pitching much of 2011. lists what each season was worth for each player in the value their performance brought the team. In six years with the Giants, Zito has been worth exactly $30 million in performance. He has been paid $99 million. So, yes. the contract wasn't the smartest thing the Giants have ever done.

But kind of a funny thing happened in 2012. The Giants had some injuries in the rotation and Tim Lincecum fell apart in the first half and the Giants gave the ball to Zito for 32 starts. His record of 15-8 is much more impressive than the underlying numbers that support it (4.49 FIP for example). But still. Though his velocity has fallen off so hard that some of Dickey's knuckleballs go faster, Zito has found a way to compete and win his share of games. Heck, he even threw his first complete game shutout since 2003!

Zito wasn't left off the post season roster this time. And he got the ball in the NLDS against the Reds. Though the Giants won the game he started, it wasn't because of Zito. He only lasted two and two-thirds innings and of the sixteen batters he faced, eight of them reached base safely.

And then he was tapped to start Game Five of the NLCS. His team was facing elimination. Zito on the hill in such a situation couldn't have filled Giants fans with good feelings.

But then the hashtag started. And it took off. And a fan base with little else to lose decided to embrace the serendipity of their season hanging in the balance with the erstwhile Zito scheduled to pitch. Instead of it being something dreaded, it became a celebration. Did it rub off on the players? Perhaps that is giving the public too much credit. But who knows. There is such a thing as positive energy and the hashtag seemed to generate that in spades.

And there was Zito on the mound. The guy is ruggedly handsome and his performance somewhat reminded of a Kevin Costner movie as the old guy pitching the game of his life. There wasn't much ammo in the arsenal. A dead fish fastball a cut above a BP version, a looping curve. Zito says he has five pitches, but they all seemed just a cut above slop.

But Cardinal batters were jumping out of their shoes to hit those pitches and simply could not get good wood on the ball. When they did, Scutaro would make a diving, spinning play. Hunter Pence would somehow catch a ball in a slide that hit his throwing hand and not the glove and yet Pence trapped the ball between his wrist and his midsection to get the out. It was that kind of night. And it was glorious in its improbability.

Zito is never going to live down that contract, which of course, is not his fault. The Giants gave it to him after all. But if this Game Five is the lasting image of his time as a Giant, that would be cool too. And if the Giants can climb all the way back to take this series to the end? Then Zito's game will become legend.

That improbable start following the rally cap of all hashtags made magic tonight. For sure, it is head-scratching magic, but what the heck, it sure was a lot of fun.


Dave Edlund said...

It was a special game last night for Giants fans. The pitcher who many fans have said was WORTHLESS became PRICELESS last night and saved our 2012 season for yet another game. I am looking forward to being in McCovey Cove in my kayak and cheering for our team on Sunday and I am so grateful that Barry Zito gave me this extra day of baseball becasue I live for baseball! So if Barry Zito believes in unicorns, I guess I do too now!!! :)

Bill Miller said...

Can you imagine a possible World Series match-up between power pitcher Justin Verlander, and Barry (Junkball) Zito?
They might pitch to a scoreless, nine-inning tie.

Anonymous said...

Game 1 Zito versus Verlander looks possible.