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.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Game Picks - Friday: October 19, 2012

The playoff picks were 2-0 yesterday and three for three in the last three picks. That is much better for the psyche of the picker, but it doesn't bring much mirth since one of the games eliminated a certain team from the post season. Ah well. But that elimination does mean that there will never be more than one game played on any given day until the World Series is over. That will make for much less typing, but not necessarily much less fun in the enterprise. More is always the merrier for this baseball FANatic.

It is really a shame that the end of the ALCS is focusing more attention on the "failure" of the losing team than on the success of the winning team. The Detroit Tigers played a phenomenal series and their pitching was unreal from beginning to end. And once Jose Valverde was taken out of the picture, there were no cracks in the Tigers' pitching armor. They had a good game plan, they executed it perfectly and they won and deserve to be in the World Series.

The series also threw this picker for a bit of a loop on the whole way we value players. One superstar, Miguel Cabrera, never seemed to be off balance, always seemed to hit the ball hard and never seemed to be over-matched. The other superstar, Robinson Cano, scored higher on the valuation scale this season, but he paled in comparison. And bad luck and BABIP had nothing to do with it. Cano's holes were exploited and his contact (when he made contact) was tepid. Hmm...

The Cardinals are in the driver's seat in the NLCS after taking a commanding 3-1 lead in the series with yesterday's win. Will the Cards close it out today in front of the home fans? Or will they have to take the series back to San Francisco? And the pick is:

  • The Cardinals over the Giants: Both teams are pitching their weakest starter. Barry Zito had a surprisingly good season. Lance Lynn had a good season overall, but his second half was dicey to say the least. And he got swished his last start in the post season. So, from a picking standpoint, both pitchers are a wash. With that being the case, the home field gives the Cards a huge advantage and they have a much better offense than the Giants. The Cards go on to their second straight World Series as the wild card team. Ugh.

Yesterday: 2-0
Post season: 12-18
Season: 1345-1085

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Game Picks - Thursday: October 18, 2012

Can you believe it!? A playoff pick here was correct? :::thud::: Amazing. And it was the Cardinals too! The postponement of the ALCS game was a bit silly considering that the weather was not that bad in Detroit. But it did give this doggone post series its first positive playoff day since the proceedings started. And how about that performance by Jason Motte the hoopla? Electric. Of course, it was not electric to Simon Cowell as Fox totally botched the evening on all sides of that rain delay. But we are baseball fans. Who cares, right?

Weather permitting, there should be two games today. The Tigers and Yankees will both go with the same match ups for starting pitching as was planned yesterday and Joe Girardi and the Yankees' think machine will still sit the players that got them to the dance. How is that going to work, eh? Our "B" team against your "A" team? Whatever.

The picks:

  • The Tigers over the Yankees: Yeah, so CC Sabathia is pitching. The Yankees still have to hit. And with Girardi pulling the ripcord on the lineup card for match ups instead of living and dying with his best players, things are not going to get better. Sabathia will make one or two mistakes. One will be to Miguel Cabrera and the other will be to that guy who is terrible against everyone except the Yankees, Delmon Young. A sweep sure is an ignoble way for a team to go. But hey, they made the flawed Tigers look like the best team ever, so they deserve what they get. Yeah, this was copied and pasted from yesterday. So? It was not mentioned yesterday that Max Scherzer is pitching for the Tigers.
  • The Cardinals over the Giants: The Cardinals will continue to use the energy of their home fans to rocket them through another game. Tim Lincecum gets the start for the Giants and that could work out for them as he seems to have rediscovered some of his mojo. But his season still is a concern overall. Adam Wainwright did not fare well earlier in the post season and he will need to have a better performance this time out. It appears that Carlos Beltran is okay and should be available. That is more good news for the Cardinals.

Yesterday: 1-0
Post season: 10-18
Season: 1343-1085

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Comparing Justin Verlander to Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale

Putting current pitchers in a historical perspective is a slippery business. The game is not the same from decade to decade. We have tools like FIP and ERA+ to compare current pitchers to pitchers of the past and WAR comparisons from then and now. But it really doesn't do the current pitcher any justice to try to place them in a historical context. This point was considered this morning a day after watching Justin Verlander pitch against the Yankees in Game Three of the 2012 ALCS. Hall of Fame consideration really needs to stick with how a player compared to the players of his own generation. And Verlander is tracking in the right direction as he is the best pitcher in the game right now. With all that said, it is still fun to try and pit a current player against a player of the past.

According to, the 29 year old Justin Verlander's career thus far stacks up most closely with a 29 year old Mike Mussina. But the two were extremely different pitchers. While it seems that both got the job done in a wonderful way, Mussina was never a blow-you-away kind of pitcher. So, as the thought exercise continued, the internal question was: "Who does Verlander seem the most like in the past?"

Pedro Martinez came to mind as he had an assortment of pitches like Verlander and struck out a lot of batters. But Verlander pales in that comparison. Martinez started younger, but his first eight years stacked against Verlander's first eight years are not close. For example, Martinez averaged an ERA+ of 162 in his first seven full seasons. Verlander has a seven-year career ERA+ of 128.

So who then? The mental image went back to two pitchers (which is an advantage of being old): Bob Gibson and Don Drysdale. And the exercise in comparing the three was quite fun. Gibson was a year older than Verlander when he broke into the big leagues. Gibson was not allowed to start full time until his third season and Verlander became a full time starter in his second season. Comparing Verlander to Drysdale was a little harder because Drysdale started younger. So his first eight seasons were used for the comparison. Here is a few of the stats on how the three compare:

  • rWAR:  Verlander (34.2), Drysdale (32.2), Gibson (29.3)
  • ERA+:   Verlander (128), Drysdale (128), Gibson (124.5)
  • Wins:     Verlander (124), Drysdale (123), Gibson (112)
  • WHIP:   Verlander (1.173), Drysdale (1.183), Gibson (1.230)
  • Strikeouts:  Verlander (1454), Drysdale (1487), Gibson (1435)
  • HR/9:     Verlander (0.79), Drysdale (0.81), Gibson (0.71)

Those are pretty interesting comparisons. The funny thing is that we never know how a career will end up. Bob Gibson would go on to post the best years of his career after this time frame and would pitch until he was 39. Drysdale had already done his best work and would have five more great seasons before retiring after his Age 32 season.

Drysdale and particularly, Gibson, were terrific post season pitchers. And Verlander is starting to build a legacy there too. All three were big, powerful and, in some ways, menacing. All three were terrific and Verlander holds up very well against these two Hall of Fame pitchers.

Bottom line? Justin Verlander is something special that we should appreciate. They don't come along like him too often.

Game Picks - Wednesday: October 17, 2012

The ridiculously awful performance of these picks in the playoffs continue. How bad is it? If both LCS went full term and the World Series went to seven games, not missing a single pick the rest of the way would barely even out the record. Ugh. The entire year of picking is going down in flames faster than the Yankees against the Tigers. Oh yeah, that pick was wrong too. But what can you expect when the Yankees' starter, Phil Hughes, blows out a disc in his back in the fourth inning and Justin Verlander is getting called strikes five or six inches outside on a night he didn't have his best control? And that lineup that Joe Girardi put out there? Whuh? Sure, with the season on the line, put out your "B" team lineup. Okay. That will work. And why oh why do these games have to start so late? If school children want to watch, they are zombies at school. But who cares about bridging fans to the next generation when there are a few extra television dollars to be had? Got it.

Yeah, this picker is grouchy. So sue then. Here are Wednesday's picks:

  • The Cardinals over the Giants: Kyle Lohse at home seems to be a logical pick. Matt Cain is an ace, but even aces have to face that Cardinal lineup that has no letup in it at all. And even Matt Holliday has to hit some time. Just don't hit a ball to him out there in left field. This is going to be a good series. Two plucky teams that have been here before.
  • The Tigers over the Yankees. Yeah, so C.C. Sabathia is pitching. The Yankees still have to hit. And with Girardi pulling the ripcord on the lineup card for match ups instead of living and dying with his best players, things are not going to get better. Sabathia will make one or two mistakes. One will be to Miguel Cabrera and the other will be to that guy who is terrible against everyone except the Yankees, Delmon Young. A sweep sure is an ignoble way for a team to go. But hey, they made the flawedTigers look like the best team ever, so they deserve what they get. 

Yesterday: 0-1
Post season: 9-18
Season: 1342-1085

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Game Picks - Tuesday: October 16, 2012

There was only one pick yesterday and since it included the St. Louis Cardinals, of course it was wrong. Chris Carpenter still looked mean, but he couldn't get the job done as the Giants scored four runs against him (yes, two were unearned) and the Giants won easily. This is a series where the unlikeliest World Series champ of 2010 meets the unlikeliest WS champ of 2011. So anything can happen because both teams know how to pull rabbits out of their hats.

But the NLCS takes a break today and instead we get the Tigers and Yankees. Ugh. Justin Verlander versus Phil Hughes in Detroit. The Yankees are already down, two games to none, have lost Derek Jeter and can't seem to hit a tree four-wheeling in a dense forest.  So is the pick that cut and dried then?

  • The Yankees over the Tigers: The Yankees may be on their backs, but they are not dead yet. Verlander is only 5-4 in his career against them and two of his three starts against the Yankees in 2012 have been ordinary. And Phil Hughes is no slouch. Hughes pitched brilliantly against the Orioles in the ALDS and has handled the Tigers pretty well in 2012 and for his career. His career strikeout to walk ratio against the Tigers is 4.0 and it was 3.8 this season in his two outings.The Yankees have nothing to lose, can breathe a little easier being out of New York where everyone is currently against them and perhaps, just perhaps, their bats might come alive. Then again, perhaps Justin Verlander can throw a no-hitter too. As you can see, based on the playoff record of this picker down below, this picker has nothing to lose either.

Yesterday: 0-1
Post season: 9-17  [terrible]
Season: 1342-1084

Monday, October 15, 2012

Game Picks - Monday: October 15, 2012

The post season continues to confound this game picker. Well, one out of two isn't terrible. But there hasn't been a post season day yet where the picks were over .500. The big mistake yesterday was in not picking the Cardinals to win. They have this post season thing down after two years of running on full throttle. And their formula is simple. They do not let up offensively and they throw as many relievers out there until one of them can stop the other team.

As for the Yankees, we will not speak of them here. Suffice it to say that yesterday's rant against them was totally earned and they lived up to all of it yesterday.

Only one game on tap for today as the NLCS continues. The pick:

  • The Cardinals over the Giants: Who cares what kind of season Chris Carpenter had or how few his reps have been since he got back. His post season record? 10-2, 2.88. Are you going to argue with that? He is an arrogant mofo, but he knows how to minimize damage in the playoffs and that's what you need from your starter. Ryan Vogelsong, like Madison Bumgarner (yesterday's loser) is perplexing. His season numbers look good, but he had stretches where he couldn't get anyone out. There is simply no confidence at this point that he can slow down the Cardinals' offense. Cards win.

Yesterday: 1-1
Post season: 9-16
Season: 1342-1083

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Game Picks - Sunday: October 14, 2012

Last night's game between the Yankees and the Tigers was crushing. It was not crushing because the Yankees lost. Teams lose and in a seven game series, there is time for a team to rebound. It was crushing because this picker's favorite player ever, Derek Jeter, is done for the playoffs with a fractured ankle. Feel however you want to feel about Derek Jeter. Don't really care. Talk to any player in the league. The guy is an icon even among superstars. And even so, none of that matters. This is a site called the Flagrant Fan and the Fan part of that equation fell in love with Derek Jeter a long time ago. So it doesn't matter what you think. It doesn't matter what Jeff Passan thinks (Jeter fractured his ankle because he was old!?). It doesn't matter that a respected Seattle blogger was mean-spirited enough to say that Jeter's range was unaffected by his fractured ankle. It is a personal blow. It hurts deeply. And the playoffs have almost become a dead deal here. Sorry. That's just the feelings inside. Take the good with the bad, people.

So it's good that this game picker is on the road and writing this from a lousy hotel's lousy fusion-whatever wireless account. It's good that the long drive home will mean missing the game. No longer want to see it. But picks must be made. Because that's what this site does. Sunday's picks:

  • The Tigers over the Yankees: No longer care. The Yankees can't drive people in during the easiest of circumstance. Bases loaded? No problem. Just strike out three guys in a row. Don't worry about the batter making contact and scoring a run on an out. No contact happens. Just throw the ball in the dirt, or six inches outside. They will swing at it. Raul Ibanez has masked so much crappy offense this post season. Alex Rodriguez takes all the heat, but they all suck at it. Name a name and you'll name one that chokes in the easiest scoring scenarios. Just make the game last long enough to get David Phelps in there, Tigers. That's all. Hiroki Kuroda on short rest is the diciest of pitching decisions this post season by Girardi. The guy has always been better with MORE rest, not less. Anibal Sanchez, like Doug Fister, like Jason Hammel, like Joe Saunders, will look like Cy Young against the Yankees' offense. And no soul. It's over.
  • The Giants over the Cardinals: The Giants might out pluck the pluckiest team ever in the Cardinals. Lance Lynn gets the start. Does that sound like a good idea for the Cardinals? The last time we saw him was against Werth. We all saw how that went. Madison Bumgarner will need to pitch a brilliant game though and someone needs to help Buster Posey on that Giants' offense. 

Yesterday: 0-1
Post season: 8-15
Season: 1341-1082