Nate On Sports: Barry Zito – Version 3.0

One of the feel-good stories of the young 2010 Major League Baseball season not yet receiving attention is the reemergence of Barry Zito.

Now maybe there’s reason for that. It’s important to keep a perspective here – namely, we’re only about one-eighth through the season, and Zito himself has only made four starts. And when you peruse the stats (especially some of the more advanced stats), you’ll find that many of them will probably not last, especially when you compare them to 1.) MLB averages and 2.) Zito’s career averages (and not just his time spent in San Francisco.)

Regarding point number 1, Zito has been extremely lucky in the early going. Zito’s BABIP, which stands for “batting average on balls [put] in play” is extremely low this year (.205 to be exact – thank you FanGraphs) and a rate that is probably unattainable, especially when you consider that the MLB average is .297. Simply put, a greater number of balls put into the field of play are turning into outs than average – in other words, he’s getting lucky. Additionally, he is stranding runners on base at a clip of 82.6%, which is also higher than average and directly related to the low BABIP.

And with regard to point number 2, Zito’s current BB/9 (walks per nine innings pitched) is the lowest of his career. Zito has never been a guy to have the best of control, and while you can’t totally discount this because of his new-found mechanics this past offseason, I would be surprised to see it remain this low. Similarly, his K/BB ratio is the highest it has been since his Cy Young Award-winning season in 2002 with Oakland. Finally, his ground ball to fly ball ratio is a career best 1.03, which is over 10 points higher than his career average of .90. Unsurprisingly then, he has yet to allow a home run. And again, I will be surprised if these numbers hold for the whole year.

So, what you have with Barry Zito through four starts are some pretty sexy stats. Even if they don’t hold throughout the whole year, I think there’s a good chance that he has legitimately turned a corner. I, for one, hope so. I’ve always liked Zito. Maybe it’s because he’s got a cool name (seriously, Barry Zito? Maybe it’s the “Z” factor, but it’s awesome) and maybe it’s just because he’s a pretty quirky and likable guy. I’ve always wished for him to succeed, especially after he signed that massive $126 million contract just a few years ago, because I knew the pressure that he would face.

For about two and a half years, he didn’t succeed. In fact, it was pretty much a failure of the highest magnitude. His ERA that first year with the Giants was 4.53 – decidedly average for a Major League starter, decidedly horrible for a $17 million/year “ace.” It ballooned to 5.15 the following year and was at 5.01 after a July 12 debacle versus San Diego, which saw him give up nine earned runs. This was Barry Zito, Version 2.0, a.k.a. the version that all Giants fans want to pretend never happened. It seemed like Barry Zito, Version 1.0, a.k.a. the Cy Young Award winner with the nasty curveball, was a thing of the past.

Then something happened. It didn’t seem like much at the time, but in retrospect, it may have been the birth of Barry Zito, Version 3.0. The date was July 18 and the opponent was the Pittsburgh Pirates. He didn’t even earn a win, but he pitched better, allowing only two earned runs over six and a third. That would be a preview of the rest of the season, in which he only allowed more than three earned runs in a single start once, a late-season outing versus the Cubs (in comparison, in his first 18 starts of the year, he had 8 outings of four or more earned runs.) His ERA dipped from 5.01 to 4.03 – nothing special, but a step in the right direction.

Fortunately for Zito and the Giants, that success has continued into this season. It was reported that, among other things, he tweaked his mechanics, which added a little more “oomph” to his below-average fastball and a little more “bite” to his above-average curve. By default, making these two pitches better made his change-up better, since the change-up’s effectiveness is based off of the effectiveness of other pitches. Through his four starts this year, he has also been more reliant on his curve, throwing it over 20 percent of the time for the first time since the 2005 season. He also has worked a slider into the mix, featuring it with the same regularity of the change-up. Even more importantly, he is throwing his fastball less, which is a good thing, considering it tops out in the upper 80s on a good day. As a result, all of his pitch types currently have positive values for the first time since 2002, his Cy Young Award winning year.

He also seems to be more dedicated to the game of baseball these days. Much is known about Zito’s quirks and personality, among other things. Remember, this is a guy who takes pink satin pillows on the road. This is a guy who supposedly bought his own autographed baseball cards on eBay. Everyone who follows baseball knows of his love for music and guitars. He’s had his fair share of celebrity girlfriends, including Alyssa Milano, Hilary Duff, and even Paris Hilton. But now, for the first time in quite some time, it appears his love is not with guitars or Paris, but with baseball. He is supposedly in better shape than he’s been in a long time, and the early season results seem to be backing that claim up.

If (and I stress if) Barry Zito, Version 3.0 is in fact more like Barry Zito, Version 1.0 , which the early returns seem to indicate, San Fransisco fans can officially start to get giddy about their chances this year. I don’t know if I’d favor them over the Phillies yet, but it would be Philly and San Fran and then everybody else in the National League. Even with an average Barry Zito, this Giants rotation is probably the best in the Majors. With a good (or as it stands now, great) Barry Zito, this Giants rotation is unfathomably awesome, even with Todd Wellemeyer in the fifth rotation spot (not that he’d pitch in the playoffs anyways.)

I’m not telling you to root for Barry Zito. I’m never going to tell you to root for a guy who makes $17 million a year. But I’ll tell you this: as a country, there’s two things we unquestionably love – characters and a comeback story. Barry Zito is both, and I’ll sure be rooting for him.