Baseball BeatDecember 30, 2006
Zito Shuffle
By Rich Lederer

Zito, whoa-oh-oh-oh....
He's for the money, he's for the show
Zito's a-waitin' for another go
Zito, whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh....
"one more job oughta get it"
"One last shot, and we quit it"
"One more for the road"

With apologies to Boz Scaggs (but not Barry Zito), the former Cy Young Award winner has left that shack in Oakland and shuffled across the bay to the San Francisco Giants. Zito may have missed the boat on his way but that was all he missed because he ain't coming back.

Brian Sabean put the money down and let her roll. If it doesn't work out, he will be heading for the borderline, having gone broke.

What can I say? Here's the lowdown on the signing:


  • Has started 34 or 35 games every full season in his big league career. No active pitcher has had a longer streak of starting 34 or more games.

  • Pitched at least 210 innings for six consecutive years. Only Roger Clemens (1986-92), Tom Glavine (1996-2002), and Livan Hernandez(2000-06), among actives, have thrown as many innings for seven straight seasons.

  • Managed to keep his ERA under 4.50 every year since his rookie campaign in 2000. Greg Maddux (1988-2006), Pedro Martinez (1993-2006), and Clemens (2000-06) are the only starters with longer current streaks.

  • He is smart, as evidenced by the fact that he chose to sign with a team that plays its home games in a pitcher friendly ballpark in the inferior...oops, National League.


  • His K/9 rate (6.15) has been in decline since his first full season (8.61).

  • At the same time, his BB/9 rate (4.03) has climbed to its highest level since 2001 (3.36).

  • As a result, the all-important K/BB rate (1.53) was not only at a career low in 2006 but 25% below the league average.

    Here are a couple of Zito's pitching lines. Which one do you suppose produced the better ERA?

     G  GS   IP    H  HR  BB   SO 
    34  34  213  216  28  81  163 
    34  34  221  211  27  99  151

    The seasons are so close statistically that it would be difficult to favor one over the other. One could argue the top because of the lower BB and higher SO totals. Another person could make a case for the bottom due to the slightly lower hit and home run per 9 IP rate. Well, guess what? The first set of numbers produced an ERA of 4.48 in 2004, the second 3.83 in 2006.

    Maybe Zito was a bit unlucky in 2004 or a bit lucky in 2006. OK, average the two and you get an ERA of 4.16. For what it's worth, Zito's Fielding Independent Pitching ERA (FIP) last year was 4.94, his Defense Independent Pitching Run Average (DIPS 3.0) was 4.65 (which equates to an ERA of about 4.40-4.45), and his Component ERA (ERC) was 4.47. In other words, he looks more like a guy who should have an ERA in the 4s than the 3s.

    In addition, the number of baserunners Zito allowed last year (13.15 BR/9) and his ERA (3.83) are not consistent with one another - at least not based on the results of other pitchers with a similar penchant for giving up hits, walks, and hit by pitches.

    (Minimum of 100 IP)

                                   ERA     BR/9 IP   
    1   Barry Zito                 3.83     13.15   
    2   Jeff Suppan                4.12     13.45   
    3   Jake Westbrook             4.17     13.03   
    4   Andy Pettitte              4.20     13.02   
    5   Mark Hendrickson           4.21     13.06   
    6   Aaron Cook                 4.23     12.87   
    7   Ted Lilly                  4.31     13.08   
    8   Brad Penny                 4.33     12.81   
    9   Cliff Lee                  4.40     13.01   
    10  Gil Meche                  4.48     13.26   
    11  Vicente Padilla            4.50     13.19   
    12  Aaron Sele                 4.53     13.24   
    13  Ian Snell                  4.74     13.26   
    14  Noah Lowry                 4.74     12.88   
    15  Chan Ho Park               4.81     13.17   
    16  Kris Benson                4.82     12.98   
    17  Ricky Nolasco              4.82     13.37   
    18  Claudio Vargas             4.83     13.15   
    19  Jamie Shields              4.84     13.28   
    20  Cory Lidle                 4.85     13.18   
    21  Tim Hudson                 4.86     13.31   
    22  Esteban Loaiza             4.89     13.03   
    23  Mark Buehrle               4.99     13.28   
    24  Luke Hudson                5.12     13.32   
    25  Enrique Gonzalez           5.67     12.87
    Source: Complete Baseball Encyclopedia  

    The average ERA and BR/9 of the above 25 pitchers was 4.61 and 13.13, respectively. Importantly, the average BR/9 was essentially the same as Zito's but the ERA was 0.78 higher (or a not insignificant 20%).

    To Zito's credit, his actual ERA has consistently defied his FIP and DIPS calculations, as well as his PECOTA projections. He is obviously doing something well that isn't being captured in these systems. The most obvious abnormality is Zito's outstanding career Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of .269 (vs. a more normal league-wide rate of about .300). It should be noted that the one year (2004) in which Barry had a BABIP of .300, his ERA was 4.48.

    Looking at his batted ball data adds some insight to the lefty's proficiency. A fly ball pitcher, Zito gets more than his share of infield popups and gives up fewer HR/FB than the average pitcher. Zito unquestionably has been a beneficiary of a big ballpark with a large foul territory, both of which help convert batted balls in the air into outs. The combination of Oakland's Defensive Efficiency, friendly pitching environment at home, and strong bullpen support have undoubtedly helped Zito over the years.

    We are about to find out just how much. AT&T Park has shifted from one that heavily favored pitchers to a much more neutral site the past few years. It is prone to doubles and triples but suppresses home runs about as much as any big league stadium. He will certainly benefit by changing leagues, which (among other pluses) means facing the opposing pitcher a couple of times per game rather than a designated hitter.

    Don't be surprised if Zito's K/9 and HR/9 rates improve next year, offset at least partially by a higher BABIP. Netting it all out suggests to me that his ERA should be around 4.00, plus or minus 0.25. An ERA better than the league average coupled with a minimum of 210 IP means he will be a valuable pitcher in 2007. I'm just not sure he will be so valuable as to dictate $18M per year nor am I confident that he will be producing at this level in the back-end of his contract.

    Zito, whoa-oh-oh-oh-oh-oh....

  • Comments

    Hello Rick,
    It certainly appears as if pitchers who give up near 13 baserunners per 9 innings have ERAs over 4. But there are other anamolies in the list you have. For example, the pitcher tied for the second fewest baserunners per 9 innings (12.87) has the highest ERA by far (5.67) while the pitcher with the most baserunners allowed/9 (13.45) has the second lowest ERA ((4.12). In other words, despite allowing .58 baserunners fewer/9, Gonzalez had an ERA 1.55 higher than Suppan did, about double the difference between Zito's ERA and the average of the listed pitchers.

    Doesn't that suggest that there is no clear relationship between the two factors you identify? A cursory look at the list suggests other similar, if not as extreme, anamolies.

    And don't be surprised if his hit-rate explodes. He's going from a defense that has 3 players who can CF to a team w/out an above-average CF and moving into a park with a spacious outfield: Bonds is a statue and Roberts has below-average range in CF, only Wynn in RF has plus-range for the position...

    Over the years, there has been a pretty strong correlation between BR/9 and ERA. It's not a perfect fit but the number of baserunners tends to explain a good deal of one's ERA. Hits are more damaging than BB and HBP so pitchers who give up a relatively high number of hits vs. BB and HBP will normally have higher ERAs than others with similar BR/9. The type of hits (HR vs. singles) is also an important consideration with those who give up more long balls obviously feeling the effects in their ERAs more than others. A couple of more minor differentiating factors include GIDP rate and SB/SB%. Lastly, the ability to get a strikeout or a popup with a runner on third and less than two outs will influence one's ERA, too.

    Here is a list of the top ten BR/9 last year shown side-by-side with their ERAs:

    BASERUNNERS/9 IP              BR/9 IP     ERA    
    1    Johan Santana              9.13     2.77   
    2    Chris Carpenter           10.03     3.09   
    3    Roy Halladay              10.10     3.19   
    4    Mike Mussina              10.22     3.51   
    5    Brandon Webb              10.42     3.10   
    6    Chris Young               10.49     3.46   
    7    Roy Oswalt                10.77     2.98   
    8    Bronson Arroyo            10.88     3.29   
    9    C.C. Sabathia             10.88     3.22   
    10   Greg Maddux               10.97     4.20   

    Here is a list of the top ten ERA last year shown side-by-side with their BR/9:

    ERA                             ERA    BR/9 IP   
    1    Johan Santana              2.77     9.13   
    2    Roy Oswalt                 2.98    10.77   
    3    Chris Carpenter            3.09    10.03   
    4    Brandon Webb               3.10    10.42   
    5    Roy Halladay               3.19    10.10   
    6    C.C. Sabathia              3.22    10.88   
    7    Bronson Arroyo             3.29    10.88   
    8    Carlos Zambrano            3.41    12.03   
    9    Chris Young                3.46    10.49   
    10   John Smoltz                3.49    11.06

    Mike Mussina and Greg Maddux were the only pitchers in the top ten in BR/9 who didn't finish in the top ten in ERA. Mussina was 11th and Maddux was 39th. As such, only Maddux was really an anomaly here (and he was 10th in BR/9). He gives up relatively more hits than BB and HBP and a fair share of HR with a below-average strikeout rate.

    John Smoltz and Carlos Zambrano were the only pitchers who were in the top ten in ERA who didn't finish in the top ten in BR/9. Smoltz was 12th and Zambrano 32nd. Zambrano was the only anomaly here and, not surprisingly, he gives up a relatively high number of BB vs. H and gets a lot of strikeouts.

    The bottom line is that 10 pitchers were in the top dozen in the majors in both BR/9 and ERA. As it relates to Zito, a high BR/9 rate does not bode well for his ERA, especially if he gives up more hits (as compared to BB and HBP). He can get away with a higher BR/9 by limiting the number of HR and maintaining or improving his strikeout rate. My guess is that he will do just that, at least for the next couple of years.

    Zito has always baffled the sabermetric community because his rate stats never seem to match up with his actual performance; every April we point to his declining K rate and K/BB ratio and say "this is the year it catches up to him", but it hasn't yet.

    In regards to his K/9, it's been all over the place since his Cy Young season. 5.6, 6.8, 6.7, and 6.1. That 6.8 year is also the season where he gave up the most HRs, the most hits, and posted the highest ERA of his career.

    As Rich pointed out, he's moving to an easier league, and figures to benefit from pitching in AT&T Park/Chavez Ravine/Petco. I'd expect his performance to be in line with what he's done so far in his career, at least for the first part of the contract. A lot of the experts are acting like the sky is falling, but his ridiculous contract is in line with everything else going on this Winter. The biggest problem lies in the fact that this deal makes zero sense for the Giants, who are now saddled with an albatross of a contract for 7 years when they figure to not be particularly competitive. Years of fluttering away first round draft picks have left the farm barren, while the Dbacks and Dodgers (assuming Colletti doesn't throw any more prospects at the Mark Hendricksons of the world) look poised for a long run.

    I had my first up close and personal look at Zito during Game 1 of the ALDS at the Metrodome. It was a 2 hour, 19 minute duel between him and Santana.

    Here's my scouting report: No one changes speeds better than Zito, who obviously learned well from his old instructor Randy Jones. He throws a lot of balls that aren't close to the strike zone, which explains the walk totals.

    While Zito is clearly a solid pitcher, he struck me as someone without much of a margin of error. Giving him seven years is beyond insane.

    Zito unquestionably has been a beneficiary of a big ballpark with a large foul territory, both of which help convert batted balls in the air into outs.

    Except that almost all of his career stats on the road are equal or better than his home stats.

    Home .234 .306 .381 .687 82HRs
    Road .231 .316 .349 .665 66HRs

    1) I think BABIP actually averages out to something closer to .290 than .300.

    2) Sure, moving to the NL and a good pitcher's park will improve Zito's line - it won't improve his value. It doesn't make the deal better because Zito is going to the NL - it makes Zito *look* better.

    According to Baseball Prospectus, league-wide BABIP has been right at or near .300 for each of the past five years.

          2006   2005   2004   2003   2002
    NL    .303   .300   .299   .298   .296
    AL    .306   .296   .302   .297   .296

    I had my first up close and personal look at Zito during Game 1 of the ALDS at the Metrodome. It was a 2 hour, 19 minute duel between him and Santana.

    Yes, but he was an eyelash from getting KO'd in the first inning of that game. Walking the leadoff hitter and falling behind every batter in the inning. It was only 2 terrible AB's from Cuddyer and Punto, both swinging at full count balls, that saved him. He settled down from there.