Pablo Sandoval was the story of Game 1 of the World Series, becoming only the fourth player in history to hit three homeruns in a single WS game, as the San Francisco Giants beat the Detroit Tigers 8-3. Barry Zito allowed one earned run in five-plus innings and took the win for San Francisco in Game 1. As great as Game 1 was, I found the pre-game storyline involving Zito to be an interesting sub-plot.
One day before Game 1 of the World Series, the Associated Press wrote an article (later published by TSN) emphasizing the big turnaround in Zito’s career from 2010. Here are some brief excerpts from that article:
“From post-season bystander to starting the World Series opener. That’s how far Barry Zito has come in two years to resurrect his career.
…Manager Bruce Bochy said Tuesday he will go with Zito, who has turned around his career this year…
Left off the post-season roster for all three rounds when the Giants won it all in 2010…Whatever he has done to change his mental approach, it has certainly paid off on the mound.”
There is no doubt that Zito has now pitched two excellent games in the 2012 postseason, and that he is, for the moment, a key contributor on the Giants. And it is hard to question the choice made by Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy to leave him off every Giants’ playoff roster in 2010, because the Giants won the World Series that year without Zito. What I am taking issue with is the story created by the Associated Press prior to Game 1 that Zito’s performance in the last eight weeks represents the rebirth of a career that was lost in 2010.
The real differences between today’s Barry Zito and Zito in 2010 are small, as evidenced by Zito’s regular season numbers in those two years:
Ground Ball %
To his credit, Zito is inducing a few more ground balls and is surrendering fewer fly balls in 2012, but he is striking out fewer batters, is giving up a few more line drives, and is having about the same luck on balls in play. According to field independent pitching, which estimates what a pitcher’s ERA should have been assuming that performance on balls in play would have been league average, Zito may have been better in 2010. But the big difference is the number in the win column, which looks great to the folks at TSN, who are too busy pining over the lost NHL season to put any thought into the baseball articles that they publish. Win-loss records are so heavily influenced by factors outside a pitcher’s control, such as run support and the quality of the bullpen behind the pitcher, that most people evenly remotely familiar with baseball do not place much emphasis on these stats.
Another fact cited by the Associated Press in support of their story about the rebirth of the career lost in 2010 is that “the Giants have won Zito’s last 13 starts, dating to August 7”. In August 2012, Zito posted a 2-1 record despite having a horrendous 6.46 ERA and 1.60 WHIP, because the Giants scored 33 runs in his six starts that month. Zito’s ERA ballooned to 4.51 after his first September start in 2012, the highest it had been all season. Despite posting a 1.35 WHIP, Zito won five of his last six regular season starts in 2012. Contrast this with Zito’s August 2010 (0-4, 7.76 ERA) and his last six starts in 2010 (1-4, 4.66 ERA, 1.38 WHIP).
In other words, the big difference between Zito in 2010 and 2012 was his six final starts this season, where he posted a vastly superior ERA and win-loss record despite surrendering nearly the same percentage of walks and hits. And unlike 2010, Zito was able to cover-up a horrible August and actually post a winning record in that month in 2012 by sheer luck of having excellent run support.
When referring to Zito’s late season success and his two postseason starts in 2012 as evidence that Zito has recovered from his fall from grace in 2010, the phrase “small sample size” comes to mind. Yes, Zito may have taken a different approach to pitching in 2012, and yes the Giants have now won his last 14 starts, but his regular season numbers this year are arguably worse than those he posted in 2010. And Zito has never posted a sub-4.00 ERA, a WHIP below 1.35 or a WAR much higher than 2 during any of his six seasons with the Giants
To his credit, Zito has taken full advantage of his opportunities this postseason, and has regained some of his popularity in the process. He should be respected for his hot September and October this year, but eight good starts do not represent a career revival. These eight starts have been a rare anomaly, and a welcome one for the Giants, in Zito’s mediocre performance since his arrival in San Francisco in 2007. But something tells me that Barry Zito isn’t finished with this late-season “anomaly” just yet.
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