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Profiling Barry Zito

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This one's for all those who have heard outrageous trade rumors regarding the availability of Barry Zito.

Zito could be the most prized commodity on the market at the trade deadline. It would NOT shock me if the A's decided to move him, even if they were in the race or leading the field, at the right price. People are going to ask about Zito, and the A's do have starting pitching depth.

But maybe this better serves as a preview for next offseason, during which Zito will be available on the open market, assuming he doesn't resign with the A's.

What does Barry Zito throw?

According to La Velle E. Neal III of the Star Tribune (Minneapolis, MN), Barry Zito's curveball "crosses two zip codes before it reaches home plate." That could be an adequate description of one of the game's most elegant pitches. Zito has a big, sweeping 12-6 curveball that deceives hitters. He throws a couple of different fastballs and a change-up, and the change-up is a solid pitch. Zito rarely tops 90 mph... he's more often in the high-80s.

What are Zito's strengths?

Looking at peripheral statistics doesn't tell Barry Zito's full story. If you focus on his recent history, you'll be left wondering why people think so highly of Zito, but there might be an answer. Zito's BABIPs against have been consistently low, even on so-called Moneyball teams where defense wasn't as emphasized in Oakland as it appears to be now.

Rob Neyer has hypothesized that Zito's curveball has a similar effect on BABIP as a knuckleball. Based on Zito's consistently lower BABIPs, I'm inclined to agree.

        Zito    Team
2002    .251    .287
2003    .244    .279
2004    .299    .296
2005    .249    .275
It is not my interpretation that Zito is immune to fluctuations in BABIP (see 2004). I just think that Zito's "norm" is lower than the league average by a few points. This could demonstrate why his BABIP was substantially better than that of the rest of the team in 3 of 4 years, and almost equivalent in the other year.

Zito's strikeout rate isn't superb, but it has increased in back-to-back seasons; it's up to 17.9% at this point. The American League average in 2005 was 15.8%, so Zito is certainly not teetering at a dangerously low rate.

Zito has also demonstrated amazing durability in his career. He has started 34 or more games in each of his five full seasons.

What are Zito's weaknesses?

Zito's two weaknesses aren't crippling, but they're big enough to keep Zito from truly being an elite pitcher. He has a touch of gopheritis of late, and his control is not particularly strong. A couple of years back, people worried about significant regression from Zito, as foretold by a declining strikeout rate. He has certainly reversed that trend and I don't see it as a problem, at this point. With Zito, it's not a matter of a real set of weaknesses that inhibits him. It's more of a combination of slight weaknesses and... weak strengths? The only superlatives that really can be used to describe Zito are in regards to his curveball, but having a great-looking curveball alone does not lead to true success. Zito doesn't strike out enough guys to be great, and, in the absence of a high strikeout rate, he is unable to walk as many or give up as many homers as he does.

Any statistical trends worth noting?

There really aren't too many of note. I mentioned that his strikeout rate has recovered and is now quite acceptable. The only thing that would worry me is a slight decline in control, but that's quite overstated. Zito's been right where he is with his control for a while, with slight fluctuations up and down. He's been victimized by the longball more frequently over the last two years than at happier times in his career, but he even curbed that rate a little last year. Finally, for the first time in his career in 2005, Zito allowed more groundballs than flyballs (1.05 G/F). In years prior to 2005, though, he was a pronounced flyball pitcher, and even last year, his G/F was below the average. That's not necessarily a good thing or a bad thing - it's more a matter of style.

What's his outlook for 2006?

PECOTA projects some BABIP-based regression for Zito in '06, which is sensible. The peripherals remain similar and his ERA clocks in right around 4. Zito has never had an ERA+ below league average... his lowest ever was in a down year at 105. I expect that to continue. Zito's still young.

Bear in mind that Zito is not along the lines of Kris Benson and Jeff Weaver, high draft picks who have survived on hype. Zito is legitimately a good major league pitcher. Zito is not the pitcher he was when he won the Cy Young award. But he's a worthwhile acquisition, especially for a team with good defense. Zito will be one of the most sought-after arms on the market in 2006-07, and for good reason. If I were advising a GM in trade, however, I would say to avoid Zito because of the fear of giving up too much. Even though Zito is better than guys like Benson, it is easy to fall into the name trap of a 28-year old former Cy Young winner, and it's very easy to overpay for one. I strongly doubt that Zito will be Chris Carpenter in 2006.

Zito's what I would consider to be a "solid #2" starter and a "#1 on a few teams." But I wouldn't call him elite.

on edit: The article I've linked to actually says that Neyer wasn't optimistic about Zito. I should have read more carefully. I think that this guy preempted Neyer's eventual hypothesis about Zito, but I do not have a link to where Neyer brought it up.... I could be remembering incorrectly.