Sunday, April 08, 2007

Was Barry Zito Worth $126M? Outlook Hazy (Ask Again Later)

I suppose today we should find out a bit more about how Barry Zito performs as a new Giant, as Zito faces his arch-rival Dodgers in an afternoon matchup. His last outing, in which he gave up three runs (two earned) over five innings (earning the loss), is only one data point of what will likely be many outings for San Francisco, as SF has locked him up for seven years. At least, that is exactly what San Francisco is hoping after their $126M investment.

Allen St. John wrote about Zito four weeks ago in the Wall Street Journal article, "A Giant Bet on Barry Zito" (no link):

Even New York Mets general Manager Omar Minaya, one of those who pursued Zito, was unwilling to offer him a contract of more than five years. What idd the Giants see that made them open their pocketbooks? Reliability. Over the last five seasons, Zito has made more starts (173) than any pitcher in the major leagues.

But does a history of handling a high workload predict future reliability, or a does it make Zito a risk?

St. John goes on to dissect the statistics of other workhorse pitchers, comparing their performances before and after age 28 (Zito is 28 now). In a nutshell, the winning percentage didn't slip too badly from the 24-28 range (3.40 ERA and .610 winning percentage) to a the post-28 age (3.83 ERA and .583 winning percentage).

However, St. John noted that the standard deviation was quite high--meaning that the group included a lot of great pitchers, as well as a lot of busts:

[The list] includes some of the game's best, most durable pitchers...Roger Clemens, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz, and Mike Mussina.... But some names on the list give nightmares to pitching coaches and GMs--Fernando Valenzuela (who had only two winning seasons after age 25) and Chan Ho Park [editor's note that these are both Dodgers!].

The best comparison for Zito is to the man he replaced as the game's richest pitcher, Mike Hampton. The Atlanta lefty is still collecting on his $121M deal with the Colorado Rockies. At age 28, his stats were close to Zito's...but Hampton's record since is 39-35, with a 4.60 ERA. And he missed the 2006 season after TOmmy John elbow surgery.

What's in store for Zito? His numbers should be helped by moving to a pitcher's park in the National League. But the numbers also say that Zito is a bit below the game's best starters, with his best years likely behind him....Giving a pitcher an ace's contract doesn't make him one.

Today is Zito's second start as a Giant. Let's hope that he continues the trend of his first outing with another very short start.