Is It Worth Taking a Chance on Barry Zito's Comeback?

Barry Zito is ready to pitch again in 2015, but is he worth the risk?

After completing his seven-year, $126 million contract with the San Francisco Giants in 2013, Barry Zito decided to leave the game of baseball and pursue other interests. Although it wasn’t known whether Zito had retired or was just taking time off, it now appears he's ready to return to the game with news that agent Scott Boras is shopping his client.

There will always be teams in need starting pitching, but is Zito worth taking a chance on?

In 2013, Zito appeared in 30 games (starting 25 of them) for the Giants, posting a 5.74 earned run average (ERA) and a 4.92 fielder independent pitching (FIP) over 133.1 innings pitched. His wins above replacement according to FanGraphs (fWAR), was -0.6, the second worst of any pitcher who threw at least 130 innings. After posting some of the worst numbers in his career, it’s understandable why Zito chose to walk away. If he does sign with a team for 2015, will Zito’s numbers be just more of the same?

Was it Just Bad Luck?

It’s safe to say we won’t see the Zito who won the Cy Young Award in 2002, but his numbers from 2013 might not be as bad as they seem. Not including an injury-riddled 2011 season in which he threw just 53.2 innings, Zito posted the highest home runs per nine innings (HR/9) of his career (1.28), in addition to a career high home run to fly ball ratio (HR/FB) of 11.1%. This is just the second time – and first since 2005 – that Zito had a HR/FB in the double-digits. However, a high HR/FB ratio doesn’t worry me since it’s been proven that this statistic has almost no correlation from one year to the next.

What’s even more surprising is that the percentage of fly balls (FB%) that Zito allowed was 37.7%, the second lowest of his career and well below his career average of 41.7%. This, coupled with a batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of .346 – third highest in 2013 among pitchers with at least 130 IP – suggests that Zito didn’t have any luck in his favor during his last year on the mound.

I’m not arguing that if Zito had more luck on his side that his numbers would be similar to Clayton Kershaw’s, but they could have been more than passable for a back-of-the-rotation starter. And considering that he was an innings eater during his time with the Giants - averaging almost 163 innings per season, which again included barely pitching in 2011 - Zito potentially profiles as a serviceable fifth starter.

However, since coming to the Giants in 2007, Zito hasn’t posted an ERA lower than 4.03 (during the 2009 season), or a FIP of lower than 4.25 (during the 2010 season). He also has his age going against him – he’ll be 37 in May – since according to Baseball Reference, pitchers who were 36 or older posted a combined 3.91 ERA this season, which was the highest in baseball. So while Zito may be capable of providing his teams with innings, they might be in losing efforts. This doesn’t mean that he shouldn’t still be considered for a final rotation spot on a needy club.

Fifth Starters Matter

As this post from FiveThirtyEight Sports mentions, the fifth starters in the rotation are often overlooked and considered an unimportant part of the roster to fill, but shouldn’t be because they do matter to a team trying to make the playoffs. Zito likely isn’t going to post a high fWAR, but if he can improve on his score of 0.7 from 2012 and get to the 1.7 fWAR he posted in 2010, any team would be satisfied with that type of production. And while it may seem ludicrous to compare a player to a season that he completed four years ago, looking closer at Zito’s pitch repertoire and his velocity may change this opinion.

Using data from 2007 (the furthest Brooks Baseball goes back) and from Zito’s most recent season, we can see how things have changed.

200758% (85 mph)21% (73 mph)15% (71 mph)5% (78 mph)N/A
201323% (81 mph)10% (75 mph)18% (72 mph)34% (81 mph)15% (84 mph)

There are a few things that jump out right away from this chart. First, is that Zito went from barely throwing a slider in 2007 to it being his most frequent pitch in 2013. Second, Zito developed a sinker after 2007 and threw it basically just as hard in 2013 as his 2007 four-seam fastball. (If you prefer, you can lump his sinker and 4-seam into “fastballs” and thus it becomes his most frequent pitch.) This is noteworthy as it shows that even over a six year span, Zito hasn’t lost a significant amount of velocity. His fastball isn’t sitting at 87 mph like it was during his Oakland days, but the drop-off is perhaps an exaggeration.

Besides his velocity, Zito relied on his slider more than ever in 2013. While this could possibly be attributed to his struggles, it’s been shown that pitchers who are more prone to giving up home runs are ones who throw a lot of four-seam fastballs with velocities under 90 mph. While Zito fits the bill as a pitcher with a slow fastball, he threw it just 23% of the time in 2013, and only 16.5% in 2012, a year in which he won 15 games. A pitchers’ win/loss record is perhaps baseball’s most overrated stat, but I guarantee that every team in baseball would be thrilled if their fifth starter won this many games.

Where Does he Land?

There are plenty of potential suitors for Zito, especially teams like the Philadelphia Phillies and Minnesota Twins that badly need pitching of any kind, but there are also some potential playoff teams that could use Zito’s services. Two teams come to mind - the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Seattle Mariners.

Both teams have a need at the back of their rotations and both play in stadiums in which lefties performed well last season.

Dodger Stad.36 (16).229 (4).280 (2).354 (7).284 (10)81 (3)
Safeco Field34 (13).240 (16).303 (14).358 (12).290 (20)89 (11)

The ranking next to each statistic are out of 60 and are listed in terms of lowest position. For example, the 36 home runs allowed by left-handed pitchers in Dodger Stadium this year were the 16th fewest. They are out of 60 because there are 30 stadiums, each with a left- and right-handed pitcher scenario. Dodger Stadium was especially friendly to lefty pitchers, while playing in the National League also has the benefit of facing weaker offensive lineups.

The risk of signing Zito seems so low (merely an invitation to camp in Spring Training or a minor league deal), that no matter how he pans out the reward is likely to surpass the investment. For a club like the Dodgers with World Series aspirations, signing a veteran fifth starter capable of eating innings and giving the bullpen a rest might not look like a savvy move on paper, but could provide substantial dividends in the long run, and Zito just might be their guy.