Man on Fire - San Francisco Giants SP Barry Zito
Barry Zito is on fire. For those of us who have been paying a tiny bit of attention since 2006, this is somewhat surprising. Barry Zito has turned his 7-year, $126 million contract from the Giants into a national punchline, a fall from grace that would make Lucifer jealous.
After winning 14 games in three of his final four seasons in Oakland, the Giants have won more World Series pennants (two) than Zito has had 12-win seasons (one) since he moved to the Bay Area. Five of his six Giants seasons have seen him under his Oakland strikeout rate average, and he finished over his Oakland walk rate average in five seasons as well. There is a reason San Francisco may hate him even more than Chris Cohan and Joe Flacco put together.
However, Zito did manage to go 15-8 last season, with his best walk rate and line drive rate since coming to San Francisco. And now this year, Zito went out and threw two starts with 14 IP, 0 ER, and a 2:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio to begin the season.
Is this the re-emergence of Barry Zito that the Bay Area has been hoping and praying for? Not even close. And the stats prove why.
Regression to the Mean
Regression to the mean is one of those statistical concepts that people throw around a lot, but it might sound intimidating to the math illiterate. However, the concept itself is actually simple: no matter how much a player seems to have improved or slipped in a small sample size (a game or two), over time, his or her production is statistically more likely to return to where it was instead of continuing the same trend.
We see this happen all over the place. For every Jose Bautista that emerge from nowhere to put up consistently strong stats, there are five J.D. Drews who have a spectacular stretch (even a season long stretch), but ultimately return to their average statistics once that stretch is done.
For Barry Zito, that means that there is a lot more data pointing towards him being a mediocre pitcher than data that points towards a resurgence. Despite his 15 wins last season, there are even more stats that say he hasn't actually improved at all:
- Zito accomplished 15 wins despite missing the least bats of his career: only nine percent of his strikes were swings and misses in 2012, a career-low
- In 2012, Zito somehow allowed his most hits per nine innings (9.1) since 2008 while simultaneously somehow recording his second-lowest ERA (4.15) in a Giants uniform
- Zito finished last season with a 0.2 WAR. That means that he could have been replaced with any old average pitcher, and the Giants would have suffered only 0.2 less wins. Zito's average WAR in Oakland was 4.4
- Last season, Barry Zito walked only 8.8 percent of batters: that looks to be an outlier, considering he hadn't walked less than 9.8 percent of batters since 2005
For those pointing to 2012 as a mini-resurgence leading up to this season, the stats say that you're most likely wrong. Given his real numbers last season, Zito is actually even less likely to experience a resurgence with the key stats I mentioned above.
2013 vs. 2012
For the sake of being a Devil's Advocate (since half of the rest of the country considers San Francisco natives to be heathens anyway), let's go ahead and say that Barry Zito will continue his 2012 form. That lowered, outlier-looking home run and walk rate? Sure, why not? 72 percent of plate appearances with a ball in play (a career high) but only 18 percent of those hit for a line drive (a San Francisco low)? Not likely, but let's accept it.
Even compared against Zito's outlier 2012 stats, his 2013 looks absolutely outrageous. He may not have allowed any earned runs yet, but the numbers say that it's just a matter of time before he implodes.
My favorite has to be that double-play rate. Through his first two starts, Barry Zito has forced double plays on 43 percent of opportunities where a double play was available. His career average is 10 percent; his career high in a season with at 100 double-play opportunities is 15 percent. That number isn't just unsustainable, it's a radioactive isotope that's ready to implode at any moment.
In short, it's been two games against the Cardinals and Rockies, the No. 15 and 14 teams in our team power rankings. The chances that he will keep this up are incredibly small.
He does have an advantageous schedule upcoming, with a game against the No. 27 Brewers and then two matchups against the currently dead-last Padres as his next three projected starts. However, given his historical numbers, I don't know if I can trust him in even those games. Barry Zito is strutting around as a living, breathing outlier, and one of these days, he'll rediscover his true identity. Thus sayeth the stats.