Barry Zito…needed?

If, statistically speaking, Matt Cain is the most interesting man in the Giants’ world, then Barry Zito is the most boring. He isn’t even the most stylish pitcher on the team anymore!

I feel like most Giants fans have gone through the five stages of grief with Zito. Denial (we didn’t really give him a 7 year/$126,000,000 deal…he isn’t really this bad, is he?). Anger (he’s this bad and we are paying him how much?). Bargaining (surely some sucker will take this contract off our hands…please, please baseball gods, real God, someone, anyone, make him go away/get better/turn in to Tom Glavine, anything but this!). Depression (want to go to the game today? sure…wait, who’s pitching today? zito? never mind…good luck finding someone else). Acceptance (Yeah, we’re paying him way too much money, but we have four other amazing pitchers so who cares…plus every now and then he has a game like this…we can wish the contract away, but, hey, world championship!).

Something like that.

Every year Zito does just enough to tease us, make us think he might put it all back together at some point and maybe approximate his 2002 self, but then you walk away from every season and realize the Giants are paying ace money for a league average pitcher sending you back to the depression stage.

It is somewhat amazing to believe that Zito has now pitched four seasons for the Giants, meaning he only has three to go (and one of those is an option). As an aside here’s a blast into the past…remember when Zito signed and we drooled over the idea of a big three of Zito/Lowry/Cain…and maybe that Lincecum kid could develop into a nice fourth option. Wow.

Now that we are on the downside of the contract the possibility of trading Zito may actually becoming a reality. I suggested the Giants try to ship him to New York when the Yankees lost the Cliff Lee sweepstakes, and Jonah Keri suggested the same thing recently at fangraphs. If the Giants could actually pull this off there would be much rejoicing back in the Bay Area.

However, the reality and irony is that trading Zito may be a bad idea (it may also be an impossible dream due to Zito holding a full no-trade clause, which, at the end of the day, might be the worst thing about his contract).

Now, if the Giants could swing a deal and get Barry’s consent, I’d be all for it. Especially if someone like the Yankees took on all the remaining money. The Giants are heading in to a phase where some of the young guns are going to be seeking/deserving some decent coinage: Lincecum/Wilson/Cain/Posey and probably Sandoval (not to mention Sanchez and a few others) will be needing/wanting big contracts in the next couple of years and it would be a shame to say no to Cain, for example, because we have to pay Zito.

That being said, thinking only about 2011, I would argue the Giants need Zito. Enter into this hypothetical for a moment. Let’s say you have a team that has four studly young pitchers who all just exceeded their career highs in innings pitched. Let’s also say that there isn’t anyone ready in the minor league system to step in and help out in any significant way. What kind of a pitcher would you want in that fifth spot? Probably someone who is reliable, doesn’t get hurt or miss starts, veteran, and who gives your team a chance to win 60% of the time he pitches.

Which is exactly what Zito is. As Giants fans have entered the acceptance stage of the grieving process this is often the only silver lining: at least he hasn’t been injured (although at times that would have been a welcomed development).

Is the contract horrible? Yes. We get it. Been over that a million times. But in 2011 I think the Giants need exactly someone like Barry Zito at the back end of their rotation.

(-SB)

Why Repeating is So Difficult, Pt. 2

This ended up being a lot longer than expected so we’re going to do a three parter. The premise of part 2: winning a world series is all about pitching. It takes a big jump in pitching production from the year before to win the championship and in the last ten years that jump has been unsustainable for reasons I will try to explain in part 3.

I recently reread Baseball Behind the Numbers by the Baseball Prospectus guys. Having just watched the Giants surprising postseason run I was eager to review the study where they unveil the factors that lead most directly to success in the postseason.

According to BP, the only four factors that have any kind of statistical significance (and it’s not that much statistically speaking) are: 1) strong starting pitching (and more specifically, power pitchers who can strike batters out and get swings and misses), 2) dominant relief pitching (especially from the closer), 3) defense that doesn’t make mistakes (doesn’t have to be great in terms of range but NO errors), 4) to a much lesser extent than the first three, power hitting (i.e. home runs).

Just based on that you can see why the Giants 2010 run makes a lot of sense. Their findings form the basis for the premise of this post and the importance of pitching:

Winning in the postseason, and thus the World Series, is, based on the stats, all about pitching. My observation is that over the last ten years the WS champions have seen a major addition or jump forward in their pitching talent, and then an inability to sustain that the next year. I am way more adept at reading statistical baseball analysis than performing it, so what follows is pretty elementary, but hopefully you will see my point.

Let’s look at the last 10 World Series Champions, how their pitching fared in the year before, the year of, and the year after their win, and their key staff additions (through trades, free agency, or a young talent emerging). I’ll be using K/9, ERA, ERA+ (note that an era+ score of 100 is league average), and WHIP data from BaseballReference.com.

2001 Arizona Diamondbacks

  • 2000 83-79 (3rd in NL West): 7.6 K/9, 4.35 ERA, 110 ERA +, 1.34 WHIP
  • 2001 92-70 (1st): 8.0, 3.87, 121 (11 pt increase), 1.24
  • 2002 98-64 (1st): 8.1, 3.92, 117 (4 pt drop), 1.23

The Diamondbacks had 2 key additions in 2001: a full season of Curt Schilling and Miguel Bautista. They also had some great subtractions (no Omar Daal). They actually had a better regular season in their repeat year, but got swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Cardinals. Thus begins the trend I hope to highlight here: it is very difficult to get the same production out of a pitching staff two post-seasons in a row. Especially staffs that are super top-heavy (It was Johnson and Schilling and then smoke and mirrors the rest of the way).

2002 Anaheim Angels

  • 2001 75-87 (3rd in AL West): 5.9 K/9, 4.20 ERA, 108 ERA+, 1.38 WHIP
  • 2002 (99-63 Wild Card): 6.2, 3.69, 120 (12 pt increase), 1.28
  • 2003 77-5 (3rd): 6.2, 4.28, 103 (17 pt drop!), 1.35

A classic case of key additions (Kevin Appier which sent Scott Schoenwies to the bullpen) and the emergence of young talent (John Lackey, K-Rod, Scot Shields) providing a huge, but unsustainable, bump in production. The 2002 Angels actually saw a bigger salary increase from 2001 to 2002 than the infamous 1997 Marlins team. As a result, they got better in a lot of areas, not just pitching. In 2004 they saw a similar bump when they added Bartolo Colon and Kelvim Escobar and won the division before getting bounced from the playoffs in dramatic fashion by David Ortiz (I mean the Boston Red Sox).

2003 Florida Marlins

  • 2002 79-83 (4th in NL East): 6.8 K/9, 4.36 ERA, 93 ERA+, 1.43 WHIP
  • 2003 91-71 (Wild Card): 7.0, 4.04, 105 (12 pt increase), 1.35
  • 2004 83-79 (3rd): 7.0, 4.10, 101 (4 pt drop), 133

Looking at this makes me mad because it reinforces what a flukey team this was. They were obviously helped by the additions of Donrelle Willis, Matt Redmond, and Uegeth Urbina as well as getting full/emergent seasons from Carl Pavano and Josh Beckett. But they were essentially the same (fairly average) staff all three years with a small spike in performance in 2003. One caveat (and some foreshadowing) injuries really hurt them in 2004 as none of their 5 main starters pitched a full season.

2004 Boston Red Sox

  • 2003 95-67 (Wild Card): 7.0 K/9, 4.48 ERA, 104 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP
  • 2004 98-64 (Wild Card): 7.0, 4.18, 117 (13 pt increase), 1.29
  • 2005 95-67 (Wild Card): 6.0, 4.74, 96 (21 pt drop!), 1.39

The Red Sox were really good through this three-year window, yet they represent the best example so far of the cycle of major additions, big bump in production, followed by post-championship drop off. The 2004 team saw a huge jump because they added Curt Schilling and Keith Foulke. And the 2005 team suffered greatly the loss of Schilling (injury kept him out most of the season) and Pedro Martinez to the Mets. The 2005 additions of David Wells and Matt Clement weren’t enough to overcome the letdown. (The ERA numbers also show how hard it is to pitch in the Al East.)

2005 Chicago White Sox

  • 2004 83-79 (2nd in AL Central): 6.4 K/9, 4.91 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.42 WHIP
  • 2005 99-63 (1st in AL Central): 6.3, 3.61, 125 (28 pt increase!), 1.25
  • 2006 90-72 (3rd): 6.3, 4.61, 103 (22 pt drop!), 1.36

The White Sox trump the ’04 Red Sox in my pitching cycle theory. The addition of Orlando Hernandez, healthy/full seasons from Freddy Garcia and Jose Contreras, and the emergence of Jon Garland and Bobby Jenks help partially account for this crazy spike in ERA+ followed by a tremendous drop. The interesting thing about the White Sox is how the K rate stayed the same, but the other numbers changed so dramatically. This probably shows that in ’05 they had an exceptional year defensively and got a bit lucky (if I had more time I’d look into some other numbers like BABIP). The 2005 Chicago White Sox: the poster-children for my pitching theory.

2006 St. Louis Cardinals

  • 2005 100-62 (1st in NL Central): 6.1 K/9, 3.49 ERA, 122 ERA+, 1.27 WHIP
  • 2006 83-78 (1st): 6.1, 4.54, 98 (24 pt drop!), 1.38
  • 2007 78-84 (3rd): 5.9, 4.65, 95 (3 pt drop), 1.41

If the ’05 White Sox are my well-behaved/front row students, then the ’06 Cardinals are my unruly/spit wad shooting/back row/trouble makers. Thanks for killing the drill guys. That said, keep in mind that the Cards had GREAT teams in 2004 and 2005 and that the ’06 team was basically the same core. Also, you do see a drop in the repeat year, mostly having to do with losing Chris Carpenter for the season (notice a big injury following a Championship has a lot to do with the depressed repeat season stats). However you slice it, this was a weird Championship team, period.

2007 Red Sox

  • 2006 86-76 (3rd in AL East): 6.7 K/9, 4.83 ERA, 99 ERA+, 1.44 WHIP
  • 2007 96-66 (1st): 7.2, 3.87, 123 (24 pt increase), 1.27
  • 2008 95-67 (Wild Card): 7.4, 4.01, 116 (7 pt drop), 1.33

The Red Sox stats show that they had the best chance of anyone to repeat in the last 10 years. They went to 7 games against the Rays in the 2008 ALCS and from their statistical steadiness that should be no surprise. The big additions in ’07 were the Japanese imports (Matsuzaka and Okajima), plus Becket had the best year of his career as he fully adjusted to life in the AL East. Papelbon also benefited from his first full season in the closer role. The Sox did add a full season of John Lester in ’08 which helped, but the big problem with repeating was Becket broke down as the season wore on and pitched with half a shoulder in playoffs. Again, the injury problems to key starters in the year after a WS win is a major reason why teams have struggled to repeat.

2008 Philadelphia Phillies

  • 2007 89-73 (1st in NL East): 6.5 K/9, 4.73 ERA, 97 ERA+, 1.45 WHIP
  • 2008 92-70 (1st): 6.7, 3.88, 113 (16 pt increase), 1.36
  • 2009 93-69 (1st): 7.1, 4.16, 101 (12 pt drop), 1.35

Record wise, the Phillies have gotten better each of the last 4 years (including 2010). And they seem to be the team that takes my theory “most seriously,” having added Cliff Lee in 2009 to try to repeat, Roy Halladay/Oswalt in 2010 to get back on top, and Cliff Lee again this offseason. Hats off for improving the most important part of the team four years running.

The 2008 championship team featured the key addition of Brad Lidge (who had the year of his life posting a 226 ERA+) which allowed them to put Brett Myers back in the rotation. 2008 also saw the emergence of Cole Hamels (ERA+ of 142). However, despite the addition of Lee in ’09, Lidge had a major setback that year posting an abysmal ERA+ of 59, and Hamels struggled with mental and physical issues all year (ERA+ of 97). Bullpen struggles have really hampered them the last two seasons.

2009 New York Yankees

  • 2008 89-73 (3rd in AL East): 7.1 K/9, 4.28 ERA, 104 ERA+, 1.36 WHIP
  • 2009 103-59 (1st): 7.8, 4.26, 108 (4 pt increase), 1.35
  • 2010 95-67 (Wild Card): 7.2, 4.06, 106 (2 pt drop), 1.31

The Yankees are an interesting case. First, it’s clear that their success is more closely tied to offense than any team in the last 10 years. Despite some significant additions over the last three years, they have had essentially the same staff production each season. Each staff had one guy who had a great year (Mike Mussina in 2008…look it up, it was legit…and then CC Sabathia in ’09 and ‘10), one other guy who stepped up as a legitimate number 2 (Andy Pettitte in ’08, AJ Burnett in ’09, Phil Hughes in ‘10). The big difference in 2009 was Pettitte offered a solid third option, which they sorely lacked in 2008 and 2010. 2010 had a lot to do with injuries, per usual, with Pettitte/Javier Vasquez/Burnett all missing time or lacking effectiveness due to being hurt.

That’s it for part 2. Sorry for the length! Tomorrow we’ll wrap it up by looking at the 2010 Giants, drawing some conclusions, and deciding if this spells doom or not for 2011 Giants.

(-SB)