Better Know the Ballot #7: Barry Zito : baseball

Past the halfway marker, in the home stretch. The 2020 Hall of Fame ballot includes 11 first time players. Some will undoubtedly stick around for more than one round of ballots, but many of them are not. In honor of everyone who made the cut, we’re looking at all the rookies, starting from the bottom and working up. That brings us to…

Barry Zito

Bill James Hall of Fame Monitor: 48

Career bWAR (15 years): 31.9

Stats: 165-143, 4.04 ERA, 1885 K, 2576.2 IP, 1.337 WHIP, 105 ERA+

Awards: All-Star x3 (AL 2002, 2003, 2006), Cy Young (AL, 2002), 2012 World Series Champion

League Leading Stats: Wins (23, 2002), Losses (17, 2008), Starts x4 (35: 2001, 2002, 2005; 34, 2006), Batters Faced (945, 2006)

Teams Played For: Oakland (2000-06, 2015), San Francisco (2007-2013)

If you remember anything at all about the life and times of Barry William Zito (and don’t fucking lie to me, you wouldn’t have clicked on this post if you didn’t), the fact that he’s kind of a weirdo is probably on the list. But rest assured, this is not a Turk Wendell-type situation here; nothing about Zito’s oddness was affected or developed with a life around baseball in mind. Rather, Zito’s kind of been weird from birth. It’s in his family.

Before his birth, Zito’s parents worked for Nat King Cole: his mother Roberta as a singer in Cole’s “Merry Young Souls” while his father Joe served as Cole’s conductor and musical arranger. That life was well behind them by the time Barry came along, what with Nat King Cole having died 10 years earlier, but the youngest Zito nevertheless grew up in a home that embraced and encouraged individual expression and the development of talent. When Barry began to show an aptitude for baseball at a young age, the Zitos did what any other family would: they moved the whole family to San Diego and hired former Padre Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones to serve as Zito’s personal instructor.

Whatever Jones did to earn his $50 an hour seemed to have paid off, because Zito became a prospect almost immediately. Splitting his amateur career betwixt three colleges, Zito was a freshman All-American at UC Santa Barbara, an all-state starting pitcher at Los Angeles Pierce College and Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year at USC. Along the way, Zito was drafted not once but three times; first by the Mariners in the 59th round in 1996, then in the third round by the Rangers two years later, and finally as an A’s first rounder in 1999. Once finally signed, Zito took little time rushing through the A’s minor league system, making 31 starts across two seasons and three levels before making his MLB debut as a 22-year-old in July of 2000. He made 14 big league starts that season, finishing 7-4, 2.72, with a 173 ERA+, 1.176 WHIP and 3.4 bWAR, all good enough to finish sixth in ROY voting. What followed was a career that featured one of the most noticeable first half/second half splits this side of Sandy Koufax and might stand as the greatest single example of Billy Beane’s process working like it was supposed to.

Zito’s first seven seasons in the majors were with the Moneyball A’s, four full seasons of which, Zito would spent as part of Oakland’s Big Three pitching rotation, along with Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. While Zito was arguably the “least” talented of the three pitchers, he would also go on to be the only one to win a Cy Young award, but more on that in a second.

Zito would tinker with his mechanics on and off throughout his career and, as a result, the amount of pepper on his fastball would fluctuate between an alleged high of 93 MPH and a low of 80.1. Blessed with a four seamer that was little more than a glorified batting practice pitch, Zito lived and died by his offspeed and breaking stuff, most notably a curveball that ranks among one of the best the game has ever seen. Any young pitcher with good stuff and an out pitch is going to have some short-term success in the bigs as it’ll usually take MLB hitters a season to figure out what you’re doing over there. It’s usually seasons two through five that really show you what you’ve got in a pitching prospect, because those are the seasons where hitting adjustments are made and those young pitchers either make new adjustments themselves (see: Maddux, Greg), or really are just that filthy (Gooden, Dwight).

For Zito, the talent was legit and that curve would remain neigh unto unhittable for most of his career. The results for Oakland were dramatic: 95-59, 3.61 from 2001-06. 2:1 K/BB ratio, 122 ERA+. Zito led the league in starts four of those six years, went to three All-Star games and took home the 2002 Cy Young Award.

“Deserved” is such a weighty word, especially when used in the terms of subjective things like vote tallies. Therefore, rather than saying who “deserved” the ’02 Cy Young, I’ll simply say that, while I know who I would have voted for, it was a year where any of the top three guys could have taken it home and I wouldn’t have flipped the table. Zito ultimately wound up taking the award by 18 points over runner up Pedro Martinez, who was at the tail end of one of the most brilliant, dominating seven year runs in MLB history. Zito had more WAR, starts and innings pitched; Pedro had the edge in Ks, ERA and ERA plus. Pedro led in WHIP, but it wasn’t a chasm of different between the two. Meanwhile, Pedro’s teammate Derek Lowe quietly had a 21 win, 2.58 ERA, 177 ERA+, 7.2 bWAR season and was considered an afterthought, getting 41 points and zero first place votes.

Zito made his last All-Star team in 2006, the final year of his contract in Oakland. Thanks to rookie contracts and arbitration, Beane got 222 starts of 122 ERA+ ball for just over $18 million. Beane understood that those numbers were going to price him out of Oakland’s budget and didn’t really make that hard of a push to re-sign him, knowing that—no matter what Zito would go on to do—he had reached the tipping point where his perceived value had exceeded his practical one.

For his part, Zito parlayed that past success into a monster, seven-year, $126 million deal: the largest deal ever given to a pitcher up to that time. He didn’t even have to change addresses, as the deal simply took him across the Bay.

There was—and probably still is—room for healthy debate over whether Zito was worth that size of a deal. What is not up for debate, however, is that he gave the Giants considerably less return on their investment than they were expecting.

Zito’s time as a Giant was fine. Perfectly serviceable pitching happened in just about every season of Zito’s career, except for the months of March and April, as Zito was a notoriously slow starter. But only once in his Giants career did Zito win more games than he lost. And while wins are a stat of dubious use, they are telling in this context because that directly translated to the Giants only once having a winning record in games started by Zito.

In every other meaningful metric, Zito was less of a pitcher than he had been in Oakland. His seven seasons in SF amounted to a .441 winning percentage, 4.61 FIP, 87 ERA+ and just 2.4 bWAR. In contrast, Zito was worth more than 2.4 bWAR in every season he was in Oakland. The bottom of the barrel arguably came in 2010, when Zito went 9-14, the Giants lost nine of his last 10 starts, and he was ultimately left off the post season roster while the Giants went on to win their first title in California.

There were, however, two categories in which the San Francisco iteration of Barry Zito excelled and the importance of neither should be overlooked: for starters, just about every agrees that Zito was a phenomenal clubhouse guy. He kept players loose when things were getting tense, kept them on target through the dog days, and was just that passive, low-key calming influence that you’d expect of the surfer dude who liked to show up to the ballpark barefooted.

The other facet was that Zito was a gunslinger in the postseason. Going back to his rookie campaign, he’d always had a way of showing up for the big games. He made appearances in six different post seasons and while there were some individual series hiccups (2006 ALCS, 2012 NLDS), there’s no postseason in his career where you can say that Zito really shit the bed. That reliability culminated in 2012, when Zito gave probably the two best outings of his post season career in the NLCS (7.2 innings of six hit, six strikeout, shutout baseball) and the World Series (5.2 IP, 6H 1ER, outdueling Justin Verlander in Game One), en route to his lone World Series title*.

And yet, even though Zito was a solid, reliable pitcher who was a huge factor for the Giants in 2010 and 2012, there was that 126 million dollar albatross around his neck that he was never able to fully shake. And thus, whenever discussing Zito’s worth to the Bay Area, the conversation would invariably come around to Zito’s worth, relative to his contract.

At the end of that deal, the Giants declined his option and paid him $7 million to find something else to do. So he did, for a year anyway, spending time working on music and doing naked yoga on the beach or some other Barry Zito-type shit. But the itch to give it one more try got to him and he wound up signing a minor league deal to come back to Oakland. He looked decent in Spring Training but ultimately didn’t break with the team, getting assigned to Triple-A Nashville. To Zito’s unending credit, everyone involved agrees that Zito did his time without an ounce of ego or resentment. He spent the entire season down in Tennessee, mentoring young guys, charting pitches on his off days, riding the team bus just like everyone else. Once Jesse Chavez went down with an injury in September, the A’s came calling and Zito was a major leaguer once again.

It did not go well.

He came into a game on Sept 20 in the 8th inning and finished the game allowing two runs off two hits and a walk. He got a start six days later, giving up four runs on six hits over two innings. Four days after that, he got another start, going four innings, allowing two runs on four hits (two homers) and four walks. Literally everyone knew that was going to be it, and Zito announced his retirement that offseason.

Since then, Zito has very much embraced the lifestyle of “not being a major league pitcher.” He’s run some charities, done a little acting, written a book and really leaned into his passion for music. He was on season three of The Masked Singer and released an album, No Secrets, which you can buy from his website, autographed, for $5.

Barry Zito pitched 15 seasons in the Major Leagues, split just about evenly between Oakland and San Francisco. He won a title in SF, but goes into the Hypothetical hall in an A’s cap, where he went 102-63, 3.58, with a 124 ERA+. He ranks eighth all time in the franchise’s WAR for pitchers (30.6), 10th in winning percentage (.618) and eighth in strikeouts (1098).

Chances of making the Hall: Worse than his chances of winning a Grammy

Chances of leaving the ballot this year: 100%

*a quick note on the more-than-semantic difference between World Series TITLES and World Series RINGS. The latter are given out at team discretion. That’s how bat boys, front office staff and ushers get them. As such, most every player who spends a notable amount of time playing for the big league club will almost always get a ring to commemorate a championship season.

However, when it comes to the title of World Series champion, the people who keep the stats (namely MLB, the BBWAA and the Hall of Fame) have decided that only players actually on the World Series rosters are so named. This is why, while Zito calls himself a “two time World Series champion” on the cover of his book—and why many fans may feel inclined to eschew the difference and say the same—his MLB stats, BBRef page and any official MLB documentation will only ever show him (and anyone else in his situation) as a champion for the post seasons he was on the roster for. I have, for the life of this series, always deferred to the MLB.

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