When the Atlanta Braves were racking up first-place finishes in the National League East they relied on a trio of starting pitchers: Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. When the Moneyball A’s were in their prime, they followed a similar strategy building a team around a core of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito. The San Francisco Giants the past few years? Matt Cain, Tim Lincecum, and Madison Bumgarner. And of at the back of the rotation, Barry Zito. After the 2011 season Lincecum was one year removed from back-to-back Cy Young awards and Zito had pitched 821.2 innings of 4.55 ERA baseball since joining the Giants five years earlier. It was clear who was the ace and who belonged at the back of the rotation. But is it still?
Barry Zito signed a seven-year $126 million deal with the Giants after a 2006 season that was arguably the worst of his career. The lefty, known for his sweeping curveball, put up his third highest ERA, highest WHIP, second highest home run rate, second highest walk rate, and the second lowest strikeout rate of his career. What he did do was stay on the mound, starting an AL-leading 34 games and tossing 221 innings. Barry Zito, one of the A’s big three, had become an innings eater.
It wasn’t always that way. A first-round pick by the Oakland Athletics in 1999 (ninth overall) Zito began his Major League career with in 2000 finishing tied for sixth in AL Rookie of the Year voting behind Kazuhiro Sasaki, Terrence Long, Mark Quinn, Bengie Molina, and Kelly Wunsch while tying Steve Cox, Adam Kennedy, and Mark Redman, each of whom received just one vote. As a fun aside, Lance Berkman also received a single vote for the NL Rookie of the Year that same season, though voters at least picked Rafael Furcal to win. His career has been a bit more noteworthy than Sasaki’s. Zito went on to throw 214.1 innings in his sophomore season, the first of six straight years he would accomplish that feat. A modern horse, Zito started 35 games, again, a feat he would match three more times, including his 2003 campaign.
2003 was the year made for Barry Zito’s memorabilia collection. A shiny 2.75 ERA over just shy of 230 innings, the best WHIP and walk rates of his career, second highest K/9 (although still just 7.1) and a Cy Young award made it a year for his Wikipedia page. Zito would win Game 2 of the 2003 ALDS against the Boston Red Sox but lose the series-deciding Game 5. After 2003, Zito would begin a trend of rising ERAs, hits allowed, and walks, while also striking out fewer batters and giving up more long balls.
While a move to the National League, where pitchers hit (or, more often, simply stand at the plate with a bat in hand) has been known to rejuvenate aging American League starters who make the transition, the bleeding didn’t stop when he crossed the Bay. In his first five years in the Senior Circuit, Zito saw his ERA settle in the mid-fours, his walks average 4.1 per nine innings, and his strikeout rate fall to just 6.4 per nine. Barry Zito had become a hundred-million-dollar bust. No longer an ace, no longer a solid top-of-the-rotation pitcher. In five years he had failed to see a boost in the NL and was treading water while slowly sinking.
With the tenth pick of the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft the San Francisco Giants selected a slight right-handed pitcher with a funky delivery named Tim Lincecum. Lincecum had been drafted twice before, first in 2003 by the Cubs in the 48th round and then in 2005 with the Indians in the 42nd round, but stuck with the University of Washington and watched his stock and his ability to command a large signing bonus rise.
Lincecum started eight games after signing across A- and A+ levels in 2006 tossing 31.2 innings of 1.71 ERA with a mere 58 strikeouts or 16.5 Ks per nine innings. The next spring he would be rated #11 overall by Baseball America and would start five games for AAA Fresno, striking out 46 in 31 innings, before getting the call to the Majors. Lincecum would start 24 games for the Giants that year striking out 150 batters in his 146.1 innings. While his walk rate (4.0 BB/9) was a little high, the high strikeout rate offset the damage. And that was just the beginning.
Over the next two years Lincecum would put up seasons many players would like to have just once in their career: 452.1 innings, 526 strikeouts (10.5 K/9) against 152 walks (3.0 BB/9). He would toss six complete games, three of them shutouts, and have a combined ERA of just 2.55. He would win back-to-back Cy Young awards. The sky was the limit. The Freak was unstoppable.
In 2010 and 2011 Lincecum would take a small step back, edging a little closer to the level of the ordinary “ace” rather than the extraordinary. His ERA crossed the barrier of three to 3.08, he averaged 9.5 K/9 and 3.5 BB/9 with 451 strikeouts and 162 walks in 429.1 innings across sixty-six starts. Lincecum also chipped in during the 2010 World Series run with 37 excellent innings including a complete game shutout of the Atlanta Braves and an eight inning, one-run outing against the Texas Rangers.
However, some warning signs were there: over his first four full seasons Lincecum’s strikeout rate fell each year and his walk rate rose in each of the last two years after falling from 2008 to 2009.
2012: Turnabout Is Fair Play
Even given the decline in performance in 2011, Tim Lincecum was still a valuable pitcher heading into the 2012 season. Matt Cain and Madison Bumgarner were there at the top of the rotation as well and Zito was still around for the back end. Ryan Vogelsong had been contributing admirably since his return to American baseball. And then the season began.
Lincecum had a very un-Lincecum debut allowing five runs in 5.1 innings while Zito tossed a complete-game shutout in hitter-friendly Coors Field. By the end of May Zito’s ERA stood at 3.41 while Lincecum’s was 5.82. The Freak had four starts where he allowed at least five runs in just two months after having just five such starts in each of the previous two years. After back-to-back 3.1 inning starts to begin July, things began to turn around after the All-Star Break. The former Cy Young winner allowed more than four runs just twice and put up a 3.83 ERA over his final fifteen regular season starts. The strikeouts weren’t quite there, just 86 over his final 89.1 innings, and twelve home runs in just under 90 innings isn’t great, but there was hope that he was figuring out his issues and fixing his problems. For most of the postseason Lincecum came out of the bullpen and allowed just one run in eleven innings of relief. His lone start was a 4.2 inning, four-run outing against the Cardinals in the NLCS and Lincecum returned to the bullpen for the World Series putting up an 8:1 strikeout to walk ratio in 4.2 innings as the Giants defeated the Detroit Tigers.
Zito’s final fifteen starts would see him return largely to the Barry Zito that had been in San Francisco for several years: 85.2 innings of 4.31 ERA. But Zito limited the damage. By allowing more than four runs just once, and getting some help from his offence and bullpen, Zito would win eight of his second-half starts and the Giants would win twelve as they marched towards their second World Series in three years. Under the bright lights of the NLDS stage Zito wilted, lasting just 2.2 innings but he rebounded for the next two rounds tossing 13.1 innings of one-run ball across two starts. In un-Zito-like fashion he struck out 9 while walking just two. After not even making the roster for the Giants previous World Series run, Zito was redeemed in San Francisco.
2013 and Beyond
Whatever magic Zito uses to start the season seems to have continued into 2013 as the crafty left-hander began the new year with two scoreless seven-inning outings before the Milwaukee Brewers roughed him up for nine runs in just 2.2. Of course, he followed that up with another seven scoreless against the San Diego Padres.
Zito is in his last year of his deal with the Giants but the club retains an $18 million option for his services in 2014. Should they decline, Zito is due a $7 million buyout, so the Giants are really looking at a one-year, $11 million deal for a fourth or fifth starter who essential is what he is: dependably average.
2012 raised more questions about Lincecum than it answered. It showed a pitcher who was no longer at the top of his game as a starter but who could still dominate in relief. It showed a guy who had a bad first half and a decent second half. 2013 begins along the same lines: four starts into the season Lincecum has two good outings and two bad. He has two games with at least seven strikeouts and one with seven walks. Lincecum signed a 2 year $40.5 million contract after the 2011 season when the two sides were unable to reach a long-term deal. The Giants are probably breathing a sigh of relief on that one.
Which pitcher will perform better in 2013: the low-risk low(er) reward Zito or the high-risk, high reward Lincecum? Who will have a spot on the 2014 team? The answer to both questions may be Barry Zito, who, celebrating the ten-year anniversary of his Cy Young season has become a pitcher who can never live up to his contract but can be counted upon to reach a baseline of performance.
Cross-posted at The Sports Post