Barry Zito’s free-agent signing was a colossal mistake, and the Giants are just beginning to feel the pain.
Zito’s contract, $126 million over seven years, is backloaded, with "only" about $10 million going to him this year so the Giants could also fit in Barry Bonds’ incentive-loaded contract, which will probably reach $20 million.
It was easier to stay within the budget this season by giving Zito less, but it will seriously limit the Giants’ ability to sign free agents in the future.
Of course, considering the Giants’ recent record in the free-agent market, that may be a good thing.
The Giants were excited about the Zito signing, apparently because of his durability, but they overlooked a couple of factors which should have been obvious:
» HE’S NOT AT HIS BEST UNDER PRESSURE: His Cy Young season, 2002, came in a season in which he was the No. 3 pitcher in the A’s rotation, behind Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. That meant he seldom matched up against the opposition’s best pitcher.
Last season with the A’s, he was the No. 1 starter. Here are the comparisons between last season and 2002, with the 2002 marks in parentheses: 16-10 (23-5), 3.83 ERA (2.75), 151 strikeouts (182), 99 walks (78), 13 hit batters (11).
In the postseason, Zito pitched one of his best games in the opener of the division series, giving up one run in eight innings to the Minnesota Twins. But in the first game of the American League Championship Series against the Detroit Tigers he got bombed, giving up five runs before he was taken out with two outs in the fourth.
This year, he has the added pressure of the stupendous contract. He’s responded with his worst start ever — 6-9 with a 4.90 ERA, averaging fewer than six innings a start. His strikeout-walk ratio (66-52) is the worst of his career.
» HE’S NOT A SMART PITCHER: Giants manager Bruce Bochy has commented a couple of times that Zito needs to get the ball down but, in fact, Zito has always pitched high in the zone, which is why so many fly balls are hit off him.
Left-handers with a mediocre fastball like Zito’s can win if they keep the ball down, as Kirk Rueter did for years with the Giants. But Zito has never learned that.
Baseball at the major-league level means constant adjustments between pitchers and hitters. Zito’s 12-6 curveball froze a lot of hitters early, but hitters adjusted to that — and Zito never made the adjustments he needed to make. This year, he’s had times when he’s fooled National League hitters with his breaking ball, but they’ve caught on to him quickly. Again, he’s done nothing to adjust.
There’s no reason to think his season will turn around. What Giants fans have seen from Zito — the constant nibbling, the fear of throwing strikes — will not change.
Bochy’s starting to understand. His announcement that he would stay on rotation with his starters meant that he won’t have to use Zito in the upcoming series against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
The bad news is that, for six more years, the Giants will be paying the big bucks to Zito to be an end-of- the-rotation starter. When a team makes a mistake in free agency, it just pays and pays and pays.
Is there a chance Zito can turn it around this year?
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