In 2014, the American League Central will look to bring the World...
Keith Law, FireJoeMorgan, And “The Barry Zito Contract”
On December 28th, 2006, the Giants signed 28-year-old left handed pitcher Barry Zito to a seven-year, $126 Million contract. At the time, it was the largest deal ever for a pitcher. Zito, with Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, was part of the triumvirate of good/great young pitchers that helped propel Moneyball and made Billy Beane a renowned figure. As Zito’s contract winds down, it seems appropriate to revisit The Internet’s reaction to the deal.
At the time, the guys at FireJoeMorgan, with their amateur analysis, quick quips, and boring layout had just solidified their position as the web’s top baseball banterers. Nate Silver was still doing sports analysis (and was still considered a mere mortal) and Keith Law was just emerging as a guy you might want to really listen to. It was an interesting time as the blog world and sabermetrics had yet to become the forces they are today, and neither were really common reading for casual-avid baseball fans. If you wanted to read about baseball, you read the beat writers and the morning newspaper. SportsCenter still showed highlights, and had not yet become the abomination it is today. It was just seven years ago, but man have times changed. FireJoeMorgan was shut down, Keith Law is a regular on Baseball Tonight, and Nate Silver is more popular for his work in the political realm.
Still, here’s what each had to say in 2006:
Keith Law, ESPN:
“Zito is a third or fourth starter with the reputation of a one or a two. In fact, over the last three years, he’s struggled badly when facing the two premier offenses in the AL, posting a 6.59 ERA against Boston and the Yankees while walking 47 men and allowing 18 homers in 83.3 innings. His control is below-average; only Daniel Cabrera has walked more batters in the last two years than Zito has. And should Zito’s stuff slip at all, he becomes a fifth starter or a guy who needs to head to the National League, the current destination for asylum-seekers who fear AL persecution of their fringy fastballs… Zito should be billed for all the ink and electrons spilled over him in the last eight weeks, since the sports media seems to have fallen for the spin that he’s actually some sort of ace pitcher, when in fact he’s just a durable mid-rotation guy with good marketing…That’s a guy you want to get into for seven years and a gazillion dollars?”
Nate Silver, Baseball Prospectus:
“Zito has gained a great deal of fame for some incredible pitching in the past, as well as his reputation as a goofy left-hander. This has kept him in the spotlight for some time in Oakland, even during a time where few Athletics players were given much love by the national media. He’ll certainly be paid for what he has done rather than what he will do, but unless the situation turns out to be just right, the club that signs him may very well regret it as soon as year two or three of what will most likely be a much longer deal.”
Dave Cameron, USS Mariner:
“Barry Zito, the last three years, has given up about 10 to 15 runs less than an average starting pitcher over the course of 200 innings. He’s been something like a three win player compared to what the Mariners could cobble together as their fifth starter with some combination of Cha Baek, Jake Woods, Sean White, Justin Lehr, Ryan Feierabend, and assorted Triple-A fodder.”
“At a certain point, being contrarian, as Law often is (and as FJM often is), can sometimes lead you into being just as wrong as the idiots you’re showing up. Zito is overrated by a lot of dumb people (“he’s a Cy Young winner!”), and Law sees that. But now he’s overcompensating.
Point is: dude, Barry Zito is not a number three. Factoring in his durability, he’s a solid number two, and in a pinch, he could even be your number one… Is Barry Zito really going to be a league-average starter for the next seven years? Somehow, it’s hard to swallow. Mostly because if he is, I’ll have to apologize to Keith Law in 2013.”
Now, the first thing to gather from all of this is that these dudes have been at this for a long time. They were there to make fun of Brian Sabean when he inked Zito to the 7-year deal and many of them, including Dave Cameron and Keith Law are continuing their noble quest to bring logic and analysis to baseball. Still, let’s look at the comments with hindsight and see just who was correct-est.
Keith Law called Zito a number 3 or 4, and should his stuff slip at all, he becomes a 5th starter destined for a National League reprieve. Now, I’m not going to go into the steps that led Law to this conclusion, but know that Zito never led the league in anything (Innings Pitched, Batters Faced, and Wins aside). I acknowledge the pitcher-win here, fully aware that Keith Law may fly over to Germany and slap me for doing so, but it pops up in bold on baseball-reference and lends some insight into why Zito was just so overrated. What has Zito turned in during the 7 years of this contract?
Season ERAs of 4.53, 5.15, 4.03, 4.15, 5.87, 4.15, and 5.63. He led the league in losses one year and hasn’t pitched 200 innings yet. At first glance, these ERA’s look worse than your typical number 3 starter. At second glance, they still do. Zito’s ranks in bWAR among starters on the Giants staff who made at least 10 starts: 4, 4, 3, 5, (Made just 9 starts himself, would have been 6th), 4, 6. So, he’s been something like the Giant’s number 4.44 starter over the course of his contract. Law appears to be right. In the first three years of the deal, Zito was a bad 3/good 4 and as he’s aged, he’s turned the bad corner.
Now, there is value in a solid, reliable bad 3/good 4 starter. These types of guys can quietly kill a competitive team if they turn in a clunker of a season (Josh Beckett comes to mind) or can propel a good team to skate into the playoffs (Edwin Jackson’s 2012?). And it’s not to say that Zito has been terribly terrible his whole tenure in San Fran. There have been more than one occasion where Zito’s performances have lifted the Giants (including last year’s playoffs). And The San Jose Mercury News even ran this story in early 2012 linking the success of Zito’s first four starts with his “happy marriage” and “personal catcher.” But, I still want to know just how horribly the Giants have over-payed Zito.
Using just the 2012 offseason signing class, and some rudimentary calculations from some guys who write about the Mets for fun, we find that the top free agents of 2013 get paid about $10 Million (AAV) per WAR. That number is usually thought to be about $7 Million, especially with lower tier players, but we’ll give those Mets guys, Sabean, and Zito the benefit of the doubt. Figuring $10 Million per year, per WAR, Zito has been worth $35 Million over the 7 year contract (.5 WAR per year). Figuring the more traditional $7 Million, we come up with a $24.5 Million deal that accurately pays Zito for his worth to the Giants over the life of the contract. So, if we’re about fairness, Zito owes the Giants about $100 million of his salary over the last few years. One more note regarding Zito’s cumulative WAR: the list of free agents from the class of 2006 who have been worth more than Zito includes Rod Barajas.
All these calculations are entirely unfair; Zito’s tenure in San Francisco resulted in two world championships. Still, it’s worth remembering that the Giants will pay Zito about $27 Million in 2013 to be their 6th best starter (thanks to a $7 MM buyout at season’s end).
What have we learned from all this? The guys at FJM, though often funny, contrarion, correct, and smart, missed the boat on the Zito deal when it happened. Perhaps sabermetrics undervalues the type of 200 inning consistency that Zito has provided–writing his name in every 5th day for the past 7 years surely saved Sabean and manager Bruce Bochy some gray hairs–but in the end, FJM owes Keith Law an apology.
Barry Zito has been a colossal disappointment that
nobody sabermetricians saw coming.
Stat of the Day: From The Hardball Times in 2006: “Zito’s unique skill, so to speak, is the theoretical ability to induce infield fly balls. Seriously. If you look at his line, that’s the only thing he does particularly well. The league average IF/Fly rate is 10%, but the last three years, Zito has posted marks of 13.3%, 19.3%, and 16.4%. He ranked 5th in the AL in IF/Fly this year, 2nd last year, and fourth two years ago.”
Photo Courtesy of SportingNews.com