Who Are These Guys?

by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
May 23, 2009

Nearly two full months now into the 2009 baseball season, there have been, as there usually are, a few remarkable things happening around the league; the incredible resurgence of Zack Greinke, for instance, and the remarkable bust-out season, thus far, from Jason Bartlett, rank among the best.  But two players in particular have caught my full attention as we prepare to enter the summer months.  I’m talking about the Giants’ (former?) contract albatross Barry Zito, and my favorite target, former Giant third baseman and current Phillies on-base machine, Pedro Feliz.  That’s right, I said an on-base machine!  Will wonders never cease? 

But before I delve into my dear old friend, Pete Happy, let’s take a look at the resurrection of the former Cy Young Award winner, Barry Zito, whose goose I had personally declared all but cooked. 

Sure, his 1-4 record gives every appearance of a man continuing to struggle under the enormous weight of a record setting nine-figure contract, but after witnessing his dispiriting downward spiral carrying on through his first two outings in ’09 (10 runs on 11 hits and 6 walks in 9 innings pitched), he has suddenly, and very unexpectedly, become the pitcher the Giants thought they were getting when he signed on for 7-years and $126 million. 

Zito, in his last six starts, has posted an impressive pitching line of 2.21 ERA/1.16 WHIP/.230 BAA, allowing just 34 hits in 40.2 innings.  Opponents have slugged just .331 against him and he has allowed only 9 extra-base hits in 158 at bats during that span. 

Until his most recent outing, last Tuesday in San Diego, he had not allowed a single run in the first four innings of any of his previous five starts.  Three times he had carried a shutout into the seventh inning and a fourth time he carried one into the sixth.   

On Tuesday, he surrendered solo home runs to Scott Hairston in the first inning (11 of the pesky Hairston’s 46 career home runs have now been hit against the Giants) and Nick Hundley in the second, but then allowed just three singles the rest of the way in a complete game, 2-1 loss. 

How has he done it?  Well according to Fangraphs.com, he has been allowing fewer line drives and fly balls (nearly 4-5% fewer), getting more groundballs (his 44% ratio would be an all-time high), and significantly more infield pop-ups (18.5% after hovering near 8% the past two years).  And as for that much-debated loss of fastball velocity?  Well, that’s returned, too.  His heater's been averaging 86.6 mph this year after registering roughly two miles per hour slower the previous two seasons.  This increased velocity, coupled with improved command, has enhanced the effectiveness of all of his pitches. 

Sadly for Zito, no one outside of the Bay Area has really noticed his revival, thanks largely to the Giants inept offense.  In his eight starts, San Francisco has scored a grand total of just 19 runs, only 10 of which scored while he was still in the game, and his 1.81 runs of support per 9 innings pitched is the lowest mark in the majors by nearly a full run. 

In his last six stellar outings, the team has plated just 12 runners (only 7 while he was still around to see them).  Thanks largely to Zito’s efforts, however, the Giants have won four of those six starts, including two of them by scores of 1-0, in 10 innings.  Zito’s record in that span, on the other hand, is just 1-2.   

Can Zito sustain this sudden revival, or is he simply in the middle of a hot spell that is bound to end, sooner rather than later?  Of course I’d like to think he can, but only time will tell.  He’ll take the ball next this Sunday in Seattle. 

But if Zito’s success this season is somewhat surprising given his recent struggles, Pedro Feliz’ accomplishments so far this season defy all logical reasoning.

Through his first 38 games this season, my old friend had put up a remarkable batting line of .310/.377/.434 and an OPS+ of 109 while compiling an astounding 15 walks, putting him on pace to draw over 60 this season.  He even drew four unintentional walks in a single game on May 12 against the Dodgers.  Feliz’ previous career high in walks is just 38, accumulated in 156 games back in 2005.  This season, he has been drawing walks at a rate of one every 8.6 at-bats, twice as frequently as his career rate of one every 17.2 AB.  His current batting average is even .005 points higher than his career best on-base percentage!  And while he’s slugged just two home runs so far, his .434 slugging percentage would actually rate as his best mark since 2004. 

What’s more, the notoriously inconsistent Feliz has been remarkably consistent.  The longest Pete has gone cold this year was a four game stretch from April 22-25 when he went 0-for-13.  Since then, however, he’s rebounded to hit .338/.400/.468 in 22 games, entering the Phils series this weekend in New York.    

All of this simply begs the question, “Who are you and what have you done with Pedro Feliz?”  Seriously, what’s going on here?  Pedro entered the season with a career on-base percentage of .290, quite possibly the lowest of any active major leaguer with at least 3,000 plate appearances.  Can Charlie Manuel and Milt Thompson really be that good as hitting coaches?  How can a guy play parts of eight seasons with one of the greatest, not to mention most patient hitters of all-time, and not pick up a thing or two, only to suddenly seem to figure it all out in less than two years with Philadelphia? 

Of course, we’ll have to see whether he can maintain this incredible run over an entire year, but if he does, it would certainly be a glaring indictment of the free swinging organizational philosophy currently employed by Brian Sabean and the Giants.  The early success of both Feliz and Zito serves to re-enforce San Francisco’s organizational stigma of developing quality pitching but failing when it comes to offense.

Disagree with something? Got something to add? Wanna bring up something totally new? Richard resides in San Francisco, California and can be reached at richard@baseballevolution.com.