Zito's Downfall: Blame it on Billy Beane?
by Richard Van Zandt, BaseballEvolution.com
May 7, 2008

There has been a lot of speculation regarding the Giants' $126 million pitcher Barry Zito and his mysterious loss of velocity. Many people have chimed in with their own reasoning for the sudden dip.  I have my own theory as to why Zito’s fastball has declined. 

Billy Beane.

Yup, that’s right.  The left-hander’s former boss in Oakland deserves at least some of the blame for the one-time Cy Young award winner’s deterioration. 

Before I jump into that, let me also point out that Zito himself helped create this situation by tinkering with his delivery almost from the day he signed with San Francisco, ironically, in an attempt to increase his velocity.

Additionally Zito’s confidence, or rather the lack thereof, is likely a contributing factor that has led to a 0-6 record and a 7.53 ERA after going just 11-13 with a 4.53 mark in his first season with the club.

“A positive attitude when you’re out there carries you through a lot of things,” said Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti. 

But when you get right down to it, the damage was done by the time he crossed the Bay Bridge and took the mound at Willie Mays Field as a Giant for the first time. 

A lot has been made of the A’s success working in a small market and Beane deserves a great deal of the credit (since when by the way, did the Bay Area – populated by more people than the entire state of Oregon – become a small market, I wonder?).  When it comes to making decisions for his club, he’s among the very best in the game.  When it comes to the future of major league pitchers however, I wouldn’t want my kid pitching for him.

What I am getting at here is overuse.  It’s simple; the A’s know that they likely have a player for no more than six-years until he becomes a free agent and bolts for a wealthier team.  That’s why when they have a pitcher as talented as Zito, Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder, whom they know the can control for only so long until they become too expensive, they use them. 

A lot.

Now I’m not faulting Beane for riding his aces, since it was in the best interest of his club.  He, like any other GM, wants to win, and the Big Three consistently gave the A’s a fighting chance at a reasonable price for several years from 2001 through 2004, until Beane dumped both Hudson and Mulder just prior to their big paydays. 

I’m just saying that in any discussion regarding Barry Zito and his loss of velocity, Billy Beane deserves a bit of mention.

Zito pitched for Oakland from 2000 through 2006 in those 6 ½ years, he averaged over 106 pitches per game.  From ‘02 through ’06 he was 3rd in the majors in pitches three times, 2nd once and led the majors in 2003.  From 2001 through the end of ’06, only the soft-tossing Livan Hernandez threw more pitches than Zito and then only by a scant 34.  Mark Buehrle was third, almost 1,500 pitches fewer than Zito.  If he’d had better control – he averaged nearly 86 walks per year from ’01 through ’06 – he likely would have pitched deeper into games like his compatriots Hudson and Mulder (though he still managed 6.44 IP/GS during his tenure in Oaktown).

Tim Hudson, from 2000-04, and Mulder, from 2001-04, both averaged almost 7 innings per start (6.82 & 6.90).   Both pitchers averaged over 101 pitches per start.  From 2001-03, Hudson actually averaged 6.93 IP/GS and nearly 103 pitches.  A left oblique strain cost him several starts in 2004 and may have been the first sign of trouble. 

Signs of Trouble?

In three seasons with Oakland, Dan Haren averaged 102.89 P/GS and 6.50 IP/GS.  Since the beginning of the ’07 season, Joe Blanton has averaged 102.51 P/GS and 6.80 IP/GS.

Despite holding a rather affordable $6 million option for the ’05 season, Beane dealt Hudson to the Braves, where in his first campaign with Atlanta, he again missed starts with an oblique strain.  The Braves then signed him to a 4-year, $47 million extension (with a $12 M option).  Hudson wasn’t his usual self in the ’06 season (4.86 ERA, 1.44 WHIP), but rebounded last year and seems to be the least affected of the Big Three.

Mulder hasn’t fared nearly as well.  The A’s signed him to a four-year deal prior to the 2002 season worth $14.7 M that included a vesting option for the ’06 season worth $7.25 M.  He was also traded in the winter prior to the ’05 season when he was due to earn $6 M.  After one season with St. Louis, Mulder completely fell apart, missing half of the 2006 season, most of last, and thus far, all of this year with arm injuries.

Zito – noted for never having missed a start due to injury – has thus far avoided the injury bug, yet his fastball has all but disappeared.  In his first season with San Francisco, his “heater” averaged 86.01 mph.  This year, it’s even slower.  In his first six starts, Zito’s fastball has averaged just 84.20 mph.  In his most recent outing against Cincinnati, that mark dropped down to a meager 82.80 mph.  It can hardly be considered coincidence that Zito’s velocity should drop so precipitously so soon after Beane and the A’s rode him so hard for so long. 

The A’s held onto Zito through the entirety of his 4-year, $9.3 M deal signed prior to the ’02 season, even allowing him to vest his option for the 2006 season, which would have been his first free agent year.  The $8.5 million they paid him for that season became money well spent when Oakland won the division title.  He averaged nearly 108 pitches per start.

After the debacle versus the Reds (8 runs on 7 hits and 3 walks in 3 innings), the Giants moved their mega-rich pitcher to the bullpen, where he threw two side sessions and made no game appearances before the team decided to return him to the rotation in time for Wednesday’s game in Pittsburgh, essentially skipping him for just one start.  Will his side work make a difference?  Zito blamed lack of aggressiveness for his lack of success, telling reporters, “it has to do with being aggressive in the strike zone.  The game’s obviously mental and if you’re not in an aggressive mindset, then you’re going to nitpick, and that’s what gets guys in trouble.  That’s what got me in trouble.”  Surely it didn’t have anything to do with his lackluster fastball did it?

Can and/or will Zito regain the form that made him a Cy Young winner and helped him average over 15 wins a year for six years?  Unlikely.  Does Beane deserve a certain amount of responsibility for his loss of velocity?  Very likely.

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.