Zito's back ... and maybe for good

It wasn't that long ago -- the 16th of July, to be precise -- that Tim Kawakami wondered if Barry Zito should simply be released. Perhaps now (or rather, then). Perhaps at the end of the season. In response to Kawakami, I argued that while Zito wasn't likely to improve much (if at all), he's still good enough to pitch in the majors, so the Giants should just try to forget about his ridiculous contract and let him pitch. At least until they had obviously better options.
Well, Zito's started seven games since July 16 and he's pitched quite well, with a 2.36 ERA and lots of other goodies. While he's still just 8-11 on the season, he's got a 4.26 ERA and has now moved from replacement-level (not good, but useful) to league-average (not great, but worth millions of dollars).

How has he done it? FanGraphs' Erik Manning has done some digging. Money quotes:

    Looking at his peripherals, it's easy to pinpoint the "why” for his improvement. Zito's increased his strikeout rate by a batter per nine innings, while also cutting down his walks. His stuff appears to be new and improved compared to previous seasons with the Giants.

    Last night against Cincy, Zito topped out at 89(!). Slight bump in velo aside, Zito's started to get away from throwing that little league change-up so often. The past two seasons he's thrown it 20% of the time, this year he is doing that with a slider, a pitch he previously has not thrown a whole lot of.

    That lob of a curve has also been tightened back up to form. According to pitch-type values, Zito's curve has been worth 11.3 runs, good for 6th on the leaderboards. Looking at pitch f/x, the pitch has gained about 2 and ½ inches of horizontal and vertical movement on average in comparison to last year's slop ball. Zito isn't about to revert to his former dominance, but at least he's proving to be an above average starter at the moment.

There's a strong correlation between a strong arm and a good curveball. If you make a list of the pitchers with the best curveballs (and for that matter, sliders), you'll find a bunch of guys who threw pretty hard. This is one of the reasons why baseball man like young pitchers who throw hard. It's not just that the fastball is the best pitch in baseball; it's also because if you don't throw hard, it's not likely that you'll ever develop an excellent breaking pitch.
The headline of Manning's piece is "The Reinvention of Barry Zito," but I think that's a bit off. A better headline might have been something like, "The Self-Rediscovery of Barry Zito." Because all he's doing now is pitching like he used to pitch. I remember reading, a few years ago, that Zito's changeup had supplanted his curveball as his best pitch. Left unsaid was that as Zito threw fewer curves (and even fewer fastballs) and more changeups, his performance was declining.

This year he's throwing harder than he's thrown since 2005. Oddly, he's throwing fewer fastballs than ever -- this season he's down to 50 percent, down from nearly 60 percent during his best years with the A's -- but he's throwing many more sliders than ever before, and many fewer changeups than in recent seasons (percentage-wise, anyway).

Statistically, Zito's 2009 is a nearly exact match for his 2004. In both seasons, he (so far) struck out 6.9 batters per nine innings, walked 3.4 batters per nine innings, gave up roughly one home per nine innings, and posted an (adjusted) ERA just a tick better than league average. The comparison does break down somewhat because of the difference between the leagues, but Zito is once again worth a fair amount of money, just as he was in 2004 (and 2005). It's pretty obvious that he'll never be a star again. He's not had the stuff of a star since 2002. But as long as he's striking out twice as many batters as he walks, he's more than worth keeping around.