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Barry Zito a cut above the Tigers
An actual statement overheard following the Giants' win over the Tigers in Game 1 of the World Series on Wednesday: “Barry Zito?! I thought he was dead!”
For all intents and purposes, his career was.
Zito was one of Oakland's “Big Three” starting pitchers during the early 2000s, along with Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. A three-time All-Star, he won the Cy Young award in 2002, his third year in the league, going 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA.
The lefty entered free agency following the 2006 season at age 28 and was given a hefty seven-year, $126 million contract by San Francisco.
That's when everything went downhill.
Expected to be the ace of the Giants staff, Zito became an enigma. He was given breaks from the starting rotation and sent to the bullpen. He never produced a winning record from 2007-2010 despite producing at least a .500 record during the seven previous seasons. He posted a 5.15 ERA in 2008 and 5.87 ERA in 2011 and his contract was regarded as one of the most unfortunate and most immoveable in baseball.
When the Giants won the World Series in 2010, he was nothing more than a bystander, left off the postseason roster entirely.
Then came 2012.
He went 15-8 with a 4.15 ERA in the regular season. He's 2-0 with a 1.68 ERA in three postseason starts. He just beat Justin Verlander, perhaps the best pitcher in baseball, in Game 1 of the World Series.
What brought Barry Zito back to life?
Apparently, it was as simple as recognizing how to use his weapons.
Zito's fastball clocked in at an average of 83.9 mph this season, and it's only topped out at 87.3 over a full season for his career (2005). Yet, prior to 2012, Zito was throwing his fastball at least half the time. In the 10 seasons prior to 2012, he used it an average of 54.2 percent of the time.
But this season, Zito started using it much less frequently, only 36.8 percent of the time. He also threw his changeup fewer times, from a career 16.3 percent to 10.8 percent. To make up the difference, he went to a sweeping pitch that fangraphs.com identifies as a slider and MLB.com identifies as a cutter. Either way, he threw this sweeper 32.5 percent of the time in 2012, up from a career average of 9.2 percent.
That change in philosophy carried over into the playoffs and Wednesday night. Zito threw just 81 pitches to get through 5.2 innings, and only delivered 34 fastballs (41.9 percent). He threw 25 sweepers (30.8 percent), 15 curveballs (18.5 percent) and seven changeups (8.6 percent).
The result: six hits, one walks, three strikeouts, one earned run.
And a little life back in the body of Barry Zito.