Sports

How Important is Barry Zito to the San Francisco Giants?

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Is Barry Zito the key to the San Francisco Giants’ pennant aspirations? Probably not, but the fact that I’m even asking myself that question is remarkable.

The Giants have three outstanding starters in Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner, and Ryan Vogelsong. But over the long haul of a 162-game season, teams that have their eyes on the playoffs need their number 4 and 5 starters to perform, too. In short, depth matters. Zito is providing some of that depth for the Giants by putting together a pretty good year. After throwing seven shutout innings while surrendering only three hits to the Atlanta Braves in his last start, Zito’s record stands at 8-6, and he has an ERA of 3.75. Tim Lincecum should be so lucky.

Let’s be honest, Zito’s performance has been a cruel, frustrating joke for much of his time in San Francisco. The contract he signed with the Giants after the 2006 season represents some kind of record for overpaying someone who is underperforming. Fans in San Francisco eventually got used to, and tired of, hearing his standard post-game spiel about “being too fine,” “not attacking the zone,” and “only throwing a couple of bad pitches” after some five-inning train wreck that featured more walks than innings, and more runs than walks and innings combined. The litany of excuses was tiresome and unending. He has yet to finish a year over .500 for the Giants. He was 102-63 in seven years with the Oakland A’s; he is 51-67 in 5 1/2 years with the Giants.

The huge contract is still there, fodder for any cheap shots anyone wants to take, and it’s the sort of contract that should belong to an opening day, number 1 starter. It doesn’t, and I’m not going to sit here and pretend that the last five years didn’t happen. But the fact of the matter is, this year’s different.

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This year, Zito is either the number 4 or number 5 starter on the Giants’ staff, depending on which Tim Lincecum shows up any given week. And honestly, most teams would love to have a number 4 or 5 starter with Zito’s numbers. To begin with, he eats up innings. Until he was injured last year, Zito had never missed a start in his major league career. He has 18 starts so far this year; he’s averaging just under six innings per start; and he’s gone six or more innings in 11 of those 18 starts. Although he’s been seriously lit up twice (8 runs in 3 innings against the Milwaukee Brewers; 8 runs in 3 1/3 against the Los Angeles Dodgers), he still has a 3.75 ERA, well below the current National League average of 3.94. If he finishes the year around 3.75, it will be his lowest ERA since going 14-12 in 2003, the year after he won the American League Cy Young Award.

In his first start of 2012, he became only the second left-handed pitcher to throw a complete game shutout at Coors Field – the other is Tom Glavine, a likely Hall of Famer, who did it twice. In addition, Zito tossed 8 1/3 shutout innings against the Cubs on June 3rd, 7 shutout innings against the Dodgers on June 25th, and as noted above, 7 shutout innings against the Braves on July 17th.

Zito is not a marquee pitcher for the Giants and never has been, much to San Francisco fans’ disappointment. However, this year, as I pointed out back in April, he has been a pleasant surprise. Now 92 games into the 2012 season, he is at least a better than average pitcher who provides the Giants with the kind of starting pitching depth a team with its eye on the post season has to have. If he keeps performing the way he has so far this year, and if the Giants make the playoffs, maybe this time around he won’t be left off the post season roster. Given the year Tim Lincecum’s having, Zito’s timing couldn’t be better for the Giants.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com