One of the hardest things in life is to admit failure. Not the little incremental, temporary, provisional shortcomings or stumbles that even the great experience, but a total, all-encompassing loss of competence or ability, in some area of your life where it really matters.
As with most athletes who have professional careers, Barry Zito's early performance was impressive. He had a superior college and minor league career, and came to the Bigs with the Oakland Athletics in 2000.
In retrospect, it probably would be useful to try to understand how a pitcher with Zito's apparent skills could decline so quickly. But the larger question is, could the Giants management have seen his potential more clearly. Between 2000 and 2006, with Oakland, Zito had a 102-63 won lost record. Most of his numbers looked good, even superior. In his Cy Young year (2002), he started 35 games, and pitched 229 innings.
But look at the graph of his progress. In the subsequent four years, his record looked like this:
These, rather than supporting the notion of a dominant star pitcher, suggest a competent journeyman, the sort of pitcher who "gives you innings"--not the ace of the staff, or even a pitcher who can win you pennants. A kind of "fifth starter" who will pitch very well every 10th start, but otherwise is good for 5 1/3 innings, enough to "keep you in the ballgame" assuming the opponent's hurler isn't pitching very well.
Perhaps Sabean, the Giants GM, was experiencing wishful thinking--had convinced himself that Zito was a top flight pitcher, whose declining numbers were not indicative of his true worth. Prior to the 2007 season, the Giants signed Zito to a 126 million, 7 year contract, in effect designating Zito as the team's key star player, the baseball equivalent of pro football's "franchise" player.
But a closer look at Zito's performance prior to 2007 is revealing. Despite his winning record, the numbers are skewed. Take out his one great season in 2002 (23-5), and his won-lost record is pretty mediocre (79-58)--not exactly Hall of Fame numbers. Never a great strike-out or overpoweringly fast pitcher, Zito relied on getting players out in other ways.
What have been Zito's problems since he came to the Giants? Why have his numbers looked so poor, and his performance so uneven? How did he go from being the anointed "ace of the staff" to the "sixth starter" in the rotation?
There are a number of theories, and all of them have legs. Despite periods of success--say, 4 or 5 game stretches when he seems able to get hitters out efficiently--he's consistently shown a lack of control, walking too many batters, falling behind most of them; he's lost velocity on his fastball (which in the major leagues, is a serious problem, since pitchers who don't succeed with speed, usually must compensate with great control or a great alternate "out" pitch, such as a knuckleball), and even a competent fastball--say, in the 88 to 90 mph range--naturally "sets up" other kinds of (slower) pitches; and, finally, he seems to lose focus or concentration in tight spots, such as walking pitchers, or walking batters with the bases loaded.
Among the peculiar extenuations of this case, are 1) the fact that Zito seems altogether a sensible, intelligent, even sensitive man, aware of the complexities of his job--not the kind to "think" himself into a quandary; and 2) he's so far been relatively free of the injuries which plague so many pitchers--he seems not to suffer, for instance, from a sore arm, and physically he always appears fit; he has the ideal long, loose build of the classic pitching body (rather like Randy Johnson), and his motion never seems to tax him. Stamina doesn't seem to be an issue with him.
Despite his volubility and equanimity in interviews and on talk shows, however, he seems a bit uneven emotionally. Though he seldom shows frustration on the mound, bad calls or bad luck seem to tug at him more than they do with less intelligent players.
Pitching in the major leagues is undoubtedly one of the most difficult things in all of sports to do well. It requires strength, accuracy, concentration, and what people today call "athleticism"--or, neuro-musculo-skeletal coordination of a high order. The ability to throw different kinds of pitches to spots, consistently, is usually what separates the better pitchers from the failures. Emotional imperturbability is very important, too. In front of tens of thousands of boisterous fans, the eyes of both teams, and the watchful umpires, one must be able to block all this "static" out to focus on the matter at hand.
Though Zito was never considered a "power" pitcher, since his fastball has never risen above 90 miles per hour, he hasn't been considered much of a "finesse" guy either. Beside his "fastball"--usually in the 84 mph range, he has a change-up, and a big round-house curve which breaks as much as 2-3 feet. With this limited repertoire, and frustrating (and mysterious) loss of velocity over the last 5 years, his lack of control has caused his performance to deteriorate steadily over time.
In 2010, his later season outings were so poor, that the team de-activated him for the play-offs, and he was relegated to sitting on the bench through the National League play-offs, and the World Series. This can't have been comfortable for Zito, but he kept his peace and put on a good cheerleader's face.
Were it not for his enormous overhanging contract--two years left at $16,000,000 per--the team would undoubtedly have released or traded him by now. After injuring his foot early this season, the team brought in Ryan Vogelsong--who hadn't pitched in the majors since 2006 (with Pittsburgh). Vogelsong proceeded to pitch himself into the regular rotation, going 8-1 to date, with a 2.23 ERA, and earning a place on the NL All Star squad. There were many fans--and probably Giants management as well--who secretly wished that Zito's injury could have kept him from returning indefinitely! Since returning, he had three so-so starts, not bad, then returned to his former inglorious self, getting bombed early in his last two outings.
What seems perplexing is that, despite being very hip to consequences, Zito rarely seems to get upset with his lack of success. He never seems to get down on himself, but if he does, he doesn't show it. He's known for being into Zen, for meditating, and maintaining a sense of proportion about the challenges of the public life he lives on the field. He lives in Southern California, and dates actresses.
The Giants have what may be the best all-around pitching staff in the majors. The Phillies have Lee and Halladay and Hamels and Oswalt, but the Giants have Lincecum, Cain, Vogelsong, Bumgarner, Sanchez, and the best bull-pen in the game (with Wilson, Romo, Lopez and Affeldt). The question on everyone's mind now is: How can Zito fit into this strong, young rotation? With two years left on his contract, no other team is likely to want any part of him, even for mop-up duty (long relief in games already decided by the 3-5th innings). At his current level of performance, he'd probably be ignored, even without a contract.
The options aren't pretty. The team could send Zito back to the minors again, but that would be as good as admitting total defeat. Buying time at this point seems futile--Zito's at the physical high-point of his potential. He doesn't need seasoning. What does he need?
Perhaps strength training. Unable to throw a fastball above 88 mph is probably a career-ender for a pitcher of his style. Hitters can sit on his slow fastball, and ignore the curve, particularly when he's unable to keep the ball down or manage his control. Pitching "behind" on counts with a slow fast-ball is a recipe for disaster. If Zito is physically challenged to the extent that no matter what he does, his performance can't be improved, his playing days are probably numbered.
The other part of it is emotional, of course. No team wants to punish a player. Major leaguers are grown-ups. But professional athletes function off of optimism and confidence. Tearing down a player's ego doesn't help. Zito's heard the boos, and he's probably been read the riot act by Bochy several times since the mid-oughts. On a team of relative youngsters, Zito was expected to serve as the leader, both on the field and off. Clearly, if he's the odd man out, that isn't possible.
Every year there are players whose careers take a dip, sometimes temporarily, sometimes for good. Mentally, physically, players' lives run over bumps and pot-holes from time to time. But occasionally a player's career will just evaporate for no reason. Steve Blass, a Pittsburgh Pirate star pitcher of the 1960's and early 1970's--about whom Roger Angell wrote so movingly--was cruising along at age 30 atop the heap, winning 19 games with a 2.49 ERA in 1972, when, suddenly the next spring, he completely lost his touch, going 3-9, with a 9.85 ERA, with 84 walks and 27 strike-outs, and he was suddenly out of baseball at age 32.
Zito seems to have been suffering from the dreaded "Steve Blass Disease" since the 2007 season. Excuses about excess "contract" pressure have long since been laid to rest. The only question remains: When will the Giants finally throw in the towel, bite the bullet, and release him? You hate to think of how this will impact the player. Zito was once a Cy Young winner, a man at the top of his game. But fate takes wrong turns sometimes. Barry Zito seems to have lost his way, and is unable to find the road back. It's a sad thing. But whatever the outcome, he'll still have his millions, and his memories. Some pro careers end with a flourish, others peter out pathetically. Sometimes, these decisions are made for us by another power.