Barry Zito Forever

Rob Neyer thinks that Barry Zito is losing it. He has two pieces of evidence: (1) his hit rate is extremely low, and (2) his strikeout rate is falling.

Well, this blog wouldn’t be living up to its name if we didn’t argue with that. Let’s separate the evidence into its two parts.

First, the hit-rate argument. Neyer says:

He was very, very lucky. Hit-lucky. In both seasons, only 25 percent of the batted balls in play fell in for hits. That’s exceptionally low unless you’re a knuckleballer, and Zito’s not.

This is the DIPS argument, that pitchers don’t control batting average on balls in play, batters do. DIPS assumes that BABIP is all luck, and if you even that luck out, you can predict a pitcher’s future ERA with DIPS better than you can with his real ERA.

Recent scrutiny of DIPS has found some exceptions. Some pitchers do demonstrate some control over BABIP. Knuckleballers. Extreme flyball pitchers. Lefthanders. And the most recently discovered exception, pitchers who get lots of infield popups. Zito is three of those four. And perhaps his curve ball is so darn good it has the same effect as a knuckleball.

Zito led the AL in both popups (78, 2nd place 58) and foulouts (32) in 2003. Popups and foulouts almost never fall as hits. In that sense, a popup is almost as good as a strikeout. If Zito creates popups at a higher rate than anyone else, his BABIP should be lower accordingly. And it is. His real ERA has been lower than his DIPS ERA every single year of his career, usually by a wide margin:

Year ERA DIPS
2000 2.72 4.00
2001 3.49 3.63
2002 2.75 4.01
2003 3.30 4.11* (*estimate)

Zito’s done this four years in a row. And when someone can do something consistently and repeatedly, I call that a skill, not luck. So I don’t buy the DIPS argument with Zito. I think the problem here is with DIPS, not Zito. Zito is a DIPS outlier.

The strikeout/walk rate argument is a bit more alarming. His ERA is still pretty darn low, even though he’s striking out fewer batters every year. More balls are being put in play every year. The question is: are those missing strikeouts being turned into popups (almost as likely to be an out as a strikeout), or other types of balls in play (less likely to be an out)?

Well, I haven’t seen any popup stats for any years except 2003. But I would doubt that more than just a fraction (1/3? 1/5?) are being turned into popups. That remaining fraction is likely to be turned into hits at a league-average rate. So in that sense, Neyer is right: his ERA is likely to go up if the falling strikeout trend continues.

Even so, I’m not going be calling for Billy Beane to go trade Barry Zito anytime soon. I’ll take off my stathead hat and put on my scouts hat, and tell you why I’d keep him: the hope of a fourth pitch.

Barry Zito is a three-pitch pitcher: fastball, curveball, changeup. That’s it. When he has all three pitches working, he’s darn near impossible to hit. Example: Game 2, 2003 ALDS.

But when he loses the touch on one of those pitches, he’s suddenly a two-pitch pitcher with a mediocre 88 MPH fastball. He’s wily enough to be able to take those two pitches and get through the order twice without too much damage. But on those nights, he usually struggles to get through the order a third time. I’ve seen it happen many times. Example: Game 5, 2003 ALDS.

Zito is only 25 years old. It’s not too late for him to find a fourth pitch: sinker, cutter, splitter…some other weapon to put in his arsenal. If he had one more pitch, one more way to throw the hitters off balance, he’d have a much better chance of getting through those innings where he is struggling with control.

Zito fiddled with a cutter last spring training, but abandoned it when the season started. So I know he’s thought about it. If he could find that extra pitch, I think he’d win several more Cy Young Awards. In fact, I think he would be so good the Hall of Fame couldn’t take him. When he gets too old to last five or six innings without getting tired, he’d go to the bullpen and be the best old LOOGY in baseball. He’d be his generation’s Jesse Orosco or John Franco, only better. Barry Zito would pitch forever.

Tenderness Is Arbitrary

Every year, Billy Beane goes shopping to make sure he is stocked up on about seven starting pitchers. He puts five of them in the Oakland fridge for immediate consumption, and dumps two in the freezer in Sacramento for future use. This year, he was eyeing some Mark Redmeat, but today he decided it was too much flank steak at filet mignon prices. So now he must keep shopping, hungrily eyeing today’s butcher block for the best deal he can find on fresh, non-tenderized beef.

Justin Duchscherer gets to stay in the fridge for the moment. Meanwhile, Menechino scutaros off, and Fikac is free to agent himself around. I wonder why Billy kept Frankie and Jeremy on the 40-man roster for the Rule 5 draft? I don’t know. Mabeus A’s didn’t really care for those guys they lost. But it’s not like Jeremy didn’t slider or something. For A’s fans, what else is Neu? Nothing, apparently, and that’s what they got for him. Perhaps we’re wishing farewell to them because they happened to get caught with a Hammond the new cookie jar.

The duration of Durazo’s A’s tenure was extended a year. It’s the right thing to do. So only one guy left: whither Chad Brad Ford? I’ve not heard a word. It would be wise if he were tenderized. In his case, no news is good news.

First Pitch 2004 Notes

If you took 6,000 A’s season ticket holders, and lined them all up, how far would they stretch? Apparently, the A’s wanted to know, as they tried an experiment designed to answer that question before the First Pitch 2004 event in the Coliseum Arena.

To conduct the experiment, they only opened one entrance to the building, and they opened it late. So when we arrived at 6:50pm, the one line into the arena stretched down the ramp to the North side parking lot, across the plaza to the stadium entrance behind home plate, all the way along the third-base side of the stadium, and up the ramp to BART behind the left field bleachers.

It creates a very interesting illusion. A line that long looks like a heck of a lot more people than when they’re all sitting in a half-empty arena. With all those people in one line, I started to wonder how anybody ever complains that there aren’t enough A’s fans.

Eventually the line moved, and we got in. They started late so we didn’t miss anything. I took some notes. Here they are:

The first segment was hosted by KTVU sports anchor Joe Fonzi and comedian Mark Pitta. It was a talk-show-like set, with a couple of sofas. They showed a highlight reel from 2003. I hadn’t really thought much about it until then, but watching those highlights it really hit me: Damn, I miss baseball. Then, the “guests” were brought out. In order of appearance:

  • Billy Beane. Pitta has apparently been hanging out with Joe Morgan, since he called Beane the author of Moneyball in his introduction. Fonzi corrected him. Beane confirmed that the A’s have an agreement with Arthur Rhodes and the contract should be finalized sometime this weekend. He also said that the A’s should have a catcher (Damian Miller? He didn’t say) pretty soon. This drew plenty of hisses from the large contingent of Ramon Hernandez fans in the audience, including one guy who shouted “We already had a catcher!” Pitta asked him about what he does during games, because he gets too nervous to watch. Beane says he goes to the beach or Safeway or Barnes and Noble. Said he did the Ted Lilly trade while at the beach with his daughter.
  • Ken Macha. Asked about the two interference calls in Game 3, he said they got the Varitek call right, but the Tejada call wrong. He’s still angry about the Tejada call. He got calls from people he’s worked with before telling him they’d never seen him that angry. Back at home in Pittsburgh, he got a lot of grief over his Game 3 outburst, especially from his mom, a devout Catholic. On Halloween, he was handing out candy, and a kid dressed as a policeman comes to his door and tells Macha he is under arrest. “What for?” asks Macha. The kid replies, “For saying bad words on TV.”
  • Rich Harden. Harden was forced to tell the tale of the rookie hazing where the rookies had to wear ridiculous outfits in public. Harden was forced to dress up as SpongeBob SquarePants. They went to a shopping mall, and ate in an upscale restaurant in their outfits.
  • Scott Hatteberg. Hatteberg was asked to tell the story of the home run that got the A’s their 20th consecutive win in 2002. Plays guitar with Zito sometimes, but only knows three chords, so he’s limited to songs by guys like Bob Seger. Wife is expecting third child in March. Hates facing Mariano Rivera, who doesn’t really strike him out, but breaks his bat nearly every time. Ken Macha hates his ratty jeans.
  • Barry Zito. They showed a clip of Zito’s acting gig on JAG. Zito tells that there was a lot of downtime during filming, so one time “the brown-haired dude on the show” (David James Elliot) asked him if he wanted to go back to his trailer and play some guitar. Zito said sure. Zito thought they would take turns playing stuff. But Elliot played for a half-hour straight, and “I was just his audience”. Then someone came and said it was time to go back on the set.

    Then Zito was asked about hecklers. He said the hecklers in New York are not as bad as the ones in Boston, but Chicago clearly has the worst hecklers. Beane then interrupted to confirm that Chicago’s hecklers were harshest. One time as a player at Wrigley, someone kept shouting at him “Hey 35! Hey 35! Who are you?” Beane got tired of it, so he shouted back, “Go buy a program, meat!” The heckler responded, “I did, but you weren’t in it!”

  • Hank Greenwald was brought out for a brief appearance. He turned to Beane and said, “I just learned that you and I have something in common. I’ve had lots of nights doing Giants games when I couldn’t stand to watch, either.” Cheers.

Then came the second half of the show, which was to be part of the Best Damn Sports Show Period on Fox at some point. Leeann Tweeden hosted. She will be participating with Barry Zito in the Oakland Ballet Nutcracker tomorrow night.

  • Hatteberg. Hatteberg was asked about how he had his wife hit balls at him on a tennis court to prepare him to switch to first base. So they brought out tennis pro and A’s fan Brad Gilbert to hit some tennis balls at Hatteberg. He hit them pretty hard. Hatteberg snagged all but one of them.
  • Zito. Zito was asked to demonstrate his yoga techniques. Tweeden, Macha, and a fan followed his instructions. There were some, um, suggestive positions. A lot of bending over. The males sitting directly behind Tweeden seemed to enjoy this segment the most.
  • Harden. Harden was asked about throwing snowballs when he grew up in Canada. Then they brought out some Hostess Snoballs, took a guy out of the stands, gave him a mitt, and had Tweeden and Harden throw the Hostess Snoballs at him. Harden was wild, and frequently missed his target. I think Tweeden had more control. But on his last throw, Harden faked throwing at the fan, and then turned and drilled Macha in his stomach. End of show.

Primer Odometer Poem

A little verse to honor Baseball Primer on its 10,000th Clutch Hit thread:

TangoTiger, Voros, DIPS,
Aaron Gleeman, Forman, ZiPS,
Shredder, Treder, Davis, Werr,
To their wisdom I defer.

Giambi-Mabry, Petco thread,
RossCW getting fed,
Neyer, Beeah Guy, guys who lurk,
TOLAXOR, Ring Dings, **** don’t work.

Mr. Selig wants a cap;
Mike Piazza; It’s a trap!
If all those things are what’s in store,
I hope I read 10,000 more!

And Mike Crudale.

Hammond Song

Newsday is reporting that the Yankees are about to trade Chris Hammond to the A’s.

Hammond is a lefty change-up artist who has an easier time getting right-handed batters out than lefties. He had a great year two years ago with the Braves (0.95 ERA/1.11 WHIP), but in 2003 with the Yankees, he wasn’t quite so impressive: 2.86 ERA, 1.21 WHIP. Actually, when you compare stats from the two years, most stats only decline a little bit, except one: in 2002 the slugging % against him was insanely low: .261. In 2003, that jumped to .407. And that’s kinda worrisome in one of the few guys left in the majors who are older than I am.

So he’s a nice addition to a bullpen, but he’s not a closer, either. More trade bait? I kinda hope so. If he ends up on the A’s, I swear I’m gonna have The Hammond Song stuck in my head every time he warms up in the bullpen:

If you go down to Hammond
You’ll never come back
In my opinion you’re
On the wrong track
We’ll always love you but
That’s not the point.

If you go with that fella
forget about us
As far as I’m concerned
that would be just
throwing yourself away
not even trying.

Posted by: Ken / 11:06 PM |

A few notes on suffering

The poor decisions of Seattle Mariner GM Bill Bavasi are making Derek Zumsteg suffer. But instead of blaming Bavasi, Zumsteg considers a Buddhist idea: that the source of his suffering is actually his desire to win. Perhaps, he implies, he should heed the Eastern traditions and try to avoid desire.

Western tradition has a slightly different message. In the mythology of the West, desire also leads to suffering–but the suffering is worth it. Take the tragic story of Tristan and Iseult. Tristan drinks a potion that makes him fall in love with Iseult, who has been chosen to marry a king. Tristan is told that pursuing the affair will result in his death.

“If by ‘my death’ you mean this agony of love, that is my life!” responds Tristan. “If by my death you mean the punishment that we are to suffer if discovered, I accept that. And if by my death, you mean eternal punishment in the fires of hell, I accept that, too.”

In Martin Scorsese’s film “The Last Temptation of Christ“, Jesus faces a similar choice: to live a pleasant but unremarkable life, or to unite with God by suffering the crucifixion. He chooses–He wants–the path of suffering.

We who choose to watch baseball are also choosing to suffer. It would be simpler not to drink the love potion. Our Iseult, the World Series championship, is likely destined for some other king. So why watch? The whole affair is doomed, almost pointless.

Almost. But as Roger Angell said in an interview with Ken Burns,

…the people who tell me they hate baseball, they’re out of baseball–they sound bitter about it. But I think they sense what they are missing. I think that they feel that there’s something that they’re not in on which is a terrible loss. And I’m sorry for them.

Although I think baseball does suffering and failure better than any other sport, it’s not unique to baseball. The most remarkable thing I have ever seen in sports was the press conference where Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive. Everyone in the room was in tears, thinking that he was announcing his death. But Magic was not gloomy; instead, he seemed like he was positively looking forward to fighting the battle against AIDS.

That press conference was the Lou Gehrig speech of my generation. Magic Johnson was the first athlete I ever saw apply the true lesson of sports: you’re going to lose. You’re going to fail. You’re going to suffer. You’re even going to die. But if, despite that knowledge, you can still willingly take on the challenges life puts before you, you can be redeemed.

Tejada An Oriole

Rules for not alienating A’s fans when you leave for another team:
1. Don’t go to the Yankees.
2. Don’t go to another AL West team.
3. Don’t go to the Giants.
4. Don’t go to the Red Sox.

Tejada passes the test! He signed with the Orioles, which assures him of not getting the Jason Giambi treatment when he returns as an opposing player. I would be surprised if he didn’t get a standing ovation in his first at-bat in Oakland.

He got a six-year deal for around $10M per year. Getting the long-term contract he wanted in this market is pretty good. I’m happy for him. Good luck, Miguel, and thanks for all the good times.

Baltimore finished in the bottom half of the standings, so the A’s will get a supplemental round pick and a second-round pick from the Orioles, instead of the late first-round pick had Tejada signed with a winning team. With the picks from Boston for signing Foulke, the A’s will have two first round picks, two supplemental picks, and two second-round picks in the 2004 draft.

In other news, it looks like Arthur Rhodes may indeed be heading to Oakland, as the A’s are pursuing him to be their closer. It seems like a good fit. The Braves appear to be the primary competition. I hope it’s true that he’s coming; we’ve finished second in free agent races twice this week already.

But all my disappointment will vanish if this report is true: Hank Greenwald coming out of retirement to do 60-70 A’s games on TV. All I can say to that is: YIPPEE! With Greenwald on the air, watching the A’s will be pleasurable even if the team sucks. I love Hank Greenwald.