April 05, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; San Francisco Giants starting pitcher Barry Zito (75) leaves after the end of the top of seventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals at AT&T Park - Credit: Kelly Cox

The Enduring Wonder of Barry Zito

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Every so often, we here at Around The Foghorn like to feature content from writers who aren’t part of the ATF team. Sometimes they’re fellow writers from other sites, sometimes they’re simply fans who want their voice heard. Either way, we’re always happy to provide a platform for their expression.

Which leads me to this fantastic article submitted to us by ESPN TrueHoop network writer, Michael Pina, who wanted to focus on Barry Zito and his intriguing career arc. A big thanks to Michael for his submission – you can follow him on Twitter @MichaelVPina or find his work at ESPN TrueHoop or ScoreBig.com

Professional athletes who’re lucky enough to experience a third act seldom have their career arc resemble a half-drawn figure eight. The final stages of a successful career are supposed to be about re-invention; a final clinging to physical abilities that should be long gone.

When the third act is instead arguably more successful than the first, well, that’s not common. San Francisco Giants starter Barry Zito is becoming one of the best rare examples in professional sports history.

In 2002 he made $295,000 as a 24-year-old, 23-game winning, Cy Young award winner. As the best pitcher on Earth, Zito was aloof yet self-aware, and everybody liked him. On a broader level, what he represented was the heart of what made “Moneyball” a best-selling book, and literal game-changing idea. The value in getting elite production at bottom of the barrel pricing was provocative, in a good way. General managers all throughout baseball set out to find the “next” Barry Zito. He was a pitcher, but, in many equally important ways, Zito was also a symbol.

Four years later, in his last season as a member of the Athletics, Zito faced 945 batters, the most in baseball. (He never missed a start during his tenure with Oakland.) He made the All-Star team and entered free agency as a jewel every franchise wanted to rub.

To date, that was the last All-Star game he’d make. After the San Francisco Giants signed him to the largest contract for a pitcher (seven-years, $126 million) in the history of baseball, Zito struggled in his first year.  Those struggles turned into an exasperated nightmare in 2008, when he lost his first six starts before May 1st—which, when you think about it, is extremely difficult to do.

He was eventually moved to the bullpen, and by the end of the year, his 5.1 walks per nine innings pitched, 51.5% first-pitch-strike percentage, and 14 sacrifice flies allowed were all lowest in baseball.

When the San Francisco Giants won the World Series in 2010, Zito was left off the postseason roster because he was awful. This was rock bottom.

Then, when looked to be all over. When the second act appeared to be a final go, Zito transformed back into his former self, only better.

Last season on their way to sweeping the Detroit Tigers for a second World Series title in four years, the Giants won the last 14 games Zito started. He finished the postseason 2-0 with a 1.69 ERA, and that incredible success has carried over into this season.

He opened the year Zito allowing no runs in his first two starts, tallying half as many walks as strikeouts. On April 21 he went seven innings against the San Diego Padres without giving up a run.

Zito is making $20 million this season, but his salary feels unrelated to the story. Finally.

So, how is he doing it? Right now the only pitcher in baseball with a slower average fastball speed is knuckleball specialist R.A. Dickey, per Fangraphs. (This season Zito’s fastball has traveled at an average speed of 83.4 miles per hour. Last season he was at 83.9, still second slowest behind Dickey.)

But stinging his catcher’s palm with blistering speed was never was made Barry Zito an artist with the ball. He thrived on deception, using fastballs as a means to an end, a set up for one of the most devastating curveballs baseball has ever seen.

The curveball isn’t what it used to be, but his command has never been better. He’s targeting the black, painting corners of the plate with that slow but sure fastball and killing hitters with his precision. Through his first two starts he lead all players in baseball in Wins Above Replacement.

Zito’s career has been long, prosperous, and bumpy. And right now, as he mows down batters with one of the best finesse games in baseball at the age of 35, it appears to be heading out on a high note.

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Tags: Barry Zito San Francisco Giants

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