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And What, Exactly, Would Barry Zito Do in the Giants Bullpen?

by Wendy Thurm on June 6, 2011

There’s an old saying, “You can’t be too rich or too thin.”  I never believed it, which is a good thing, because its undeniably not true. You can be too thin.

 

There’s an old saying in baseball, “You can never half enough good pitching.”  When Giants lefty Barry Zito is ready to come off the disabled list, we may find out if this saying is true or not.

 

The Giants placed Zito on the DL on April 17 after he suffered right mid-foot sprain during a game against the Arizona Diamondbacks the day before.  In addition to the game on April 16 against the DBacks, Zito had started April 3 against the Dodgers (6 IP, 3H, 3ER, 2BB, 5SO–no decision) and April 10 at home against the Cardinals (5.1 IP, 6 H, 4ER, 5 BB, 1SO–LP).  So at the time of his injury, he was 0-1 with 6.23 ERA.

 

After Zito went on the DL, the Giants called up RHP Ryan Vogelsong to take Zito’s place in the rotation.  Vogelsong began his career with the Giants, was traded to the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2001 along with Armando Rios for Jason Schmidt, and promptly got hurt.  He then had lead a journeyman’s life, pitching poorly for the Pirates, then in Japan for three seasons, and then back to the States, bouncing around the minor leagues with the Phillies and Angels organizations. The Giants signed him to a minor league contract before spring training.

 

Since he replaced Zito in the Giants’ rotation, Vogelsong has been nothing short of a revelation.  In 8 starts and 2 relief appearances, Vogelsong is 4-1 with a 1.68 ERA.  In 53.2 innings pitched, Vogelsong has allowed only 42 hits, with 14 walks and 42 strikeouts.

 

After Vogelsong’s latest masterpiece on Sunday against the Colorado Rockies, Giants manager Bruce Bochy said, “It’s obvious Vogey isn’t going anywhere. He’ll go every fifth day. We might have to get creative here. Brian (Sabean) and I are talking about it.”

 

What does that mean?  Get creative?  Zito is slated to make his first rehab start tonight for the High Class-A San Jose Giants against the Stockton Ports.  He’s continuing to build up arm strength and stamina along with regaining the feel for his pitches.  At this point, it’s anyone’s guess how long Zito will need before he’s physically ready to pitch in the majors again.  Rob Neyer of Baseball Nation mused last week that Zito might be rehabbing a very, very long time.

 

At some point, though, Zito will be ready, and that’s when the Giants will need to “get creative.”  The team is, after all, paying Zito $18.5 million this season, $19 million next season, and $20 million in 2013.  After Sunday’s game, and Bochy’s comments, Bay Area Sports Guy laid out the options in the post: 3 Ways Giants can get “Creative” with Zito and Vogelsong: put Zito in the bullpen, use a 6-man rotation, or trade a starter (likely Jonathan Sanchez) for a productive bat.   Ok now.

 

Several factors point strongly toward Zito starting in the bullpen, the most obvious being that the Giants cannot fully assess the value of options 2 and 3 without seeing how Zito fares off a major league mound, unless Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sanchez, Madison Bumgarner or Vogelsong suffers an injury or completely loses his arm slot over the next several weeks.

 

This morning, Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow said on KNBR’s Murph & Mac Show that once the Giants “get Zito right” and he’s “throwing strikes,” then he can be used in any number of ways.  (Granted, those are both big “ifs” but let’s assume they happen).  Krukow then made a point of saying that Zito had shown a few years ago that he can come out of the bullpen.  Krukow referenced a game against San Diego and said “Zito did quite well.”

 

Let’s take a closer look.  On August 5, 2007, in his first season with the Giants, Zito pitched 1 inning in relief in a game against the Padres.  Noah Lowry was the starting pitcher for the Giants, which gives you a sense of how long ago this game was.  Zito faced three batters and retired them all: Khalil Greene (no longer in the MLB), Kevin Kouzmanoff (demoted to AAA today), and Michael Barrett (no longer in the MLB).  Zito’s relief appearance was on 2 days of rest.

 

Zito then made his regular start in the Giants’ next game, on August 7, against the Washington Nationals–on only 1 day of rest.  Zito went 5 innings, gave up 6 hits–3 of which were home runs–4 earned runs, 3 walks, 2 strikeouts.  The Giants scored some runs for Zito that night, so he took a no decision.  The losing pitcher was Kevin Correia, who now pitches for the Pittsburgh Pirates and is the first 8-game winner in the National League this season.  Go figure.

 

It wasn’t until 2010 that Zito pitched again in relief.  On August 25, the Giants played the Cincinnati Reds at AT&T Park.  Madison Bumgarner started, gave up 8 runs in less than 3 innings, and left the game to the bullpen.  The Giants rallied, tied the game, went ahead, blew the lead in the bottom of the ninth, and lost in 12 innings.  Zito pitched the 12th, gave up 1 run on 3 hits and 1 walk, and took the loss.

 

Three days later, Zito made his regular start, in a game against the Diamondbacks at AT&T.  He lasted only 3.2 innings, giving up 7 earned runs (9 runs) on 6 hits (1 home run), 5 walks and 1 strikeout.  He took the loss.

 

And there you have the sum total of Barry Zito’s relief appearances and other games pitched on less than 4 days rest over a career dating back to 2000.  Doesn’t scream “successful relief pitcher,” does it?

 

There’s also the fact that Zito doesn’t throw particularly hard, doesn’t have great command, and doesn’t have swing-through stuff, even on his curve ball.  And the Giants already have two lefties in the bullpen–Javier Lopez and Jeremy Affedlt–both of whom have been effective of late.

 

Heading into tonight’s game against the Nationals, the Giants lead the NL West by .5 games over the Diamondbacks.  The offense is putrid (2nd worst in the NL in runs scored), so even with stellar pitching (sans Zito), the Giants have to scratch and claw for every win.  Every run scored is crucial.  Every run allowed takes a year off Bruce Bochy’s life.

 

So what, exactly, would Zito do for the Giants out of the bullpen?  Other than pitch mop-up innings in blow-out games, I have no idea.  I suppose I’m just not creative enough.

 

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

bardin June 8, 2011 at 10:50 am

What else can they do? All five starting pitchers are better than Zito. Plus they’ve got a pitcher in AA, Eric Surkamp who is probably better too. Zito is untradeable, and they just cannot eat 60million in salary. All they can do is put him in the bullpen and wait for one of their five starters to get hurt (god forbid), and even that might not be enough to get Zito in the rotation if Surkamp is ready by then. Surkamp is probably the guy who will get traded, if any pitcher is going to be moved, perhaps in a deal for Mets SS Jose Reyes.

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obsessivegiantscompulsive June 15, 2011 at 9:44 am

I was hoping that the creativity would be a 6 man rotation because that would keep our starters on regular rest even during the heart of the grueling end of July-August-September stretch when there are few off days. I had been advocating for that for a couple of years now, to lessen the wear and tear on our young starters’ arms, though it worked out last season better by not going to the 6 man, as there was no way we would have won the division with Wellemeyer sucking up starts.

Reading the tea leaves from the statements I’ve read, I think the key phrase on creativity was when Bochy said that they might rest a starter by skipping a start, and start Zito instead. I’ve also read that when there is that double-header with the Cubs, resulting in 6 games in 5 days, or something like that, he would pitch one of the double-header games.

Something I’ve just thought of is that the Giants could start going with Zito in extra inning games and basically have a second starter going for 5-6 innings, which would save the bullpen, plus give us an advantage over other teams in extra inning games, I would think, as they would have to go to mop-up pitchers.

The thing is, Zito has actually been a pretty good starter the past two seasons. Compare his ERA with the league and one would see that he’s actually pretty good among qualifying pitchers, giving innings as well as good ERA. He just looks bad compared to the rest of the Giants rotation.

While he has no swing-through stuff, that is not the reason he has had as long a career as he has had, except for maybe his first season or two, the reason he has done well is because he upsets the hitters’ timing enough that they pop the ball up and become an easy out. Sometimes the BABIP gods punish him, but he’s been mostly good his career except when he got his big contract and was focused too much on doing well and not on being loose and throwing freely.

To be fair to Krukow, if you take any 1-2-3 inning from a game 4 years ago, I bet a large number of them would be similar to Greene/Kouzmanoff/Barrett. And you ignore the fact that back then, they were decent enough hitters.

And I’m not sure what your point about including the following start, other to support your position that Zito is not that useful. That has nothing to do with him being a reliever, it only has to do with him biting a bullet for the team and pitching in an inning during his normal in-between starts throwing when the team needed him.

I think the examples I gave above are creative ways of dealing with having Zito on the pitching staff, while not starting. He may not be happy about that, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes in baseball. Also, he is great insurance in case, god forbid, any of our top four starters should go on the DL.

In addition, as much as I would love the Vogelsong dream season to continue, his performance this season is nothing like what he has demonstrated EVER in his minor and major league career. It came, as the saying goes, totally out of left field. Should he start to return to his prior career performance, at that point, we should be grateful that we still have Zito around to be our 5th starter.

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