MLB Season 2012: Barry Zito Reminds Us There Were Better Days Before San Francisco

Barry Zito just pitched his fifth career shutout. Let that sink in for a second.

Those of you who have stopped reading because you don’t know what the big deal is I understand. For those of you who are still reading, I think you understand my feeling about that first sentence.

You see, there’s a reason Barry Zito was signed to a seven-year contract worth $126 million dollars back in 2006. The San Francisco Giants, like everyone else, thought they knew what they were getting when he switched to the other side of the bay. Believe it or not, there was a time when Barry Zito was one of the best pitchers in baseball.

“When you face Barry (Zito), you know you have to keep the game close.” – Angels pitcher Aaron Sele

Allow me to take you on a trip down memory lane. From 2000-2006 for the Oakland Athletics he went 102-63 with an ERA of 3.55. That run included three All-Star trips and a 2002 season that saw him go 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA and capture the American League Cy Young award. He was a rock star in Oakland, playing an integral part in them reaching the playoffs five of the seven years he was there.

Back then it was hard to imagine much derailing him from becoming one of the best left-handed pitchers this game has seen. The signs, however, were there all along. Even during his Oakland days he showed signs of slowing down a bit. He was usually saved by classic Oakland Athletics second-half turnarounds that became so synonymous with their success during that time period. After his Cy Young year in 2002 he averaged 12 losses per season the rest of his time there. His ERA hasn’t been below 3.30 since 2003, and striking out more than 160 hasn’t been done since 2005.

“His (Barry Zito) curve ball…it jelly-legs you.” – Phillies First Baseman Jim Thome

That curve ball is what captivated us. It was the pitch that made us describe Zito as “electric” and “filthy.” I remember seeing it myself and thinking my television was broken. No matter how man times he threw it, it never got old. It was also what covered up his lack of velocity for years. His fastball has never been something to write home about, but without one of quality it’s hard establishing it in combination with a change-up. I think that’s where a lot of the problem started for Zito once he crossed the bay. When he signed his contract, he was already slowing down and who could blame him? He’s been one of the most durable pitchers in baseball averaging 34 starts per season every season until the Giants just couldn’t start him much anymore.

No one saw his San Francisco struggles coming. The numbers are dreadful:

  • 43-61 record
  • Lead the National League in losses (17) in 2008
  • .413 winning percentage and 4.55 ERA
  • Zero .500 or better seasons
  • Twice finished the year with an ERA above five (2008 & 2011)
He has become the punchline of many jokes among fans of the sport. Even putting up bad enough numbers to provoke fans to create a website demanding he be shipped off.
Barry Zito pitched his fifth career shutout Monday in Colorado. While the national news pokes fun, those of us who remember Zito at his best wonder where it has been. And those of you still reading, I hope you look at that sentence now with a little bit of the nostalgia that myself and many others do.

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