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Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Barry Zito, LHP, San Francisco Giants

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San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito
San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito
Kevin C. Cox

Prospect Retrospective and Career Profile: Barry Zito, LHP, San Francisco Giants

San Francisco Giants lefty Barry Zito had one of the best games of his life last night, pitching the Giants past the St. Louis Cardinals in a 5-0 victory and forcing the NL Playoffs into Game Six. This makes him an ideal subject for a Prospect Retrospective/Career Profile.

Barry Zito was an effective high school pitcher growing up in San Diego although he didn't excite scouts due to a lack of plus velocity. Expected to attend college, he fell to Mariners in the 59th round in the 1996 draft and did not sign. Pitching for the University of California-Santa Barbara in 1997, he earned Freshman All-American honors, fanned 123 in 85 innings, and bumped his previously-mediocre fastball up into the low 90s.

Realizing that he had a bright professional future, he transferred to Los Angeles Pierce Junior College to make himself eligible for the '98 draft. He had another strong season, fanning 135 in 103 innings, and was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the third round.

The money didn't work out, so he transferred to the University of Southern California for 1999. This proved a wise decision: Zito went 12-3 with a 3.28 ERA and a 154/58 K/BB in 113 innings. Drafted in the first round, ninth overall, he signed quickly for $1,590,000 and was sent to Visalia in the High-A California League to begin his career.

He went 3-0, 2.45 ERA with a 62/22 K/BB in 40 innings over eight starts. Promoted to Double-A Midland in August, he went 2-1, 4.91 with a 29/11 K/BB in 22 innings. He made one start in Triple-A to cap the season, fanning six and allowing one run on five hits in a six-inning victory for Vancouver.

All told, Zito pitched 181 innings between college and the minors in 1999, posting a 251/93 K/BB ratio. His pitch totals must have been pretty high, but he showed no ill effects. Scouting reports pointed to a low-90s fastball, plus an effective curveball/changeup combination and excellent mound presence. I gave him a Grade B in my 2000 book, projecting him as "a trustworthy major league starter."

Zito began 2000 with Triple-A Sacramento, posting a 3.19 ERA in 18 starts with a 91/45 K/BB ratio in 102 innings, allowing 88 hits. Promoted to Oakland for the second half, he thrived in the majors, posting an 8-5 record with a 2.72 ERA and a 78/45 K/BB in 93 innings with 64 hits allowed.

In his first full season in 2001, he went 17-8, 3.49 with a 205/80 K/BB in 214 innings, firmly establishing himself as one of the best starters in the game. He followed up with a 23-5, 2.75, 182/78 K/BB in 229 innings in '02, winning the American League Cy Young Award.

That turned out to be his peak season. Zito steadily lost velocity from that point, although he remained an above-average pitcher due to his secondary pitches and his ability to chew innings. Zito was a solid starter through 2006, then signed a gigantic free agent seven-year contract with the Giants for '07, worth $126,000,000, the biggest contract signed by a major league pitcher to that point in history.

The Giants were widely (and justly) criticized for the contract. Zito hasn't been terrible; he has posted a positive WAR value every season except injury-plagued 2011, but he hasn't been worth what the Giants invested in him. That said, post-season heroics help, and it is hard to quantify the impact that Zito's presence may have had on the younger pitchers in the Giants rotation. His wide range of non-baseball interests (music, acting, meditation, Zen) is also refreshing.

Zito has made 394 major league starts, going 160-132 (.548) with a 3.93 ERA, ERA+109. He's posted a positive WAR every year of his career except '11, with a current career total of 31.2.

Through 2012, his overall career statistically resembles lefties like Al Leiter, Mike Hampton, Bruce Hurst, and Mike Flanagan, each of them a trustworthy major league starter.