In the offseason after the 2006 season, the Giants were reeling. Only 3 years after a wire-to-wire season ending in playoff humiliation, they finished just 76-85, good enough for 3rd place, and just half a game above the 4th and 5th place teams. Their ace pitcher Jason Schmidt was leaving for the hated LA Dodgers, leaving the team without a strong pitcher to lead their staff. Noah Lowry, the Giants’ rookie phenom, had spent the year fighting injuries, and his future looked uncertain. Matt Cain and Jonathan Sanchez were years away from hitting their stride as starting pitchers, and Brian Wilson was an unknown quantity, playing 7th-fiddle to a bullpen led by closer Armando Benitez, who needs no introduction to fans who remember those dark years.
Meanwhile, the front office was facing the unwelcome but inevitable retirement of Barry Bonds, the greatest baseball player of the modern era, who had yet to get himself a World Series ring. Bonds had just come off his first full season without being in the top of MVP voting in 16 seasons (he sat out injured most of 2005), and his mortality was starting to show itself.
The Giants brass was in a position to try to win it, quickly, while also finding themselves a new face for the franchise after Bonds left. The average age of the top 8 position players on the 2006 team was an astonishing 34.4 years old, so in-house options looked dim.
Meanwhile, Barry Zito was coming off an All-Star season. He went 16-10 with a 3.83 ERA, and pitched worthy of a 2.1 WAR season (according to FanGraphs, not Baseball-Reference). He earned $7.9 million from the A’s, which was exactly what he was worth to them, according to FanGraphs estimations. He had started 34-35 games and 210+ IP every year since 2001 and, though we was never able to recreate his 2002 Cy Young season, he was a workhorse and avoided injury. Plus, he was handsome, already a Bay Area favorite from his time in Oakland, and had a first name that Giants fans could remember easily. They even made T-shirts for the occasion.
What fans didn’t expect, or quite understand, was the massive contract. The Giants front office signed Zito to a 7-year, $126 million contract through 2013, an average of $19 million per year. It was at the time the largest contract ever given to a pitcher (that honor now belongs to CC Sabathia’s 7-year/$171 million contract, but that’s with the Yankees, so it hardly counts), and seemed to set up the Giants for the present and the future, with a tried-and-true ace to finally get Bonds his ring, and help carry the Giants into the future after losing their great star.
Except, not quite. In 2007 Zito went 11-13 with a 4.53 ERA and under 200 innings. He accumulated a WAR of just 1.7, a value of $6.9 million, while being paid $10 million. The Giants went 71-91, with Zito the overpaid poster child of the supposed “turnaround,” which never took place. The 2008 season was Zito’s worst year of his career, when he saw his ERA jump to 5.15, his walk rate spike to 5.10 BB/9, and his WAR at just 1.4, while his salary increased to $14.5 million.
The 2009 and 2010 seasons were better, going a combined 19-27, but with a respectable 4.09 ERA and a combined WAR of 4.3. While he was hardly the ace he was being paid to be, he actually seemed to get a handle on a few of his pitches, and contributed to the team. He was certainly not the second starter that he was chosen to be in 2010, but he was solidly pretty good.
First of all, I don’t begrudge the man his contract. The Giants did not offer him the contract because they wanted to be charitable; they offered him the contract because they thought they would make money on the deal, that he’d be a solid investment for them. Turns out they were wrong, but it’s not Zito’s fault he’s not worth the money. If somebody offered me to horrendously overpay me for a job I was average at, I would jump at the opportunity, while doing everything I could to get better and not alienate my employers and co-workers. Everything I’ve seen says that Zito is a class act, if a bit eccentric, and has taken everything, including his playoff demotion, in stride while pledging to support his team in any way he can.
So just how well does Barry Zito have to do to be worth the money? I’m certainly not up to the level of math that the wizards at FanGraphs and Triples Alley  are, but I’ll give it a shot. Based on FanGraphs numbers for Zito, and their Replacement Value  estimates, let’s see just how much value the Giants lost with Zito over the years. FanGraphs hasn’t published values for 2009 and 2010, but I can see that the amount that a team is willing to pay for a win has been increasing, I’m just going to assume that they’ll continue increasing at the same rate. I’m going to use $4.9m/win and $5.3m/win for 2009 and 2010, respectively.
Between 2007 and 2010, Zito accumulated 7.4 WAR, and was paid $61.5 million. Based on each year’s $/win, we get:
1.7*(4.1) + 1.4*(4.5) + 2.2*(4.9) + 2.1*(5.3) = $35.18 million
Which means, as I understand, that we had a net loss of $26.32 million during that time. While he certainly wasn’t worth what he was being paid, he was worth over $35 million, which means that he wasn’t a total bust.
Zito will again be paid $18.5 million in 2011. If we assume that the $/win rate will continue to rise at the same rate, let’s put it at $5.7m/win, which means that we expect him to get:
18.5/5.7 = 3.2 WAR
So in reality, we’re only paying Zito to give us a 3.2 WAR performance next year. But wait, how does a 3.2 WAR translate into the more conventional pitching stats? Well, that’s not all that easy to answer, but let’s look at three starting pitchers who had 3.2 WAR in 2010: Gio Gonzalez  (Oakland), Jaime Garcia  (St. Louis), and Carl Pavano  (Minnesota).
The three had pretty different seasons. Garcia was a legitimate Rookie of the Year candidate in the National League, and had the best numbers (2.70 ERA, 1.32 WHIP, 7.27 K/9), but was lacking in innings (163.1). As we’ve already covered that WAR gives you credit for playing time, it makes sense that even with good numbers, if you don’t play the whole year, your WAR will take a hit.
Pavano pitched a lot more (221 IP), and had a pretty good ERA (3.75) while keeping up an impressive K/BB ratio (3.16) and a lights-out WHIP (1.19).
Gonzalez was right in between the two, with 200.2 IP, a 3.23 ERA, 1.86 K/BB, and 1.31 WHIP.
Looking forward, if these are the kinds of numbers that Zito will need to earn his money (just the current year, mind you), that doesn’t seem too far out of reach. Zito is more than capable of throwing 200+ innings, and has decent BB/9 and K/9 rates. He’s shown that he can and may improve as the years go on and, if the stars align, he may see his ERA dip into the high 3s.
I’m also not throwing out the possibility that I’ve calculated the values wrong, which is a definite maybe. The most important point is that player contracts in baseball are going up. They’ve always gone up, and they always will go up, which means that we’re facing a good ol’ fashioned economic force: inflation. They amount of production that $19 million would buy you in 2007 is very different from what it will be in 2011, and that will continue to go down, so as Zito’s contract continues to exist, the amount to which he is “overpaid” will decrease. I’m not saying that Zito’s contract will ever be viewed as anything but “wrong place, wrong time, wrong guy, wrong amount,” but it’s important to see that, as inflation decreases the “real” value of his contract, he becomes less and less of a bad deal.
Once you get past the ridiculous contract, Zito is and will continue to be a worthwhile player. I cannot begin to imagine the pressure that someone in his position feels to succeed and excel in that job. My only hope is that, now that the Giants have won the World Series and have one of the two-best starting rotations in the league, he can rise to the role of 5th starter, which is where he should remain. It wouldn’t surprise me to see him have a good season in his new role, rather than being the goat keeping the Giants from signing any good players. The fact that Zito is 110-6 in his career when he gets 4+ runs of support show that a lot of his pitching has to do with confidence, and I have to believe that the contract has been messing with his head since day one.
I believe in Barry, and I’m looking forward to seeing him continue to develop, even if he is the old man .
So tell me, Giants fans: am I crazy? Are we going to want to drop Zito for Jeff Suppan by mid-May, or is he just going to rot in the fifth starter role?
Comment your thoughts, and go Giants!