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San Francisco Giants Pitcher Barry Zito Seeking Redemption

After Years of Disappointment, San Francisco Sticking by Barry Zito

Yahoo Contributor Network

COMMENTARY | When it comes to Barry Zito, San Francisco Giants fans are accustomed to disappointment.

After all, since arriving in the City By the Bay in 2007 with what many viewed as the beginnings of a Hall of Fame career, the now 34-year-old southpaw has delivered one discouraging dose of reality after another.

Inked to a then-record $126 million contract, Zito has won just 34 percent of his starts with the World Series champs. He's a pedestrian 26-28 after the All-Star break and has endured a below .500 record during all but one of his seasons.

Yet, devotees of the Orange and Black have continued to hope. Ignoring their better instincts, they've approached each year with optimism similar to that embraced seven years ago.

To the outside observer, that borders on lunacy.

But to understand San Francisco's attachment to Zito, you must first acknowledge the rare pairing of psyche and talent. From the start, the city that gave the world Beatniks and Hippies was as fascinated by the junkballer's offbeat personality as his ability to produce "jelly legs."

One of the game's truly colorful individuals, Zito gave fans their first taste of his unique nature when he started 17-8 record as a rookie. Bitten by the mania, journalists flocked to the phenom, clamoring for the latest sound bite from "Aristotle with a curve ball" and delighting in the opportunity to chronicle someone other than the truculent Barry Bonds. Equal parts athlete, aesthete, and philosopher, Zito was tantalizingly versatile, as adept at discussing the properties of the mind as he was unlocking the physics of a knee-buckling breaking ball.

Over the next seven years, "Captain Quirk" notched 102 victories while a member of the Oakland Athletics. He played in five separate postseasons, made three All-Star games, and twice received double-digit votes for the AL MVP Award.

But if every good story needs a measure of adversity, chapter two has supplied plenty of it. And since crossing the Bay Bridge from Alameda County, Zito has watched his hallmark curve ball indiscriminately dive and hang.

The problem, unfortunately, with diagnosing the source of his struggles, is that so many of the usual indicators aren't instructive in his case.

Ever the contrarian, Zito has given up fewer home runs per nine innings and landed more first-pitch strikes -- a mark typically associated with improved ERA -- with the Giants than A's.

His strikeout numbers, too, are vexing. The 7.1 K/9 innings Zito registered during his 2002 Cy Young campaign is virtually equivalent to the 7.0 batters rung up during a brutal two-year, 19-27 stretch with San Francisco.

Or, how about the fact that since making the 8-mile trip west, hitters have swung more often at Zito's pitches outside the strike zone (26 percent with the Giants, 20 percent with the A's) and less frequently at his offerings between the letters (61.6 percent Giants, 66.4 percent A's).

In other words, Zito's lured the opposition into chasing pitches off the plate more often -- pitches that typically result in swinging strikes or hitters being unable to "square up" -- while persuading challengers to swing at fewer strikes. Since, moreover, the contact numbers against him have risen only nominally throughout his career (82 percent Giants, 80 percent A's) it stands to reason that an increase in contact on pitches off the plate (70 percent with the Giants vs. 56 percent with the A's), should have helped him. One problem, they haven't.

Whatever the root of his difficulties, things inexplicably improved in 2012 when, to the surprise of Giants faithful, Zito rebooted to the tune of 15 victories. This time included in San Francisco's postseason plans, Zito dazzled, surrendering a single total run in NLCS and World Series starts.

Which brings us to Tuesday's start against the Milwaukee Brewers.

With the likable hurler 2-0 on the year and sporting a peerless 0.00 ERA, Giants faithful -- fingers crossed and teeth clenched -- tuned in to lend as much positive mojo as possible.

What happened next, however, was all too familiar as an eruption of nine runs led to Zito's early departure.

So does that mean he's heard his last ovation from the crowd at AT&T Park?

Not likely.

In a city with no lack of patience for the alternative, Zito remains one of San Francisco's favorite adopted sons. And though Giants fans know better than to be lured in again, they just can't shake one thought: No one's more due for success than Zito.

John Foletta is a Yahoo! contributor who also covers Cal Athletics for Rivals.com. A Bay Area native, Foletta is a lifelong San Francisco Giants devotee.

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