Zito isn't pitching because he's a colossal bust

Steve Henson
Yahoo Sports

PHILADELPHIA – By the time the dreaded "bust" tag is draped around the neck of a baseball player collecting obscene paychecks for negligible production, he's usually become a clubhouse cancer (think Kevin Brown), is beset by injuries (Mike Hampton(notes)) or both (Albert Belle).

Then there is Barry Zito(notes). Pleasant fellow. Cool cat. Team-first attitude. Stays healthy. But a bust just the same, maybe the biggest in baseball because of his exorbitant contract: $126 million over seven years, with his biggest three paydays still to come.

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He's been so bad that the San Francisco Giants didn't include him on their National League division series or championship series rosters.

The Giants signed Zito to that albatross of a contract before the 2007 season based on his mostly stellar seven seasons with the Oakland Athletics. Zito won the American League Cy Young Award in 2002, never had a losing record and pitched credibly in five postseasons.

The Barry Bonds era was coming to a close in San Francisco. Already a Bay Area favorite, Zito was a refreshing counterpoint to the sullen slugger. He plays guitar and sings. He surfs, meditates, eats organically and exudes an understated charm. He gives back to the community, and his Strikeouts for Troops program especially resonates.

But upon collecting paychecks from the Giants, Zito stopped pitching well.

Four years into the deal, the left-hander has yet to post a winning record. His ERA has fluctuated between 4.03 and 5.15. And his most abysmal stretch came when the Giants needed strong performances the most – the last few months of the 2010 season, when they were chasing the San Diego Padres for the NL West crown.

[Photos: See more of Barry Zito]

In his final 12 starts, he went 1-8 with a 6.14 ERA. Yet even after all the failures, Zito had an opportunity to redeem himself, to win the game that would clinch the pennant Oct. 2 against the Padres at AT&T Park. He walked in two runs in the first inning and was pulled one batter into the fourth after walking the opposing pitcher. He pitched without conviction. He nibbled off the strike zone as if he knew his stuff wasn't any good.

"The last game was the thing that sticks out," he said. "The money was on the table and I went out and didn't attack the strike zone the way I should have. That's a huge disappointment to me."

He hasn't pitched since, losing his spot in the postseason rotation to a 21-year-old rookie, Madison Bumgarner(notes), who is being paid about $250,000 this year. To Zito's credit, he hasn't complained. He was one of the first players out of the dugout to congratulate his teammates when they eliminated the Atlanta Braves in the NLDS. But the disappointment runs deep, beyond Zito and through the fan base and Giants' decision-makers who lavished riches upon him, expecting a staff ace.

It only gets worse. Zito's contract was backloaded so that his highest salaries come last. He stands to make $18.5 million in 2011, $19 million in 2012 and $20 million in 2013. And the contract includes a club option for 2014 at $18 million with a buyout of $7 million. In other words, the Giants would have to pay Zito an additional $7 million just for him to pack his bags and leave for good. The full 2014 option vests if he pitches 600 innings over the next three years, although rest assured the Giants won't allow that to happen.

Reciting baseball salaries can be disorienting. The amounts are so exorbitant that it's difficult to determine whether a player making megamillions is a relative bargain or a bust. To give Zito's deal some perspective:

• The Yankees' CC Sabathia(notes) (seven years, $161 million) and the Mets' Johan Santana(notes) (seven/$137.5M) are the only pitchers with more lucrative totals than Zito.

• Sabathia ($23 million), Santana ($22.5 million) and the Phillies' Roy Halladay(notes) ($20 million) are the only pitchers who will make more than Zito next season.

• In 2013, only the Tigers' Justin Verlander(notes) ($20 million) will have joined Santana ($25.5 million), Sabathia ($23 million ) and Halladay ($20 million) as making as much or more than Zito ($20 million).

Sabathia, Halladay and Verlander are in the top echelon of pitchers. So is Santana when he's healthy, although injuries call into question whether he'll be a burden or a blessing to the Mets going forward. Position players with $100 million-plus deals are more common than pitchers because their injury risk is less and their production tends to be more easily predicted. Yet even with hitters, teams are more generous than they need to be, as this chart illustrates:

Questionable contracts of $100 million and more.
Name Pos. Years Total 2011 2012 2013 2014-beyond
Alex Rodriguez(notes), Yankees 3B 10 $275 $31 $29 $28 4/$86
Johan Santana, Mets SP 7 $137.5 $22.5 $24 $25.5
Alfonso Soriano(notes), Cubs LF 8 $136 $18 $18 $18 $18
Barry Zito, Giants SP 7 $127 $18.5 $19 $20
Vernon Wells(notes), Blue Jays CF 7 $126 $23 $21 $21 $21
Carlos Beltran(notes), Mets CF 7 $119 $18.5
Carlos Lee(notes), Astros LF 6 $100 $18.5 $18.5
Note: All figures are expressed in millions of dollars.

Why is Zito so disturbingly mediocre after being so good? The statistical gurus at Inside Edge note that Zito is the only pitcher in baseball whose fastball averages less than 90 mph to consistently throw in the top half of the strike zone.

Zito's average fastball was 85.7 mph in 2010. In his Cy Young season of 2002, it was 87.4. So while he isn't throwing as hard as he did with the A's, it's not as if he was ever a power pitcher. The primary difference is location. Zito threw only 23 percent of his fastballs in the lower third of the strike zone this season – third-lowest in MLB to relievers Heath Bell(notes) and Tyler Clippard(notes), both of whom throw well over 90 mph. Furthermore, half of Zito's fastballs were in the top third of the strike zone, a dangerous area to work for anybody less than a flamethrower. The short list of pitchers who worked upstairs that often includes hard throwers Verlander, Matt Cain(notes), Neftali Feliz(notes) and Matt Thornton(notes).

Zito doesn't belong in that company. He needs to work down in the zone to be successful. And anybody wondering whether he could be effective coming out of the bullpen in the NLCS to face a left-handed batter in the late innings, consider this: The batting average of lefties against him in his past 11 starts is .304, and in the past two months lefties have hit his fastball at a .500 clip.

So instead of pitching, Zito will continue to be the world's most highly paid cheerleader. He'll say the right things. He won't be a distraction. And when he returns home, waiting in his mailbox will be another fat paycheck.