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That Would've Sucked: Barry Zito

New feature time at AA. This is something I like to call "That Would've Sucked", and it's a look back at some event in Mets' history that, were they to have gone differently, would've totally sucked. This inaugural edition is about Barry William Zito.

As recently as 12/20/2006, the Mets looked to be near frontrunners for the services of Barry Zito. At the time, the Mets were ramping up their pursuit of the middling southpaw, going so far as to send the front office brain trust to meet with Zito in Hippieville, California, just an ultimate-frisbee toss from the Pacific Coast Highway. The Mets made it clear to Zito and Scott Boras that they weren't comfortable going beyond five years for a starting pitcher, even one as stunningly mediocre as Zito. Their final offer: $75 million for those five years. Boras and client went away to mull over the Mets' offer, and by "mull over" I mean "urinate on and incinerate".

Mets brass returned to Queens fully aware that they had made a competitive offer that Zito could -- and, more importantly, would -- very easily refuse. A little more than a week later Zito had signed with the Giants for the ludicrous sum of $126 million over seven years, $50 million more than the Mets had proposed. I had mixed emotions at the time. I thought Zito might be a nice fit in Queens were he attainable at a reasonable cost in years and money. Despite his declining peripherals, that Zito could have been counted on for 220 innings of pretty good production had a certain ugly attractiveness to it. Having said that, it was clear even then that offering a contract worth anywhere near what the Giants offered was an absolute no-no.

Now, just over two years later, Zito has pitched so horribly for the Giants that he has been relegated to bullpen duties until such time as he can prove to manager Bruce Bochy that he is capable of converting Major League hitters into outs. Zito's 7.53 ERA and 1.95 WHIP are among the worst in baseball. If you consider that Scott Schoeneweis and his $3 million salary get vehemently booed whenever he touches the ball, try to imagine the vitriol the Shea (un)faithful would unleash upon Zito's frail, free-spirited psyche, given his prepoculous $18 million price tag.

Zito was something short of spectacular last year, but his ERA was just a bit shy of the league average and he chewed up close to 200 innings. Those pedestrian accomplishments are hardly worth the king's ransom he's being paid, but a league-average innings muncher is still worth $8-$10 million in today's free agent market. That averageness has gone to shit this year, and it looks like his fastball is to blame.

Check out his PITCHf/x data from last year and this year.

Year Fastball MPH Fastball % Changeup MPH Changeup %
2007 86.01 59.73 73.93 4.59
2008 84.88 52.24 75.10 20.90

Zito lost a litle more than a tick off of his fastball between 2007 and 2008. That may seem insignificant (it isn't), but he also gained more than a tick on his changeup. For whatever reason -- perhaps a loss of confidence in his sluggish fastball -- Zito began throwing the "heater" with far less regularity this season, favoring the changeup in its place. Considering that Zito threw the changeup less than 5% of the time in 2007, I gather that it probably wasn't a terribly effective pitch to begin with. In 2008 he has thrown the changeup more than four times as often as in 2007.

The fastball-changeup relationship is a symbiotic one, and their mutual success often relies as much on speed differential as it does on quality of the pitches. In 2007, the difference between the speeds of Zito's fastball and changeup was 12.08 MPH on average. This year, given the drop in velocity on his fastball and the increase in velocity on his change, that difference has fallen to 9.78 MPH. That's a delta of 19%, which is really a dramatic regression.

Some other things: If we can believe the PITCHf/x charts, Zito has completely abandoned his slider and is throwing a cutter and a splitter in its stead. I'm not familiar enough with Zito's repertoire to know if he has really changed his arsenal or if PITCHf/x is just identifying his pitches differently. I also noticed that Zito had much more consistent movement on his curveball in 2007 (see: the 'Barry Zito movement' charts). This season he has thrown numerous curves that just flattened out and were subsequently pummeled.

Any other observations? General jubilation that the Mets didn't sign him? Suggested captions for the image above?