Worrying Less Equals Success for Zito
Quirky lefty. Big curve ball. Part of the Big Three that carried the A's all those years. Signed ginormous contract with the Giants. Became the highest-paid fifth starter in baseball.
You can forget that last part.
Now into Year 3 of that $126 million deal, Zito finally seems ready to deliver.
"Barry is back," a National League scout told FanHouse. "He's pretty close to what he was. I'd say he's 80 percent of what he was, at least. He's got his velocity back. He's not back to 2002, when he won the Cy Young, but he's a competitive, championship-level pitcher again."
Now in the same clubhouse with Cy Young Tim Lincecum and Cy Old Randy Johnson, Zito has gone largely unnoticed as he's compiled a 3.57 earned run average through his first six starts. In his four starts leading up to Wednesday's afternoon game against the Nationals, Zito has a 1.37 ERA, and the Giants have won all four games.
Skeptics -- the majority of Giants fans, among them -- believe that this is no different from any of the short-term hot streaks Zito had had in his first two years.
Pitching coach Dave Righetti begs to differ.
"To be honest, his stuff has come back," said Righetti, adding that the transformation really started at the end of '08, when he had a 3.76 ERA over his last eight starts.
Zito's fastball is now reaching 88 mph regularly, and he's consistently at 85-88. During those dark days early in his Giants tenure, he was pushing it up there at 80-85 mph, and "there were games he went out and pitched at 78," Righetti said.
A $126 million contract would normally be considered a blessing, except in Zito's case the deal put so much weight on his shoulders it was as if the Giants were paying him with backpacks full of nickels.
Trying so hard to live up that that deal and that spotlight, Zito showed up on his first day in a Giants uniform with a newfangled delivery, and spent the next two years trying to rediscover the guy who earned the contract in the first place.
Zito was 21-30 with a 4.83 ERA in 2007 and '08, the first two full years of his career that he didn't reach 200 innings. He was actually briefly demoted to the bullpen early in 2008. Giants fans lambasted him on talk radio and booed him at the ballpark.
Now that he's off to such a good start in 2009, you'd think he'd take some satisfaction, feel some "redemption."
You'd be wrong.
"I don't feel like I'm proving myself," he said. "I'm not trying to get people off my back at all. I just lost all concern for that. That's what happened last year. I was worried about people being on my back. You see where that got me.
"I'm not concerned about pleasing people or making fans happy. I'm just concerned about satisfying myself."
Zito came upon this transformation over the winter, which he spent sharing a house in Los Angeles with Giants closer Brian Wilson.
Wilson, a tough-minded workout freak who seems more MMA than MLB, helped changed Zito physically and mentally.
Zito, who had always insisted that the secrets to pitching were not to be found in a weight room, went along with Wilson's exhaustive daily regimen. He emerged stronger, leaner, more athletic.
"As great as it as to get strong, it was me doing something outside my comfort zone," Zito said. "That has more importance than the actual workouts themselves. I was getting after it and being more aggressive."
Wilson and Zito worked out every day and played long-toss on the streets near their house, throwing over a tree-filled ravine when they were stretched out to 160 feet. If the throws weren't strong and accurate, the balls were lost.
"With all the trials and tribulations that happened with him, he stuck with it," Wilson said. "He had a goal in mind to finish every single day. When you make a personal commitment like that to yourself, it's hard to not follow through."
"He's not back to 2002, when he won the Cy Young, but he's a competitive, championship-level pitcher again."
-- A National League scoutThe two also had plenty of fun over the winter. Zito said he realized part of his problem was that he was obsessing about baseball 24/7, which only made him more miserable when he wasn't pitching well. This winter Zito, an avid guitar player, continued working on his music. He even took driving lessons to learn how to get the most out of his high-end sports car.
As the season has begun, he's continued to work hard and play hard. If his frequently-updated Twitter account is any indication, he's staying relaxed away from the park.
"That comes with trusting that you are going to take care of your job at the park," Zito said. "I'm all business in here, but when you get away, you get away."
Matt Cain, who has followed Zito closely since he first came to the Giants, said he can see Zito with a new attitude.
"He seems more relaxed," Cain said. "He's not worried about anything, not worried about living up to anything. He's just going out and pitching, and he's doing a great job of it."
Cain added that it's clear Zito is "pitching like he wants contact. He wants the guy to hit the ball. He's not trying to miss bats. That's when you pitch the wrong way. He's letting it all hang out. That's huge for him."
For much of the past two seasons, it was obvious to anyone watching that Zito was trying to pitch around contact. He'd nibble around the periphery of the strike zone, falling behind in the count till he had to dump something over the middle.
This year Zito has thrown first-pitch strikes to 57 percent of the hitters he's faced, up from 51 percent last year. (The league average is 55 percent.) Throughout his career, he's held opponents to a .207 average after getting ahead 0-1. It is when Zito is ahead that he can make the most out of his signature curveball.
Zito's fastball has been harder this year, his curve sharper, and his slider a more effective pitch. The scout said the pitches all have more life when Zito's arm slot is more toward 2 o'clock, as it was with the A's, than 1 o'clock, where it was for most of his time with the Giants.
Righetti said the improved stuff has to do with physical conditioning and with the fact that he's thrown less between starts.
Zito, as those who know him would expect, said the differences are all mental.
"When you have an aggressive nature and you are determined to do something, your body gets in position to throw a little harder, your arm gets in position to be a little looser," he said.
Zito seems to now view pitching more as a fight than a chess game.
"He has a more aggressive approach toward the other team," Wilson said. "He's on a mission. You can see it."