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In Appreciation of Barry Zito

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My relationship with Barry Zito is simple yet complicated, kind of like a $126 million dollar bill twisted into a Möbius strip.

It wasn't my money the Giants decided to pay that fateful day when Peter Magowan, on a peyote retreat in the Sonoran desert, convinced himself he and Barry were about to embark on a seven-year vision quest with an eighth-year option.

Wait, no. It was my money. I'm a season-ticket holder. Still, I never expected performance in full for the payment. In fact, That would've been crazy, as everyone other than the Giants' brass saw Zito's deteriorating numbers with Oakland and predicted the trajectory that has come to pass. But I expected a bit more, to be sure, than the 1 to 2 wins above replacement* per year he's provided as a Giant, save for his disastrous 2011.

Here's what the Giants are getting: a durable pitcher whose fastball rarely approaches 90 MPH and whose strikeout rate is slowly declining. He gives up a lot of fly balls, which is probably OK in the NL West with Mays Field, Petco Park, and Dodger Stadium all fly-ball-friendly. If his skills are actually in decline, pitching in the National League will help mask that decline to some extent.... I am neither anguished nor thrilled. A 1-2 punch of Cain and Zito will be nice to have in Zito's prime years. My main worry is that the Giants will have little or no fiscal room to move for offense, which given the state of their farm system, they'll have to buy at market rates for the foreseeable future.
I still have my moments of petit-mal rage. Remember the day after Matt Cain's perfect game when Zeets was sailing along against Houston then walked the bases loaded then gave up a grand slam? But I'm mainly at peace. Like Barry on his yoga mat, I can let my negative feelings, and the innings, drift past like clouds. I have a mantra: Zito might, and Zito might not.

A complete-game shutout in Coors Field; seven shutout innings against the Dodgers to open a huge home series; seven shutout against the always-pernicious Braves in the dirty dirty South. Zito might. Those are the easy moments to appreciate. But I also like the fact that he's become an excellent bunter (so it seems; I can't find stats that show failed sac attempts), and he's surprisingly, often comically good at getting the bat on the ball.

He's also never once complained about the times the Giants have pulled him from the rotation, or in what must have been the greatest insult of his career, from the post-season rosters in 2010. In one of my favorite moments of 2011, Zito volunteered to pitch on three days' rest in Detroit, went three innings before the skies opened, then came back out after an epic rain delay and pitched three more shutout innings. He's overpaid, he's got a fleeting sense of the strike zone, he seems to be making it up as he goes, and he's got all sorts of off-field interests that are hate-bait for the talk-radio crowd. But he's no diva.

And, just as the Giants' brass promised the day they signed him, he keeps himself healthy and ready to pitch every fifth day. (The freak leg injuries in 2011 notwithstanding.)

So, here's to Barry Zito. He might, he might not, and when he does, like he did tonight, I'm not sure how he does it. As we've seen with Tim Lincecum this year, you never know in this game when the baseball gods and goddesses will rescind their blessings. So it's nice to count them when you got 'em.

(*A win above replacement -- WAR -- is roughly worth $4 to 5 million in salary, so a 2-WAR season, Zito's high-water mark in San Francisco, is still well below his actual salary.)
  

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