If legacies were determined based on championships in a tenure, then Barry Zito’s career as a San Francisco Giant would be a resounding success. Two titles in a three year stretch and significant contributions during the 2012 World Series Championship run. But, as with everything concerning the mercurial left-hander, Zito’s legacy and how fans feel about his place in Giants lore is complicated.
While Zito was vital to the 2012 World Series, his sub-par performance for most of his stay in San Francisco has been one big disappointment. He signed a 7-year 126 million dollar contract in December of 2006. At the time it was the largest contract ever signed by a Major League pitcher. From the start it just didn’t seem like a good fit, While Zito still had his 12-to-6 curveball, he seemed to leave the velocity from his fastball on the Bay Bridge. He struggled with an 11-13 record and a 4.54 ERA in his first season with the Giants. There was a resounding feeling of “we paid how much for THIS” among the fans. And, early on they let him hear about it. Zito said near the tail-end of the 2007 season that the contract put a lot of pressure on him and he was letting it affect him.
While he had some bright spots here and there over the next few seasons, most of Zito’s performances were less than stellar. And, with each season of struggle, Bay Area fans grumbled about the 126 million dollar bust. Here are his numbers after that initial 2007 season.
2008 10-17 5.15 ERA 1.60 WHIP
2009 10-13 4.03 ERA 1.35 WHIP
2010 9-14 4.15 ERA 1.34 WHIP
2011 3-4 5.92 ERA 1.40 WHIP
These were certainly numbers that are not be-fitting of a man who was making 126 million dollars. But, if you really dig deep into the courtship of Zito, it was common-knowledge that former owner Peter McGowan was dead set on bringing Zito over from the A’s. The man responsible for ushering in the Bonds era and beautiful AT & T Park made it clear he wanted Zito and instructed his front office to do what it took. So, the Giants offered him the huge deal. Reportedly tens of millions more than any other team was willing to offer. Is it Zito’s fault that he accepted a contract like this ? Absolutely not ! A player’s value is determined by the market forces at work. And, the Giants determined Zito’s value at 18 millon a year. Not Zito’s fault…..the Giants fault.
Even as Zito struggled on the field his work off the field is what garnered him accolades from players and fans alike. As the death tolls mounted with the country’s overseas wars, Zito founded the charity, Strikeouts For Troops. The charity provides comforts of home and works to lift the spirits and morale of injured US Troops and offers support to military families. Tens of thousands of dollars have been raised to help troops in Zito’s name.
Zito’s struggles were expected by the Giant faithful entering the 2012 campaign, but something strange happened. While Zito’s “stuff” hadn’t changed, his execution had. He had somehow mastered the art of painting corners, mixing in well-located fastballs to go along with his change-up and curveball and soon the wins started mounting. Zito started to piece together strong performances and during the final two months of the regular season the Giants won 14 straight games started by Zito. While he struggled in his first post-season start, an elimination game against Cincinnati, the Giants ended up winning the game. Zito calls his Game 5 start against St. Louis in the National League Championship Series the “greatest of his career.” With the Giants trailing 3-to-1 in the best-of-seven series, Zito pitched an incredible 7.2 innings of shut-out baseball against a predominantly right-handed hitting team. It was a Zito gem, and was highlighted by a fan base that rallied behind Zito and had the #RallyZito hash-tag trending world-wide on Twitter. When the Giants won the NLCS in seven games, life-long Giants fans cited Zito’s Game 5 start as a turning point.
Zito would cap off a fabulous 2012 by winning Game 1 of the World Series against the best pitcher in the game Justin Verlander. Zito out-dueled the hard-throwing rightie, even banging out an RBI single to send AT & T into a frenzy. Unlike 2010 when the Giants won the World Series and Zito was simply a bit piece, he relished his contributions to the 2012 title. He was showered with adoration by appreciative Giants fans with signs that read, “We forgive you Zito.”
The problem was Zito never felt he needed to apologize for anything. He always tried hard, he always did the best he could. That, was never in question. And, as much as you want to criticize his performance, which was easy to do, it always pailed in comparison to the fans’ expectations with his huge 126 million dollar contract.
To put it bluntly, Zito’s 2013 season has been an unmitigated disaster. He is 4-8 with a 5.33 ERA and a 1.69 WHIP. His earned run average away from home hovers near 10. And, everyone seems willing to show the guy the door. But, before he leaves, lets look at the body of work. While the wins and stellar performances have been few, he certainly hasn’t embarrassed the San Francisco organization like some other players named Barry have. Zito has always given effort. He has given honest assessments of his short-comings. He has tried to adjust to become serviceable, and let us not forget 2012. The Giants do not win their second World Series in three years if not for Zito’s 16 win season and his shining performances in the post-season.
While his tenure will be remembered by some as a great waste of resources, there will be those that look at his entire body of work. Curse Zito if you will, but remember, some of you cursing him are also the same people who were thanking the man for saving your season on a mid-October evening in St. Louis.