Remember when everyone thought Barry Zito was a hippie? Back in the Oakland days, that was the way you talked about Zito, like he was this flaky, goofy zonked surfer bro, this maybe-stoned pitcher/philosopher who seemed to believe he struck people out simply be seeing it, man. Here's a quote from Chris Jones' profile of Zito in the June 2002 issue of Esquire:
"I'm gonna get deep on you, dude. When it comes to creative people -- musicians, artists, writers -- to be good at what they do, they can't do it all themselves. They have to be a tool for something else. When I'm standing on the mound, I want to let my body be played like an instrument. It's really hard to be consciously unconscious, but that's what you have to be. And you need to believe. Because what you think in here"--he points to the side of his nappy head--"is going to happen out there. I might throw a pitch down the middle of the plate, but if I believe the hitter's going to swing through it, he's going to swing through it. If you think something is meant to be, it's meant to be … You can make it happen."
Jones' argument in that piece -- which also features scenes of Zito meditating, studying for an astronomy course and openly discussing Dalmatian-on-person pornography -- is that Zito is in the grand tradition of baseball weirdos like Bill Lee and Mark Fidrych, except that he, unlike them, is a superstar. And in 2002, he was: He finished that season 23-5, with a 2.75 ERA, an All-Star game appearance and a Cy Young award. (He also got a book written about his team that barely mentioned him.) That season gave him the reputation of an ace starter, one he wouldn't shake for the next three seasons, even though his peripheral numbers and ERAs would slowly worsen. When he became a free agent after the 2006 season, the San Francisco Giants -- elated to potentially grab a space case for a city that loves them, with the added bonus of stealing him from the other side of the Bay -- gave him a stunning seven-year, $126 million contract. I was on vacation out of the country when the deal was announced, and found out about it a couple of days after it was when I popped in an Internet café. There used to be those. That's how long Zito's contract has been going: I found out about it from an Internet café.
It is worth remembering why the Giants went so hard after Zito. It wasn't just that they thought he was a great pitcher; it was that they felt an overwhelming need for The Superstar. Here's a quote from a Giants' front office sort from the San Francisco Chronicle story about Zito's signing: "We view Zito as a franchise player, and we'll certainly need one when Bonds goes. … I think Barry Zito will be the face of the Giants franchise for a long time." Before you make fun of the Giants there, remember the Rangers offered him six years, $84 million, just outpacing the Mets' five years, $75 million. The Giants' offer was crazy. It was the largest contract to a pitcher in baseball history. (To Barry Zito!) But there were other crazy offers out there. Even the guys at Fire Joe Morgan weren't that critical of the Giants' decision, even as Keith Law, Nate Silver and Dave Cameron were screaming, "No!"
Zito began to stink almost immediately for the Giants, as it turned out. He was a league average pitcher in 2007, I suppose, with an ERA+ of 99 and an 11-13 record. The wheels fell off immediately after that, though, with a 10-17 record and 5.15 ERA in 2008. According to ERA+, Zito had only one above average season his entire Giants career, in 2009. His worst year has been this one, his final one: He has gone 5-11 with a 5.75 ERA. He has given up an average of a hit-and-a-quarter an inning. That is difficult to do even if you are trying.
It was a disaster of a contract. It is the type of contract that, seven years later, is impossible to imagine anyone giving out today. The only pitchers to receive that much since then have been CC Sabathia and Zach Greinke, pitchers with far better peripherals than Zito ever had. (And Sabathia's starting to break down anyway.) The way baseball is structured now -- the way the industry is covered, the way front offices are stacked with people hired specifically to stop contracts like Zito's from ever happening again -- will not allow another Zito contract. It was a special acidic snowflake, a mistake that's sort of nonrepeatable. There will be other bad contracts. There have been other bad contracts. But nothing like Zito's. This summer, Fangraphs looked at the five worst contracts in baseball: Albert Pujols, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard, Josh Hamilton and Prince Fielder. Those are terrible contracts, but at least those guys still occasionally hit home runs. They provide value to their teams, just not enough value. But Zito never provided anything. He signed the huge contract, and then turned terrible.
Wednesday was his final game for the Giants, and, in a nice touch, he won it, muddling through five innings to notch his first victory since May. He even received a nice little ovation when left the field. And this is the funniest thing about the Zito contract, for the Giants: That awful contract worked out.
When the Giants signed Zito, their dream was surely that he would be on a World Series-winning team sometime during his seven years. They thought he would lead them, sure, but at the very least, they thought signing him wouldn't prevent them from winning a World Series. And, amazingly, it didn't. They ended up winning two. And last year, Zito even helped them win one, pitching a ridiculous 7 2/3 scoreless innings in Game 5 of the NLCS -- a game, I'll confess, Cardinals fans just assumed they were going to win, which kicked off a winning streak that would end with the Giants' second championship in three years. Because of this, and because Zito has generally kept a low-key, positive presence in San Francisco, he's actually sort of popular in San Francisco. It is difficult to imagine that would have been the case if he'd signed with the Mets.
These days, Zito's not so spacy and Zen anymore: He has converted to Christianity and talks about his new obsession with firearms. Seven years is a long time. You can go from hippie to gun owner, superstar to flop, prized free agent to roster flotsam, beloved to despised to beloved again. Barry Zito didn't even come close to earning even half of his contract. But it's hard to argue it didn't turn out great for everyone involved anyway, through pure dumb luck. This is not repeatable. The good news is that, now, no one will try.
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