San Francisco Giants v Cincinnati Reds - Game Four

Barry Zito took the mound for the San Francisco Giants Tuesday night with a winning streak on the line. Dating back August 7,  2012, the Giants had won 13 consecutive regular-season games started by Zito.  When you add in the 2012 postseason, the streak stretched to 16. Impressive, but still a ways off the franchise record, held by Carl Hubbell, who pitched the New York Giants to 22 consecutive regular-season victories between July 1936 and May 1937.

Zito’s streak ended in flames at Miller Park. He pitched only 2 2/3 innings and gave up nine earned runs. The Giants clawed back from a 9-3 early deficit, but fell short. The Brewers won the game by the score of 10-8.

Still, the Giants’ winning streak with Zito on the hill was notable because, well, it was Barry Zito — the $126 million starter who’d failed to live up to his contract since joining the Giants in 2007. Heading into the 2012 season, the Giants were 65-76 in games started by Zito. He’d pitched so poorly in 2010 that Giants manager Bruce Bochy left him off the postseason roster, as the team romped to their first World Series victory since moving to San Francisco.

But something changed in 2012, particularly in the second half. Zito’s strikeouts-per-nine rose from 5.02 in the first half to 6.20 after the All-Star break. His walks-per-nine dropped in half, leading to a second-half 2.68 K/BB. That also dropped his WHIP. On the other hand, batters hit .272 off Zito from mid-July through the end of the season, compared to .244 early on. His BABIP was higher and his left-on-base percentage was lower. And his velocity? The highs and lows varied from game to game, but Zito experienced no discernible increase in velocity as the season wore on, as shown on the velocity charts on FanGraphs.

So how did he do it? How did Zito propel the Giants to 11 consecutive victories to end the 2012 season?

He started 11 consecutive games in which the Giants scored three runs or more; in ten of the games, it was four runs or more; in six of the games, it was six runs or more. For the first time in his tenure in San Francisco, the Giants gave Barry Zito consistent run support.

Before Tuesday night’s game against the Milwaukee Brewers, Zito had 396 career starts. In roughly a third of his games, his team scored 0-2 runs; in the next third 3-5 runs, and in the last third 6+ runs. His record in these games breaks down like this:

0-2 Runs Scored 17 90 .159 4.12 125 5 0 769.0 388 352 81 1.333 6.3 1.56
3-5 Runs Scored 48 36 .571 4.00 139 1 0 856.1 408 381 99 1.302 6.7 1.95
6+ Runs Scored 97 5 .951 3.58 132 6 5 819.0 351 326 78 1.295 6.8 1.88
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 4/16/2013.

Those numbers aren’t terribly surprising. Pitchers tend to win games when their teams give them run support. The more run support, the more victories. Until 2012, the Giants didn’t give Zito much run support.

Of Zito’s 396 career starts, 222 were for the Oakland A’s; the other 174 for the Giants. That’s 48 more regular-season starts for the A’s. And yet Zito’s record in games with 0-2 runs of support for the A’s is nearly identical to his record with the Giants: 9-43 with the A’s, with 0-2 runs of support; 8-47 with the Giants. Same for games in which he received 3-5 runs of support: 23-18 with the A’s; 25-18 with the Giants. The biggest difference — and it is a very big difference — is in games when Zito received 6+ runs of support: 70-2 for the A’s; 27-3 for the Giants. Forty-three more wins in Oakland than in San Francisco when the team scores six or more runs. That’s nearly the entirely difference in games started for the two teams.

Overall, Zito’s metrics the tell the story of a pitcher performing in much the same way during his Giants’ tenure — and not those of a 34-year-old turning back the clock (Zito will turn 35 in May). Take a look at these key numbers for Zito in his career, in 2009 (his third season with the Giants) and in 2012.

1st pitch strike % Swinging strike % Strikeouts/9 Walks/9 Strikeouts/Walks
Career 55.7 8.1 6.63 3.70 1.79
2009 59.8 7.7 7.22 3.80 1.9
2012 54.6 7.0 5.57 3.42 1.63

By all accounts, Zito pitched better in 2009 than in 2012. In fact, if you look at Zito’s stats for 2010, there are nearly identical to those from last season. The difference between 2010 and 2012 was run support, his winning streak down the stretch, and the fact that Tim Lincecum had the worst season of his career. Bochy had no choice but to move Lincecum to the bullpen in the postseason and leave Zito in the rotation.

This isn’t all to say that Zito didn’t pitch well down the stretch, or in the postseason, or in the first two games of this year. Zito was masterful against the St. Louis Cardinals in a must-win Game 5 of the 2012 NLCS and again against the Tigers in Game 1 of the World Series. And before Tuesday, he’d given up just 10 hits, four walks, and zero runs, with eight strikeouts in 14 innings to start 2013.

Even in Tuesday night’s shellacking, Zito exuded a calmness that eluded him his first five years in a Giants uniform. He seems more confident, more at ease on the mound. Bochy’s talked about it. Zito’s teammates have talked about it. And yet, we can’t quantify a change in Zito’s mental outlook; we can only look at how he’s pitched and the results he’s achieved. And those results show a starting pitcher performing much the same in 2013 as he has for the last several season.

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Wendy is back for another season with Getting Blanked. Last season, she wrote the Impact Index, with a focus on the utility players and middle relievers with the most impact on their team each week. This season, Wendy will cover a broader range of baseball topics.