One Win Away From The World Series

The Giants have forced a Game Seven, thanks to phenomenal starts from Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong.

Zito, up against one of the best offenses the National League has seen in recent years, a lineup that’s been especially tough on left-handed pitching, more than held his own. For nearly eight innings, with everything on the line, he silenced the Cardinals on their own territory. Considering the match-up and what was at stake, it was probably the outing of his career.

And you could say the same about Ryan Vogelsong, who’s transformed into a postseason force to be reckoned with. Through four and two-thirds innings, he had a no-hitter going. He went on to allow one run in seven innings of work, just as he had done in the second game of this series. His nine strikeouts were a career high, and to top it all off, he only allowed one walk. I’m certain I’ve never seen Vogelsong dominate quite like he did last night.

Oh yeah, and for good measure, Zito and Vogelsong each drove in a run in their starts.

I can’t get over the craziness of all of this. Facing elimination, the Giants sent out Barry Zito and Ryan Vogelsong, both of whom delivered with spectacular pitching to keep the team’s World Series hopes alive. You know how weird that would’ve sounded a year and a half ago? Zito had been left off the postseason roster entirely in 2010, and Vogelsong a) hadn’t pitched in the majors since 2006, and b) was coming off a season in which he’d allowed nearly two baserunners an inning…in Triple-A.

This Giants team is doing some absolutely amazing things. With their backs against the wall in the NLDS, they fought back, nabbed three consecutive games, and advanced to the next round. And they’re on the brink of doing it again. This is unprecedented stuff.

Now, it’s World Series or bust. Whatever happens tonight, it’s been one hell of a ride. Here’s hoping it’s not over just yet. And with the Giants at home, sending Matt Cain to the mound, I have to say — I like them odds.

Splash Hits: The Regular Season Is Over

Should Barry Zito start in the postseason? « Bay City Ball – A Giants Blog
Nope, he shouldn’t. One can only hope Ryan Vogelsong sealed the deal in nabbing that playoff rotation spot with yesterday’s strong performance.

These Saber-Savvy San Francisco Giants | FanGraphs Baseball
Talk to Bobby Evans, Vice President of Baseball Operations, and you get a sense of a team with a strong process that includes inputs from both the old and the new school of baseball. And this isn’t some sort of new phenomenon in San Francisco.”

50th anniversary: Game No. 165 | The Hardball Times
Fifty years ago today, one of the greatest pennant races came to an end—with a game that was both great and greatly appropriate.”

Scouting Report: Giants Prospect Clayton Blackburn | Bullpen Banter
A scouting report on Giants pitching prospect Clayton Blackburn.

Let’s Talk About the Bullpen Instead – McCovey Chronicles
Do the Giants have a good playoff bullpen?

For NLDS, Reds’ lineup could be familiar | reds.com: News
The Reds featured Wednesday vs. the Cardinals what could very well be the lineup they show the Giants in Game 1 of the National League Division Series on Saturday.”

Five and a Half Games Up

The Giants caught a huge break when it was announced earlier that Clayton Kershaw would not be making tonight’s start, and that Joe Blanton would be starting in his place. The Giants definitely lucked out in the opposing-team’s-injuries department: not to be forgotten was Matt Kemp‘s absence, which left Hanley Ramirez and number-eight hitter A.J. Ellis as the only legitimate right-handed threats in the Dodgers’ starting lineup. And they took advantage of it.

Barry Zito came up big tonight, giving the Giants six-plus innings’ worth of scoreless work. He wasn’t outright dominant, but he didn’t need to be. He worked his way out of some jams, kept his pitch count from getting out of hand, and by the time he exited the mound in the seventh inning, the Giants had a four-run lead in a crucial game. You really couldn’t have asked more of Zito than what he did tonight. (I was most impressed with how he handled Hanley Ramirez, striking him out twice — both times looking — and yielding a groundout in the other at-bat). Zito’s final line: 6.1 IP, 0 R, 4 K, 3 BB,  4 H.

On the offensive side of things, the Giants wasted no time getting runs up on the board. They nearly batted around in the first inning, the big hit coming off the bat of Hunter Pence, who doubled to drive in a couple runs. There were several great at-bats in that inning, most notably from Pablo Sandoval and Brandon Belt. Sandoval drew a seven-pitch walk, one day after seeing four pitches in four plate appearances (it seemed as though he was making a conscious effort to see more pitches); Belt, too, worked himself a walk, after an eleven-pitch battle against Blanton (although it didn’t end up being significant, as Gregor Blanco then struck out to end the inning). Anyway, these were particularly impressive considering that Blanton entered this game with a BB/9 of 1.6; he’s stingy when it comes to allowing free passes.

Those two first-inning runs were all the Giants really needed, but they padded their lead as the game went on. Angel Pagan tripled for the 11th time this season and came around to score on a sac fly; he’s got a pretty good shot at breaking the San Francisco Giants record for triples (12). And Buster Posey added a fourth run by homering to lead off the sixth inning.

Posey, if I may go off on a tangent now, has built himself a pretty strong MVP case this season. I’m biased, of course, but I think the objective case holds up under scrutiny. Posey has now hit .327/.402/.531 in 527 plate appearances this season, all while playing good defense at the toughest position on the field. He’s hit very well with runners in scoring position, and in the situations that matter most. And he just so happens to lead the National League in TAv (a stat that accounts for some of the important stuff that wOBA ignores). Accurately assessing catcher defense is pretty tough, given the intricacies of catching, but it’s pretty clear to me that Posey is an above-average defender.

Anyhow, there will be much more time to discuss this as the season draws to a close. The main focus right now: the first place Giants. They salvaged the series win, extending their division lead to five and a half games. With 22 games remaining on the schedule (and just 21 for the Dodgers), that’s huge. Not that you needed me to tell you that. The Giants’ magic number is down to 17, and at this point, they’re all but guaranteed to make the playoffs. I’d really like to see them wrap it up before that final three-game series in Los Angeles, and it looks like they’re well on their way toward doing that. I’m nothing but pleased with how this team has performed.

Buster Posey, Barry Zito Help Giants Even Series

Well, that went better than I’d expected. With Barry Zito going up against a tremendous offense, I wasn’t exactly confident about the Giants’ odds in this game. Zito got off to a good start earlier in the season, but he’s quietly lost a lot of steam, and entering today’s start, he had a career-worst 81 ERA+ (that is, if you don’t count last year’s 54 innings).

But as Zito is wont to do, just as I had lost almost every ounce of faith in his ability to give the Giants something better than replacement level pitching, he came out and pitched well — and he did so against the National League’s best offense. Nothing fancy, but 6.1 innings of two-run ball — the only damage having come off the bat of the absurdly powerful Allen Craig on a pair of solo shots. Perhaps the best part? Zero walks, something that you don’t often see out of Zito.

And on another promising note, a bullpen that has been disappointing of late managed to shut the Cards down. (Actually, to say they’ve disappointed recently is probably an understatement — this is a team that’s supposed to get top-notch pitching from their ‘pen, and instead they’ve been mostly run-of-the-mill).

Anyway, Buster Posey provided the Giants with all the run support they’d need, knocking a three-run blast in the first inning off of Lance Lynn. His scorching hot second half continues…

Notes:

  •  In order to clear room for the newest bullpen addition, Jose Mijares, the Giants placed Shane Loux on the DL with a neck strain. Not sure if it’s a phantom injury or not, and I’m not sure if it really matters anyway. The bullpen just got better.
  • According to Hank Schulman, the Giants have looked into signing Lyle Overbay. In terms of what we should expect over the rest of the season, there’s not much of a difference between Overbay and Aubrey Huff.
  • I neglected to mention this, but the Giants signed Xavier Nady to a minor-league contract a few days ago. I doubt Nady will play much of any role with the Giants this season, nor should he — he’s been all sorts of horrible this season: .157/.211/.275, 31 OPS+.
  • Angel Pagan continues to heat up. He reached base a couple more times today, and if it weren’t for a nice play by Jon Jay, Pagan could’ve added an extra-base hit. Even so, he’s raised his OPS a good 40 points in the past five days.

Giants Make Moves, Lose Ballgame

Following last night’s loss to the Mets, the San Francisco Giants made a few roster moves. Hector Sanchez, who was out with a left knee strain, was activated and caught Barry Zito‘s start today. In a corresponding move, the Giants optioned Eli Whiteside back to Triple-A Fresno. Additionally, Justin Christian was optioned to Fresno, with Shane Loux reinstated to take his spot on the roster. In other words, the Giants will go with a 13-man bullpen for now. Lastly, Emmanuel Burriss, as expected, has cleared waivers and been outrighted to Fresno.

For the first time in what seemed like forever — it had actually been a monthBrandon Belt and Hector Sanchez were both in the starting lineup. The last time it happened, Barry Zito tossed seven scoreless innings and the Giants ended up defeating the Dodgers by a score of 8-0. Today’s game was like the polar opposite of that.

Zito’s first inning included three consecutive three-ball counts, followed by a David Murphy HBP and back-to-back hits from Jason “.157 average” Bay and Ronny Cedeno — although in all fairness to Zito, Cedeno’s double arguably should have been scored as an error on Melky Cabrera. Melky was able to get to the ball in time, but failed to snag it. Anyway, Zito miraculously pitched into the fifth, but ended up finishing today with the following line: 4.1 IP, 7 ER, 6 H, 1 K, 3 BB. He brought a shiny 3.89 ERA into this start, but it seems like that didn’t entirely reflect how bad he’s been. Before today, his ERA+ (90) was the second-worst mark he’s ever had over a full season, the worst being the 85 ERA+ he carried in 2008. And after today’s showing, which raised his ERA by 38 points, Zito’s ERA+ has assuredly dipped below 85.

The lone bright spot in today’s blowout was Melky Cabrera, who collected three of the Giants’ four hits. With a triple, an opposite-field ground-rule double, and a single, Melky fell a homer short of the cycle — which was refreshing to see, considering he’s been pretty quiet lately. Before today, Melky had gone 10 for 37 on this homestand without a walk or an extra-base hit.

But of course, it wasn’t nearly enough. And so the Giants finished this disheartening homestand 3-7, with those seven losses having come over their past eight games. The D’backs have quietly cut the Giants’ division lead to two games, and the Dodgers remain just half a game back. I wrote a week ago (over at Beyond the Box Score) that Arizona is still in the thick of the playoff hunt, and it’s pretty clear at this point that they pose a big threat to San Francisco. Both Arizona and Los Angeles have the day off, though.

Notes:

  • The 13-man bullpen is excessive, but I think it makes sense for the Giants right now. They’re about to start a three-game series at Coors Field — and knowing how those games tend to go, it’ll be convenient to have an extra arm in the ‘pen. After the Colorado series, they’ll begin a four-game set at St. Louis, against an offense that has been historically good thus far — so again, it makes sense to have some extra help. Besides, Justin Christian had been utterly worthless during his brief major-league stint.
  • The only non-Melky to get a hit was Brandon Belt, who obliterated a ball into right field for a triple. He later deposited a ball into the bay, but it was foul (and he ended up striking out on a weak-looking hack).
  • For someone that hasn’t played third base since 2008 (when he was with the Toronto Blue Jays), Marco Scutaro has filled in pretty nicely there for Pablo Sandoval — he made a couple good picks there today. And this was just the first time since joining the Giants that Scutaro has failed to get a hit. It occurred to me that I never got a chance to write up my thoughts on the Marco Scutaro trade, so to quickly sum it up: I loved it. I don’t think the Giants gave up much of anything in Charlie Culberson, who couldn’t even muster a .700 OPS in the PCL; and in return, San Francisco got a decent and necessary contact bat that can play third, short, and second without looking silly.
  • Have we reached the point where Andres Torres is having a better season than Angel Pagan? Torres is hitting .238/.352/.323, 94 wRC+. Pagan is hitting .272/.317/.389, 94 wRC+. And there’s no question that Torres is the far superior defender.

Splash Hits: The Giants Are 51-41

Welp, the Giants blew their chance at a sixth consecutive win, falling 3-2 to the Braves today. Madison Bumgarner pitched very well (7 IP, 8 K, 0 BB, 3 H, 2 ER), but two of the three hits he allowed left the yard — and that was the difference in the game. But who can complain about a series win on the road in Atlanta? The Giants are now 5-1 in the second half; I’ll take it.

Links:

The Hall of Nearly Great

The Hall of Nearly Great is an ebook meant to celebrate the careers of those who are not celebrated. It’s not a book meant to reopen arguments about who does and does not deserve Hall of Fame enshrinement. Rather, it remembers those who, failing entrance into Cooperstown, may unfairly be lost to history. It’s for the players we grew up rooting for, the ones whose best years led to flags and memories that will fly together forever. Players like David Cone, Will Clark, Dwight Evans, Norm Cash, Kenny Lofton, Brad Radke, and many others.

I cannot recommend this book enough. I got an early copy a week ago, and I’ve worked about halfway through it so far. It’s just a fantastic collection of essays on a fantastic group of players by a fantastic crew of writers. (At full disclosure, I’m part of the affiliate program for the Hall of Nearly Great, so the added benefit is that I’ll receive a few bucks for every purchase that comes through this link; that’ll help go toward keeping this site up and running, so any support is appreciated — I’ll have to renew domain registration/hosting within a couple weeks.)

Will Clark Saved The Giants, And I Missed It
An excerpt from the Hall of Nearly Great, and a wonderful one at that: McCovey Chronicles’ Grant Brisbee on Will Clark.

An Inner Circle for the Hall of Fame | Baseball: Past and Present
A list of the best of the best: the top 50 players in the Hall of Fame. A certain Say Hey Kid received more votes than any other player.

Game Day Six-Pack: “Buster Posey Is The Perfect Human.”
In which I answered a Phillies blogger’s questions to preview the upcoming Giants/Phillies series.

Giants’ Schierholtz not happy – SFGate

Schierholtz said neither he nor his agent, Damon Lapa, specifically asked the Giants for a trade, but when asked if he would welcome a deal, Schierholtz said, “I think whatever the best fit for the team and me is would be ideal. I can’t really make those decisions. It’s all up to them. Whether I’m here or not I’m going to give my best effort every day and bust my tail.”

Lefty Malo – In Appreciation of Barry Zito
Here’s to Barry Zito.

2012 First Half Review: The Starters

Since there’s no baseball today or tomorrow, I figure I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a stab at a first half review. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll divide it into three segments: the starters, the offense, and the bullpen. Without further ado…

Matt Cain

Oh, Matt Cain. Where to begin? Right as the offseason was drawing to a close, the Giants signed Cain to a rather massive long-term extension, tying up roughly $150M in him through 2018. I was pleased with the deal, but as I noted, pitchers tend to a) get worse with age, and b) get injured. Cain has done neither those of things. In fact, at age 27, Cain is currently performing better than he ever has.

He’s struck out one in four hitters that have come to bat against him, which is far and away the best strikeout rate of his career. And while the strikeouts have gone up, the walks have actually gone the other direction. Of the 473 batters he’s faced this season, only 23 have drawn an unintentional walk. Put the two together, and Cain’s tallied nearly five strikeouts for every walk; that’s significantly higher than his previous best (2.9 K/BB in 2010), and it’s more than double his career rate (2.4 K/BB). Cain has also tossed quite a few memorable games this season, including one particular game that solidified his place in the history books.

Put simply, Cain has been nothing short of spectacular thus far, and his performance even earned him the nod as the National League starter for this year’s all-star game — a role which he, unsurprisingly, handled well, tossing two scoreless innings to set the pace for the NL.

Madison Bumgarner

Madison Bumgarner has pitched, well, as expected. He’s been great. The strikeouts disappeared for a while at the beginning of the season; through the first eight starts, he had only recorded 30 strikeouts. Then he proceeded to strike out ten Brewers in his next start and from that point forward, he was himself (he’s got 69 strikeouts over his previous nine starts). Overall, Bumgarner’s seasonal strikeout rate has slightly dipped, but he’s also shaved off a few walks. His control, of course, has been remarkably consistent this season; in all but one start, he’s allowed two walks or fewer.

In other words, Madison Bumgarner has been Madison Bumgarner. Halfway through the season, he’s at 2.0 fWAR and 1.5 rWAR — although with that last start in Washington in which he allowed three home runs, his numbers sort of took a beating. Anyway, he’s still 22 years old, and he still never ceases to amaze me. Of particular note was that recent one-hitter against the Cincinnati Reds, a team that had feasted on left-handed pitching all season long.

Ryan Vogelsong

Before 2011, Ryan Vogelsong was somewhere on the list of the top 100 worst pitchers of all time. 315 career innings pitched, 217 runs allowed. Then he made his first major-league appearance in five years, and went on to have an all-star season, finishing out the year with a 2.71 ERA. He entered this year at age 34, with a minimal track record of success; given how good he had been in 2011, the expectation of “solid fourth starter” seemed reasonable, but Vogelsong was anything but a sure thing.

To say he’s exceeded expectations would be an understatement. Through 16 starts (110.2 innings), Vogelsong has actually managed to post a lower ERA (2.36) than he had in 2011 (his FIP, 3.72, while less incredible, is still good). The term “consistent” is often bandied about meaninglessly when discussing baseball players, but I can’t seem to avoid it in writing about Vogelsong. He’s epitomized consistency this season. Here are his innings pitched by start this season: 6.1, 7, 6, 7, 7.1, 7, 7, 6.1, 7, 7, 7.2, 7, 7, 7, 7, 7. Fifteen of those were quality starts.

Vogelsong takes the mound every fifth day for the Giants, so we’re just supposed to accept it as reality at this point. But he still makes no sense to me. In 2010, he was released by two organizations. Now he’s got the third best ERA- among qualified starters over the past season and a half. There he is on a pitching leaderboard, right between Clayton Kershaw and Roy Halladay. It’s absolutely crazy.

Barry Zito

I expected the worst out of Barry Zito this season. He was downright awful in 2011, even by Zito standards, having surrendered 35 runs in 53.2 innings. And his peripherals were no more promising, as his 5.60 FIP had marked a new career-worst. With Zito another year older, coming off a dreadful season, I figured he’d reached the end of his effectiveness.

In his debut, he pitched a four-hit no-walk shutout — in Coors Field, no less. And it was on that day that I ate crow. Zito went on to pitch two solid months to begin the season, in fact. Through May, he had a 3.41 ERA in ten starts. Then he crumbled. He ended up finishing out the first half with a 4.01 ERA, though the peripherals tell a different story. Zito has struck out just 12.7% of the hitters he’s faced, and his walk rate (11.1%) is also quite poor; not to mention, he’s got a 0.80 strikeout-to-walk ratio over his last six starts. If you go by FIP (5.05), Zito has been replacement level material thus far.

So despite the fact that his 4.01 ERA has come as a pleasant surprise, I can’t help but continue to have the same concerns about Zito that I had coming into this season.

Tim Lincecum

And we close it out on an especially miserable note, with Tim Lincecum. He allowed 66 earned runs in 2011. He’s allowed 69 earned runs in 2012 …through 18 starts. I had hope that after dominating the Los Angeles Dodgers to carry the Giants into first place, he had finally started to turn things around. That he did not. Lincecum closed out the first half with disastrous starts in Pittsburgh and Washington, and here we are now: Lincecum, halfway through the season, has the worst qualified ERA in the majors. This isn’t August 2010. He’s ventured deep into this mess of a season, and he has yet to return to form.

Over at Baseball Nation, Jeff Sullivan recently took an in-depth look at Lincecum’s season. Lincecum has been Lincecum with the bases empty, which seems like a good sign. I’m not sure what the root cause of his struggles are; his command disappears when runners reach base — is it mental? Mechanical? At this point, I have no idea what to expect from Lincecum. He’s an enigma. I’m almost at a loss for words. I’m cautiously optimistic that he’ll find his groove eventually, but we’re dangerously close to Brad Penny starting games for the San Francisco Giants.

What the heck is Barry Zito throwing?

Barry Zito has had good stretches before. As recently as 2010 he strung together four starts in May which were even better than the four he made this April. So, what follows should not be mistaken as a declaration of renewed trust in the One-Hundred Million Dollar Enigma. I’ll declare a Barry Zito “renaissance” around the same time Ryan Theriot wins a batting title. What Zito accomplished this past month was definitely aided by his opponent’s BABIP of .188 (5th best among NL starters) and strand rate of 91.4% (3rd in the NL).  His FIP is more than two runs higher than his ERA. So, to put it lightly, some regression is imminent.

That said, sometimes a pitcher does “make his own luck” and Zito’s success this April has been founded not only on good breaks, but on a conscious change in approach. I believe this change has helped him cut his walk rate in half, while generating much less hard contact. His line drive rate currently sits at 13.8%, compared to 19.8% for his career, and over 21% since he became a Giant.

This new approach, I believe, is built upon three major adjustments. First, he has learned (again) to trust his slider. (Grant Brisbee discussed this is some detail last week.) Second, he is throwing a cut fastball. And, finally, thanks in part to these new additions, he is varying his pitch selection from start to start, based upon matchups and upon the quality of his various pitches on any given night.

Backing up this impression with statistics has proven somewhat difficult, because Zito’s new repertoire has thus far been a challenge for pitch-charters. Distinguishing the pitches in Zito’s arsenal can be very difficult because he does not have a talent for, how shall we say it, changing velocities. Zito’s changeup, when he overthrows it, looks a little like a flat slider. His two-seam fastball, his slider, and his new cutter all have overlapping ranges of both velocity and movement. His mistake pitches, especially, are hard to classify, which might make some of his pitch data unreliable, particularly in small samples.

However, no matter whose data you use (or if you watch the games), it is clear that Zito has made changes, it’s just difficult to tell exactly what they are. The following chart show three sources of pitch type data:

 

 

 

 

 

As you can see, there is little consensus as to what is a cutter and what is a slider. In fact, as of last week, when I began trying this analysis, Brooks Baseball was listing the cutter among Zito’s pitches. They have since given that up.

With the above caveats in mind, I want to nevertheless offer some analysis which might be interesting to consider as we view tonight’s start against the Marlins.

According to the PitchFX linear weights, the slider has been Zito’s most effective pitch since 2009. However, one could question the accuracy of that data, because prior to this season Zito never leaned too heavily on the pitch. With infrequent use, he didn’t risk overexposing it as much as, say, his curve. However, this season, the slider has become Zito’s bread and butter.

Regardless of whose data you believe, it’s evident he’s throwing the slider far more often than he has in recent years. For the first time since he became a Giant, Zito has a pitch that he can throw for strikes which doesn’t look like batting practice. Zito throws the slider with better command and control than either his fastball, curve, or change-up. According to Brooks Baseball, 62% of the time he puts it in the zone or in play.

What’s great about Zito’s slider is not quality, but consistency. Although he uses the slider with regularity in every start, it is never his most commonly used pitch. In Zito’s best starts, he doesn’t need it all the much. When he shutout Colorado in his first start, he only threw sliders about 14% of the time, as he pounded the Rockies with the sinking two-seamer. However, unlike that pitch, which Zito struggles to command from game to game, the slider shows up every night, thus giving Barry a pitch he can count on when he’s behind in the count, while he figures out what else in working on any given day.

Unlike the slider, Zito’s cutter is a brand new pitch, developed this offseason. When it’s working, the cutter breaks much like the slider, but has fastball velocity, and comes from the same release point as both pitches. The cutter has thus breathed new life into Zito’s mediocre fastball, both by making it less necessary for him to throw it, and making it’s “straightness” surprising when he does. Zito’s called strike percentage has gone way up on both his fastball and his sinker as a result. I believe this improvement stems directly from opponents getting caught expecting a cutter or a slider to move down, away, and off the plate against lefties, and instead standing and staring at something right over the plate.

As important as what Zito is throwing (cutters and sliders), is what he isn’t throwing (four-seamers and curveballs). PitchFX has Zito throwing the four-seamer only 11% of the time. His career rate is 44%. As discussed above, the straight fastball has been more or less totally replaced by cutters and sinkers.

The curveball has not been replaced, but it has been rejuvenated. What happened during Zito’s Giants tenure, prior to this season, was that as his faith in his fastball decreased, he became more and more reliant on his Bugs Bunny curveball. He’s thrown it more than 20% of the time since becoming a Giant. As hitters got more looks at it and Zito started using it in more predictable patterns, it was less effective.

That’s changed this season. Zito throws the curve less (~15%) and thus it is again generating whiffs and weak contact. Consider some anecdotal evidence from last week’s start in Cincinnati:

Zito got off to a rough start, giving up a single and two walks in the first inning. With two outs and two on, Zito faced Jay Bruce. He got him to strikeout swinging on a 73 MPH curveball down and away. It was only the second time Barry had thrown his curve during the 25-pitch opening frame.

Zito ended up throwing only 15 curves in the game, seven of them to Jay Bruce, who went 0-for-3 and twice struck out to end an inning with men on base. He reserved the curve for situations in which it would be most effective and did not condition the Reds (save, perhaps, Bruce) to waiting back on it. Contrast his most recent start (6% FB, 14% CB) with Zito’s last trip to Cincinnati, during which he relied almost exclusively on fastballs (46%) and curves (20%), one of which Jay Bruce pounded into the left-field bleachers, driving home three of the five earned runs Zito yielded in five innings.

The existence of the slider and the cutter allow Zito to keep the curve in reserve, for when he needs it most. It has also allowed him to be less reliant on his sinker, which is frequently his best pitch, but is also unreliable on a game to game basis. In his four starts this season, according to PitchFX data, he has thrown the sinker as much as 30% of the time and as little as 10% of the time. Somewhat similarly, he’s thrown the changeup as much as 20% and as little as 10%. In four starts, he has never used an even remotely similar pitch distribution, as shown by the following table:

As you can see, so far this season, Barry has been very spontaneous, adapting and improvising his pitch selection. For a guy with little velocity and several mediocre pitches, the element of surprise is obviously crucial.
Zito’s early luck remains a concern. His ERA, no matter how good his slider and cutter really are, is not going to stay anywhere near 1.67. When Zito’s new approach stops yielding such favorable outcomes, will he have the moxie to stick to it?

Giants Waste Another Strong Barry Zito Outing

There’s no getting around the fact that Bruce Bochy has done a terrible job managing these past several games, especially when it’s come to handling his pitchers.

Consider…

4/21: With the game tied at one, Ryan Vogelsong at 95 pitches, and a runner in scoring position, Bochy left Vogelsong in the game. Vogelsong struck out, and then allowed a couple runs in the seventh inning.

Yesterday: With the Giants losing 2-0, Bruce Bochy sent Matt Cain (at 108 pitches already) out for the seventh inning. He promptly gave up a home run to Ryan Ludwick, and his day was over after the next batter. The Giants finished that half-inning with the game far out of reach (down 8-0).

Today: Barry Zito was at 100 pitches. The Giants had a slim (2-0) lead. Bruce Bochy sent Zito out for the seventh inning anyway. After serving up a homer to Scott Rolen, the first batter he faced, Zito’s day was over.

In all fairness to Bochy, Clay Hensley and Jeremy Affeldt were messy in relief, and Dan Otero was horrible the day before. There’s an argument to be made that leaving Zito in the game — with a short leash — wasn’t such a bad decision. I don’t personally agree, though. After all, his previous inning had included a single and a couple flyouts to the warning track; and it’s not as though the bullpen needed more rest.

As the game goes on, the hitter has a progressively greater advantage over the starting pitcher.” This is basic stuff. Bochy has tried to milk his starters dry, and the results have not been pretty. Chris over at Bay City Ball was on to something.

Another quibble: Bochy’s refusal to use Sergio Romo in the game’s most important situations is inexcusable. He waited until the eighth inning — when the Giants were already losing by a couple runs — to use Romo. What a waste.

The Giants’ offense blew many opportunities as well: double digits in the hits column, but only a couple runs to show for it. Four times they ended the inning with a couple runners on. I’d expected that the team would draw some better luck with runners in scoring position this season, but nope. Doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, and frankly, it doesn’t seem to be a matter of luck (at least, not entirely).

As for Zito, another strong outing. His ERA now stands at 1.67, which is far more than I could have expected — he’s strung four good starts together, something I really didn’t think he had in him. His command was a bit shaky in the first, but he settled down and his pitch location was excellent over the rest of the start. Lots of pop-ups and weak flyballs, and a surprisingly high amount of swing-throughs.

This isn’t the first time he’s had several nice games in a row. But I can’t help but feel confident about his pitching going forward. Coming into the season, right near the top on my list of concerns for this team was the back of the rotation; those worries have all but vanished.

Barry Zito Solid, Giants Improve to .500

When Barry Zito loaded the bases in the first inning, then subsequently allowed a two-run single to Neil Walker, it was looking like Monday’s Zito was all but history. But he settled down with a 1-2-3 inning in the 2nd, and was ultimately great the rest of the way. There were some hiccups on defense — including a couple errors at the hands of Pablo Sandoval — but Zito ended up giving the Giants seven solid innings with three runs allowed (one of them unearned). I was a bit surprised when Bruce Bochy sent Zito out for the seventh inning, as he was at nearly 100 pitches; and I can’t help but wonder how much Brian Wilson’s absence factored into that decision. But I have to hand it to Bochy there, as Zito managed to escape the seventh completely unscathed, retiring the top of the Pirates’ lineup in order. His velocity chart was particularly interesting, as he amped it up in the later innings (although “amping it up” to 84 on the radar gun isn’t necessarily impressive).

So, kudos to Zito. He’s started off his season like this: 16 innings, two earned runs, eight strikeouts, one walk. And I never could have imagined Zito stringing a couple starts like this together. In fact, this is the first time in Zito’s 13-year career that he’s ever begun a season with back-to-back starts of 7+ innings pitched — which is pretty amazing. Will it continue? Probably not (at least, depending on how you define “continue”). I don’t expect a lot from Zito, but he’s more than proven that he’s capable of mediocrity. And that’s all the Giants need from the fifth spot in the rotation. Plus, to echo Josh, the lack of walks from Zito thus far is a pretty encouraging sign.

As for the offense, they extended their 4+ runs scored streak to a whopping eight games, which is the team’s longest such streak in five years. This didn’t come as much of a surprise, of course, as Charlie Morton was on the mound. When it comes to left-handed hitters, Morton essentially throws batting practice. They’ve hit .335/.415/.530 against him for his career, and last season (which was his best season), they hit .364/.460/.500 against him. The Giants’ starting lineup, one through nine, was composed entirely of left-handed/switch hitters.

Angel Pagan, who I expect will start to heat up, finally collected a couple of hits (single, triple) and stole a base. Aubrey Huff, hitting out of the cleanup spot, was downright terrible today — three groundouts and a strikeout. Of all the hitters in tonight’s starting lineup (excluding Zito), Huff was the only one who failed to reach base.

In the ninth inning with the game tied at 3, following a single, Bochy made the ridiculous decision to send Ryan Theriot to the plate against Chris Resop to bunt — instead of pinch hitting Brandon Belt. Theriot failed to lay down the bunt, and eventually worked the count full. Then he singled. Of course, that doesn’t justify sending Theriot (an awful hitter, especially against right-handers) up to the plate in lieu of Belt. Bochy used a couple pinch hitters tonight, going with Gregor Blanco and Ryan Theriot, and leaving Belt on the bench the entire game (although it looked like Belt would have come to bat had Burriss not singled).

It was poor decision-making — not utilizing Belt, though it didn’t end up mattering. Belt hasn’t started a game in a week, but he’ll apparently be starting tomorrow’s game. His playing time for the next week or so could be determined by how he performs tomorrow, so hopefully he pulls it together. He’ll have the benefit of facing Kevin Correia.

Anyway, with that 4-3 walkoff win, the Giants are now .500, and things are really starting to roll. Ryan Vogelsong makes his return to the mound tomorrow.