One Reason to be Optimistic About Barry Zito’s Return


Plenty has been said about the likelihood of Barry Zito making the Oakland Athletics roster out of Spring Training. There are more good reasons to think he won’t make the team and will find himself out of baseball again. Zito is 36 years old, and his last days as a major leaguer were ineffective. He throws his fastball about as fast as I can. Pick a reason and you can probably get it to stick in your argument against Zito.

But I think there is one reason to be optimistic about Zito’s return: over achievement. He has always been an overachiever. Even in his days with Oakland, when he was a good pitcher, his peripheral stats – FIP, K/9, K/BB – were not so good. He had a few things going for him that allowed him to maintain success, despite not being a dominant force.

He owned a capable major league fastball, often touching just 90 miles per hour, but featured two great offerings in his curveball and changeup.

He called the Oakland Coliseum, and its vast reaches of foul territory, home for several years. He didn’t need to light up the radar gun, or rack up lofty strikeout totals to win games and post low earned run averages. He could pitch to contact – weak contact – and let the cool Oakland night air or his personal vacuum cleaner in third baseman Eric Chavez do his dirty work.

However, as he changed home ballparks after agreeing to play for the San Francisco Giants and he lost fastball velocity, his curveball and changeup lost their value.

No matter how good a curveball you have, and his was great, if you can only reach 86 MPH with your fastball, you will not cut it as a big leaguer. He dabbled in other pitches – a cutter, slider, and an additional fastball – but all the pitches in the world couldn’t negate the fact he was losing his touch.

Enter Mr. Ron Wolforth.

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Wolforth has notably worked with Cleveland Indians starter Trevor Bauer and the Athletics’ own Scott Kazmir, who also was out of baseball when he sought Wolforth’s help. Much like sabermetrics, Wolforth’s methods aren’t exactly kosher with the baseball community. Still, he helped Kazmir gain upwards of ten miles per hour on his fastball.

Kazmir is a power pitcher, needing to throw mid-90’s to do his job. Everything else just supplements the heater. Zito’s is a much different case. Wolforth advertises on his website that a pitcher is guaranteed to regain nearly 7 MPH in 12 weeks. If the reports are true, that Wolforth has helped Zito return to the upper-80’s with his fastball, then hitting 90 MPH this spring isn’t that far fetched of an idea.

He just needs to drop the additional pitches like his slider and cutter and use a three-pitch repertoire.

During his peak years with the A’s, Zito could hit the low 90’s and he had a 16 percent infield fly ball rate. As his velocity dropped in his time with the Giants, and he lost the valuable foul territory of the Coliseum, his IFFB % was nearly cut in half. His home run rates and batting average against rates stayed about the same, but because he was inducing less pop-ups his FIP and ERA ballooned.

If Zito is able to sit between 88-91 MPH with his fastball consistently, then his curveball and changeup can become nasty again. Being in the Coliseum with a good defense behind him can help make Zito effective again. This is a gamble the A’s had to make. They have first-hand experience with a Wolforth project in Kazmir and a history with the all the good parts of Zito.

Bring Curt Young into the mix and the A’s are likely to wind up with one of the best problems a major league team can have. Too much pitching.

None of this is a guarantee. Perhaps Zito cannot restore his velocity to where it needs to be. He is 36 after all, but pitchers tend to be able to stave off regression longer than hitters. Also, he is left-handed. There is room for a living, breathing, lefty on any roster at some point in the season.

If nothing else, stirrups!

Brandon McCarthy, Bartolo Colon, and Kazmir all received second chances when they needed it because they adapted their abilities to maximize their strengths. Zito just needs to do the same.