Wednesday, March 2, 2011

A toothless threat to Zito

Bruce Jenkins of the San Francisco Chronicle wants to deliver a message to the Giants’ highest paid player, perhaps on behalf of the organization paying him:
A source close to the team indicated Tuesday that there is “exasperation” with Zito, that his status as the No. 5 starter is “definitely not safe,” and that the team would even considered buying out his expensive contract before Opening Day if that’s what it takes to say farewell…

Meanwhile, the Giants will take a close look at 16-year veteran Jeff Suppan (three shutout innings against Milwaukee on Monday), Class AA left-hander Clayton Tanner and other options for the No. 5 slot…

[Zito] has been a sub-.500 pitcher in each of his four seasons with San Francisco (40-57 total)…
 Let’s stop there. When, in a column, we start measuring a pitcher by his record, my eyes glaze over and I wonder why it’s so very hard to get away from this incumbent method.

What Jenkins failed to mention was that, since Zito arrived on the scene, the Giants have failed to score even 700 runs in any season (683, 640, 657 and 697). That’s 4.13 runs per game. Also, it’s completely terrible.

At the risk of a not-too-bright reader assuming that I am comparing Zito to Matt Cain, I will also point out that the latter has a record of 42-49 over that same period of time. Yet, he also carries an ERA of 3.35 and an adjusted ERA (ERA+) of 129 over the same period. That’s 29 percent greater than the league average starter. Also, it’s plenty good enough to warrant induction into the Hall of Fame if sustained over many years.

Please quit it with the wins.

It’s unfortunate, but writers and perhaps even the Giants’ entire organization is incapable of separating the player from the contract, an imperative when deciding what to do when a contract has gone sour. And this one has.

When we only provide Zito’s win-loss record in describing his abilities, we lose what he’s worth. The implication is that he’s plainly terrible. In truth, though, he’s much closer to a league-average starter. Overpaid? Yes. Frustrating? Yes. Worthless? No.

Since 2007, in order, Zito has been worth 1.7, 1.4, 2.2 and 2.1 wins above replacement (WAR) according to FanGraphs. Thus, he’s been worth nearly two wins (above replacement) per season (1.85).

When signing a free agent, the going rate for a single win is roughly $5 million. So, if Zito is to sustain his current performance of 1.85 wins per season over the next three seasons he’ll be worth approximately $9.25 million per season. He’ll be worth about $37 million over the next four seasons versus the $64.5 million he’s owed ($18.5 in 2011, $39 million 2012-2013 and a $7 mill buyout in 2014).

Maybe $37 million is giving him too much credit. What we should probably do is inflate the going rate per win by around five percent per season and decrease Zito’s worth by 0.5 wins per season over the life of his contract, as he’s likely to decrease in value as he ages.

Using that methodology, he’s worth about $23 million over the next four seasons ($9.25 mil, $7.09 mil, $4.69 mil and $2.03 mil). Compare that to the $64.5 million he’s owed.

Unless the Giants can get some team to bite into this hook for somewhere between $23 million to $37 million over the next 3-4 seasons, they should simply keep running him out there every fifth day and signing his checks until his value has vanished completely. Frankly, I don’t think there are any takers who are willing to pull over even close to that much of his contract.

As to the notion that the Giants are entertaining the idea of making Jeff Suppan the fifth starter, I say… wow.

Suppan has been a below replacement starter over the past two seasons. He was worth -0.7 wins in 2009 and 0.0 wins in 2010. Over the past two seasons, he’s performed exactly as you might expect a non-roster invitee to perform. He’s not getting a major league deal because he’s not a major leaguer anymore. He’s someone you stuff in Triple-A in case one of your five starters goes down, or your fifth starter becomes unbearable which is often the case two months into the season.

The Giants have close to zero organizational depth in terms of starting pitching right about now. It’s not that they don’t have intriguing pieces on the farm, they do. Eric Surkamp, for example, may well someday be a serviceable starter in the rotation. Zack Wheeler could be another No.1 type starter. That being said, these two aren’t close to contributing in San Francisco. Neither is Clayton Tanner, who Jenkins mentions. He’s likely a replacement starter at this point, at best.

Should the Giants cut Zito loose, they’ll be out 1-2 wins and will be further depleting their starting pitching depth, something they already sorely lack.

The Giants have every right to be frustrated, they really do. But they should be frustrated with themselves, not Zito. They signed the guy when the industry-wide consensus was that he simply wasn’t the top-tier starter he was being paid to be. Once upon a time, Zito was a very good pitcher when throwing for the green and gold. He was never great, despite the Cy Young award in 2002.

“Motivating” Zito by threatening to cut him loose at this point makes little sense to me. I truly believe his inability to meet expectations is due to one thing: He can’t. It’s the same reason he doesn’t throw 90 miles per hour: He can’t. The expectations that his contract placed upon him were ridiculous. They were in the winter of 2006, they remain so today.

Give it a rest.

The Giants bought a flank steak and paid for a filet. It’s now chewy and they are outraged. They can blame the server as long and as loudly as they’d like, but they ought to have spent a little longer reading the menu.

This article was linked on Baseball Think Factory

1 comment:

  1. Great post as usual.

    I would also add that the WAR is conservative because most formulation of a pitchers worth assumes a BABIP of .300 and he has compiled aBABIP of .285 with the Giants. He now has more than enough IP for us to say that his BABIP is controlled by him, so there is WAR to add to his SF years. Not sure how to adjust that upward, does Fangraph reveal their formula for WAR?