Navigate to Ron Wolforth’s website and you’ll immediately see this.
Normally I’m hesitant to engage with places that approach me like I’m watching the pitching equivalent of QVC at 4 a.m., but Ron Wolforth has the track record to make bold statements: he’s worked with Trevor Bauer since the first round pick was 14 years old, and most recently he took Scott Kazmir from out of baseball to pumping mid-90’s gas for Cleveland in the span of a year. That second achievement is what we’re going to pay attention to today, because the news came down this past week that the Oakland Athletics signed Barry Zito to a minor league deal with an invitation to spring training. Why is this of specific interest to us, you may ask? Because Zito has been working with Wolforth for the past four months to completely revamp his delivery and regain his lost velocity. The most recent reports say Zito is throwing in the high-80’s after the training, with Wolforth guaranteeing 90 MPH by “April or May”.
Ron Wolforth is more scientist than scout – the type of outsider that the baseball establishment views with a sideways look. His reputation improved with Bauer getting drafted in the first round in 2011 (he even secured an invitation to spring training with Cleveland in 2013 after Bauer was traded from the Diamondbacks), but the feeling you get is that he’s still not completely trusted – that his methods are out of keeping with the entrenched mentality of the game’s established coaches. The same resistance to intellectual approaches that kept sabermetrics out of the game (and still does in some circles) is part of what is keeping Wolforth out of it.
That’s where Barry Zito comes in. There are differences in Kazmir and Zito’s cases: there is the age difference — which is nearly five years — and the fact that Kazmir is a power pitcher while Zito is known more for relying on secondary offerings. The fact remains, however, that both have one major thing in common: they were out of baseball, struggling with an almost total loss of fastball velocity, and turned to Ron Wolforth for help. Kazmir was written off; he regained almost ten MPH and made it back. Can Zito follow the same path?
As we know, Zito hasn’t really thrown very hard in the recent past, and that is an an understatement. Zito threw a pitch over 86 MPH just once in his last major league season, 2013, and he didn’t exactly light up the radar gun in the years prior to that, with average fastball velocities sitting in the mid-80’s from 2007-2012. Unfortunately, we don’t have PITCHf/x velocity data for years prior to 2007.
Fortunately, this author enjoys pursuits such as finding old game tapes of Barry Zito and decade-old velocity data in the back alleys of the internet. The fact is that Zito has never thrown hard over his entire career: his highest velocities are when he maxed-out in the low-90’s during starts in the early 2000’s when he was first breaking into the league. Behold, a 90 MPH fastball to David Ortiz in the 2003 ALDS:
That lack of previous career velocity is one of the main reasons why we’re looking at this subject: if Zito can regain his velocity to the point where his above average secondary pitches become effective again, it doesn’t matter if he throws hard. Getting the proper velocity separation again between fastballs and offspeed pitches is what is important to regain effectiveness. Here’s a reminder of his still-nasty 71 MPH curveball, from a June 2013 start:
We should also take note of the quality of pitcher Zito was at his peak. Zito has the distinction, as a select number of pitchers do, of over-performing his peripherals for large parts of his career. For most of his peak years, his fielding independent pitching numbers were far higher than his posted ERA, due in large part to a suppressed HR/FB rate and low BABIP. The former is no doubt due in large part to him pitching in Oakland and San Francisco his entire career, and the latter is most likely skill based: he posted elite IFFB% during his time in Oakland (as well as having expansive foul territory), keeping his BABIP down. This reversed during his time in San Francisco when his velocity declined (making his secondary offerings less effective and reducing weak contact like IFFB), allowing his ERA and FIP numbers to more closely align. Let’s take a look at a few spans in particular to illustrate the point:
Looking at Zito’s pitch selection and run values during his career, it’s apparent: there is a pre-2007 Zito and a post-2007 Zito. In the early part of his career, he had three pitches: a four-seam fastball, a curveball, and a change up. As soon as he got to San Francisco, he started mixing in a a cutter, then a slider, then a two-seam fastball, all likely as a result of his diminishing velocity. A successful Zito comeback would feature him returning to his three pitch, pre-2007 form, ditching the poor pitch options he has and letting his above average off speed pitches generate weak contact.
As we can see below, beginning in 2007 he was actively searching for something that worked: nothing really did, to the point where his changeup (arguably his best pitch by run value), became worthless alongside his bottomed-out velocity:
Barry Zito is not going to win another Cy Young, and in all likelihood he won’t crack the A’s starting rotation; he might not even make it out of spring training. Most fans remember him as the guy who was pretty lousy in San Francisco while getting paid vast sums of money. That’s fair, but we should be intrigued by Zito’s comeback in large part because of Ron Wolforth’s work in the arena of pitcher reclamation. If Zito makes it back to the majors successfully throwing around 90 MPH — and that is a big if — then Wolforth will deserve an immense amount of credit, and his training methods will need to be taken more seriously than they are currently.
There is a belief in the baseball establishment that velocity can’t be redeveloped once lost, but Scott Kazmir proved that completely wrong a couple years ago, and that should cause us to approach this Zito comeback with more optimism than we would otherwise. Yes, Kazmir was in his late 20’s when he worked with Wolforth and has a power arm, and yes, Barry Zito is 36 and has never thrown hard. But Zito is still a lefty, still has a great curveball and plus changeup (when paired with an actual fastball), and would be pitching in Oakland half the time. Call me crazy, but there’s still probably a place for Barry Zito in the major leagues, and stranger things have happened.
Owen Watson writes for FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @ohwatson.