JAWS and the 2021 Hall of Fame Ballot: Barry Zito

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2021 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

The youngest of the Oakland A’s Moneyball-era “Big Three” starting pitchers, and the last to join the organization and to debut in the majors, Barry Zito reached a higher peak than either Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder while helping the A’s to five postseason appearances from 2000-06. Renowned for a curveball that was considered the best in the game, he made three All-Star teams and is the only one of the trio to win a Cy Young award. He parlayed his success into a record-setting free agent contract with the Giants, though outside of his trademark durability, he rarely lived up to the expectations that it carried.

Then again, Zito rarely lived up to the standard expectations that come with being a high-profile professional athlete. Yes, he surfed, but he also played guitar, practiced yoga and meditation, traveled with scented candles and satin bed pillows sewn by his mother, and read books about the power of positive thinking. In the eyes of the often-hyperbolic agent Scott Boras, who netted him a seven-year, $126 million deal from the Giants in December 2006, he was “Zigasso… the artist-poet-intellectual.” Oookay.

Despite standing 6-foot-4 and 215 pounds, Zito was not a particularly hard thrower, but the rest of his repertoire made up for it, at least in the best of times. From a 2004 Sports Illustrated profile by Michael Silver:

Call it mind over batter: His unrivaled curveball with the roller-coaster drop and his crafty changeup set up a sub-90s fastball that isn’t nearly as hittable as it appears. “He throws strikes and dares you to hit it,” says New York Yankees manager Joe Torre, “and because you have to wait so long for that curve, it makes his fastball that much faster.”

Where Hudson — who’s also on this year’s ballot for the first time — finished his career with numbers worthy of a substantial Hall of Fame debate, Zito fell short; his JAWS is exactly half of the standard for starting pitchers. This figures to be his only appearance on a BBWAA ballot, but as this year’s only first-timer to win a major award, he gets a standalone One-and-Done entry in my series.

2021 BBWAA Candidate: Barry Zito
Pitcher Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Barry Zito 31.9 30.6 31.3
Avg. HOF SP 73.3 50 61.6
165-143 1,885 4.04 105
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Zito was born on May 13, 1978 in Las Vegas, Nevada. His father, Joe Zito, was a composer, conductor, and arranger for singer Nat King Cole, while his mother Roberta sang in Cole’s backing band, the Merry Young Souls. Zito was by the youngest of their three children; his sister Sally was nine when he was born.

The young Zito quickly gravitated to throwing, aiming rocks at clothespins on the line in the yard, and choosing the mound when he began playing tee-ball after his family moved to San Diego. Once he began pitching, a home plate umpire told Joe that Barry had a natural curveball. Knowing very little about baseball, Joe bought books and instructional videos, began tutoring his son, and soon gave up music to become a full-time pitching coach. He also guided his son’s mental development, assigning books such as Creative Mind and The Science of Mind.

At 12 years old, Zito came under the tutelage of 1976 NL Cy Young winner Randy Jones, who gave pitching lessons for $50 per week — a stretch for the household finances — and who would spit tobacco juice on his pupil’s shoes. “If I screwed up and made a bad pitch, he would sniper me from 5-6 feet out, right on my new shoes,” Zito told the San Diego Union Tribune’s Jay Paris in 2013.

In search of the best baseball to launch his career, Zito wandered through two high schools and three colleges. Drafted in the 59th round in 1996 by the Mariners, he bypassed an offer for a $90,000 bonus and headed to the University of California-Santa Barbara, where he earned Freshman All-America honors. He transferred to Los Angeles Pierce College, a junior college, in order to be eligible for the 1998 draft, but after being chosen in the third round by the Rangers, he bypassed a $300,000 bonus offer and again transferred, this time to the University of Southern California. At USC, he earned first-team All-American honors and the Pac-10 Pitcher of the Year award. The A’s — whose pitching coach Rick Peterson had worked with Zito while he was in the Cape Cod League — made him the ninth pick of the 1999 draft, which raised some eyebrows given his lack of a dominant fastball.

Zito signed for a $1.59 million bonus, began his professional career with the A’s High-A Visalia affiliate, and rocketed all the way to Triple-A Vancouver by season’s end, striking out 97 in 68.1 innings across three levels. He cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 prospects list at number 41 in the spring of 2000, then made 18 starts for the team’s new Triple-A Sacramento affiliate. On July 22, 2000, he made his major league debut with five innings of one-run ball against the Angels. After loading the bases with nobody out in the fifth, he struck out Mo Vaughn, Tim Salmon, and Garret Anderson in succession to complete his afternoon. No clip of that is available online, but his first strikeout, of Benji Gil, is.

In the aftermath of their 1988-92 success under Tony La Russa, the A’s had gone six straight seasons with losing records, hence the high draft picks that netted them Zito and Mulder, the number two pick of the 1998 draft. With Hudson (a sixth-round 1997 pick) arriving in mid-’99, they’d broken their losing streak with an 87-win season. While the 24-year-old Hudson went 20-6 with a 4.14 ERA (113 ERA+) in 2000, the 22-year-old Zito outpitched him, going 7-4 with a 2.72 ERA (173 ERA+) while helping the A’s win 91 games and the AL West title. Though Zito’s 3.4 WAR tied the Twins’ Mark Redman for the high among AL rookies, due to his late arrival and modest counting stats, he finished sixth in the AL Rookie of the Year voting while 32-year-old Japanese closer Kazuhiro Sasaki won on the strength of his 37 saves.

In the Division Series against the defending world champion Yankees, Zito didn’t pitch until Game 4, but with Oakland down two games to one, he turned in 5.2 innings of one-run ball in an 11-1 rout, forcing a Game 5. Alas, the A’s lost the rubber match, as they would do in each of the next three years as well.

Zito showed that his rookie season was no fluke, going 17-8 in 2001 while striking out 205 (fourth in the league) with a 3.49 ERA and 4.5 WAR (both eighth). Hudson and Mulder had similarly strong seasons, with the latter, who had struggled as a rookie in 2000, leading the AL with 21 wins, placing fifth with 5.6 WAR, and finishing second in the Cy Young balloting. The A’s won 102 games but finished a distant second behind the 116-win Mariners.

As the AL Wild Card team, again they faced the defending champion Yankees in the Division Series. After the A’s took the first two games of the series in New York, Zito got the ball with a chance to finish off the sweep in Oakland. He pitched brilliantly, allowing just two hits and one walk over eight innings, but one of those hits was a Jorge Posada home run. While Mike Mussina and Mariano Rivera allowed six hits, Derek Jeter‘s heads-up play — yes, that one — to retrieve Shane Spencer’s airmailed relay throw and nab Jeremy Giambi at the plate ended the seventh inning and kept the A’s off the board. They lost, 1-0, and dropped the next two games as well.

Zito turned in what would prove to be the best season of his career in 2002 while helping the A’s improve to 103-59 and a first-place finish in the AL West. Aided by a robust 5.9 runs per game of offensive support, he went a gaudy 23-5; in addition to leading the AL in wins, he placed third in ERA (2.75, for a 158 ERA+), strikeouts (182), and WAR (7.2), and fifth in innings (229.1). He made his first All-Star team, and edged Pedro Martinez in the Cy Young voting. In May, he signed a four-year, $9.3 million extension that included escalator clauses and awards bonuses that would add at least another $2.35 million over the life of the deal. In the Division Series, Zito faced the Twins instead of the Yankees. He wasn’t at his best, walking four and allowing three runs in six innings, but the A’s won to take a two-games-to-one lead that, alas, they failed to convert into a series win.

Zito couldn’t match his award-winning performance in 2003, but made his second All-Star team and placed seventh in ERA (3.30) and eighth in WAR (5.3) in 231.2 innings. A dip to just 4.1 runs per game in offensive support was partly to blame for his won-loss record dipping to 14-12, but even so, it wasn’t hard to notice that his strikeout rate was trending in the wrong direction at alarming speed, from 22.7% in 2001 to 19.4% in ’02 to 15.3% in ’03. With Hudson and Mulder in fine form, the 96-win A’s claimed their third AL West title in four years. This time around, they faced the Red Sox in the Division Series, and Zito finally got to pitch twice. He was stellar in Game 2, striking out nine while allowing just one run in seven innings as the A’s took a two-games-to-none lead. When the Red Sox came back to tie the series, Zito started Game 5 on three days of rest opposite Martinez. He shut the Red Sox out through five innings but served up a game-tying solo homer to Jason Varitek to start the fifth, and then a three-run shot to Manny Ramirez later in the inning. The A’s trimmed the lead to 4-3 before Martinez departed, and they put the tying run and winning runs on base with nobody out in the ninth before Derek Lowe shut them down and ended their season.

Zito fell out of form in 2004, carrying an ERA above 6.00 into mid-May and finishing at 4.48 (102 ERA+) in 213 innings — still good for 2.9 WAR thanks in part to a rebound in his strikeout rate (17.6%), though his 1.2 homers per nine allowed were a career high. In the aforementioned June 21, 2004 profile in SI, Silver checked in on “Barely Zito” and found his old tutor offering some harsh criticism:

To former Cy Young winner Randy Jones, from whom Zito took weekly pitching lessons during a four-year stretch of his childhood, it’s a matter of Zito’s pitch placement. “Fundamentally, he looks pretty good, and the curveball and the changeup are working,” says Jones, now a spokesman for the San Diego Padres. “But he’s really falling in love with the cut fastball, which jams right-handed hitters, at the expense of the two-seam fastball, which tails away from them. He used to throw the two-seam pretty well when we worked together, but now he’s sort of one-dimensional, always trying to cut the ball in against righties. When you miss and the ball goes over the middle third of the plate, you’re going to give up some long balls.”

Zito had his own theories, telling Silver, “Some of my changeups have been flat, and guys have hit them for home runs. When a changeup doesn’t have any finish, down-and-away to a right-hander or down-and-in to a lefty, it’s basically just a batting-practice fastball.”

Zito regained form to some degree over his final two years in Oakland, during which he posted a 3.85 ERA (114 ERA+) but an unappealing 4.61 FIP, worse than the 4.50 from his down 2004 season. He did lead the AL in starts for both years (four times in Oakland in all), and ran his streak of seasons with at least 210 innings to six; along the way, his 2006 option vested at $8.5 million. Zito was worth a combined 7.8 WAR in those two seasons, including 4.5 in the latter, his third and final All-Star season. Despite seasons of 91 and 88 wins, the A’s had missed the playoffs in both 2004 and ’05, the latter year after both Hudson and Mulder were traded away. Zito’s solid work in front of a rotation that now included youngsters Dan Haren (acquired from the Cardinals in the Mulder trade), Joe Blanton, and Rich Harden helped the team to a 93-69 record and another AL West title in 2006.

For once, the A’s broke through. Zito started Game 1 of the Division Series against the Twins, and allowed one run in eight innings while getting the win in what proved to be a three-game sweep; it was Oakland’s only postseason series win between the 1990 ALCS and 2020 AL Wild Card Series. For Zito and the A’s, the 2006 ALCS against the Tigers was another matter, as he was pummeled for five runs in 3.2 innings in the opener, and never got another shot as Detroit eliminated Oakland in four games.

With that, the 28-year-old southpaw reached free agency, and thanks to the sales job by Boras, generated heavy interest. The Mariners, Mets, and Rangers all showed interest, with New York reportedly offering a five-year, $75 million deal, and Texas going six years and $84 million plus a $15 million vesting option. The Giants, who needed to offset the loss of Jason Schmidt to free agency, blew the competition out of the water with a seven-year, $126 million deal, the largest for a pitcher to that point, surpassing Mike Hampton’s eight-year, $121 million contract with the Rockies.

Long story short, things did not go very well in San Francisco. Zito’s fastball velocity dropped by nearly 3 mph from 2005 to ’07, and his changeup continued to get knocked around (128 wRC+ from 2007 onward, the time for which we have data). In Oakland he had taken advantage of the Coliseum’s massive foul territory (40,700 square feet, the most in major leauge history, according to Andrew Clem’s stadium comparisons) which allowed his fielders to catch harmless popups, but the Giants’ AT&T Park had much less such territory (a mid-pack 25,500 square feet). After generating a 15.2% infield fly ball rate from 2002-06, third among pitchers with at least 500 innings in that span, his rate sank to 10.2%, merely in the upper third of the majors. He had a 122 ERA+ for those five seasons with the A’s, but an 87 ERA+ for his time with the Giants.

Over the first four years of the new deal, Zito averaged 192 innings a year, never making fewer than 32 starts; from 2001-10, he averaged a major league-high 34 starts and 211 innings (fourth). His ERA for that span was 4.45 (96 ERA+), with a high of 5.15 to go with a 10-17 record. He totaled just 5.5 WAR for those four years, though 2007 (2.0) and ’09 (2.5) were at least respectable. The Giants finished below .500 in both 2007 and ’08, but went 88-74 in ’09, Zito’s best season in San Francisco. They won the NL West with a 92-70 record in 2010, but Zito’s 9-14, 4.15 ERA (94 ERA+) season was worth just 1.1 WAR; after pitching poorly in the potential division clincher on the second-to-last day of the season, he was left off the postseason roster. Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Jonathan Sánchez and 20-year-old rookie Madison Bumgarner handled the starting duties and did such a stellar job that the team won its first title since 1954.

It was a rather humiliating statement of Zito’s value, to say the least. In 2019, while promoting his memoir Curveball: How I Discovered True Fulfillment After Chasing Fortune and Fame, Zito admitted that he rooted against his own teammates:

“I ended up rooting against the team as they were trying to win a World Series, hoping they would lose a World Series so I could validate my ego once again… So it was a really dark place. I go home and all my friends are celebrating this ring. And I’m sitting there trying to act happy in these champagne rooms, but really I’m like, ‘I’m a zero. I’m making more money than any of you guys, and I’m actually not even good enough to be a part of this.’ That’s when my whole thing just came apart.”

Adding injury to insult, Zito was limited to 13 starts and a 5.87 ERA in 2011 due to a right foot sprain, first suffered when he fell awkwardly while catching a bunt in his April 16 start against the Diamondbacks. He spent 69 days on the Disabled List, the first time in his career he’d ever missed a start. After pitching well in his first few starts back, his performance declined, and after going on the DL again due to recurrent foot trouble on August 1, he sprained his right ankle in a rehab appearance and didn’t return until September 16, and pitched out of the bullpen thereafter.

Judged by his 15-8 won-loss record, Zito rebounded to have his best season as a Giant in 2012, but in reality, he owed that to strong offensive support (4.8 runs per game); his 4.15 ERA translated to just an 85 ERA+ and 0.1 WAR. With Lincecum, the 2008 and ’09 NL Cy Young winner, on his own descent into replacement-level hell and postseason long relief duty, Zito was part of the Giants’ October rotation. With his team trailing two games to one, he was chased in the third inning of his Division Series Game 4 start agains the Reds, but the Giants, who led 3-2 at the time, held on to win, and then advanced to the NLCS against the defending champion Cardinals. With Lincecum making his only start of the postseason in Game 4, Zito didn’t start until Game 5, by which point the Giants trailed three games to one. Against all odds, he summoned what might have been the outing of his life, shutting out Cardinals for 7.2 innings and driving in a run via a bunt single; the Giants won 5-0 and stormed back to win the series in seven games.

Zito continued his run with 5.2 innings of one-run ball against the Tigers in the World Series opener, an 8-3 win that began a four-game sweep.

The championship was well-earned, but the comedown was brutal. In the final year of a contract that was already largely regarded as a disaster, Zito went 5-11 with a 5.74 ERA and an unfathomable, major league-worst -2.5 WAR. He pitched just three times in September, the last of them a one-batter cameo against the Padres on the final day of the season; he struck out former teammate Mark Kotsay.

Rather than pick up his $18 million option, the Giants paid Zito a steep $7 million buyout. While his deal was obviously another cautionary tale in the annals of free agency, I wrote at SI.com near the end of his tenure, “[I]f you told 30 general managers that they’d come away with two championships for every $100 million deal they handed out, baseball’s supply of pens would run out of ink for all of the contract signings.”

Zito spent the 2014 season traveling and surfing. In August, the 36-year-old lefty called Boras and said he wanted to pitch again. The phone did not ring off the hook, needless to say, but in mid-February 2015, Zito signed a minor-league deal with the A’s, one featuring a $1 million salary and minimal bonuses.

“I’m a baseball player. I pitch. I love pitching,” said Zito a few weeks later. “There’s nothing like this. The rest of your life you’re not going to get this type of competition, unless you get in the military or something like that. I love all sports. Things like that are the adrenaline rush that we need.”

While he could have easily hung up his spikes when he didn’t make the Opening Day roster, Zito spent most of the season toiling at Triple-A Nashville (an ideal place to be given his musical aspirations). He made 22 starts and two relief appearances totaling a team-high 138 innings while serving as a mentor to teammates, including a struggling Kendall Graveman.

The A’s, who were headed towards 94 losses, rewarded Zito for his persistence by recalling him in September. He made three appearances, allowing eight runs in a total of seven innings. On September 26 in Oakland, he squared off against the Giants, who sent Hudson to the hill in what proved to be his penultimate start. Neither pitcher lasted long; Hudson allowed three runs and departed after retiring just four hitters, while Zito allowed four runs left after issuing a leadoff walk to Buster Posey in the third inning. The A’s milked the occasion for all it was worth; the next day, they brought back Mulder and paid tribute to the trio, who threw out ceremonial first pitches as well.

Zito’s final appearance was a four-inning, two-run start against the Angels on September 30, with solo homers by Mike Trout and David Freese the only runs he allowed. In October, he announced his retirement. Since then, he’s remained close to the spotlight, settling in Nashville, and releasing an album that made the Billboard Americana/Folk chart in 2017, and his memoir in 2019. Earlier this year he appeared on the Fox television show The Masked Singer.

Zito finished his career with 165 wins and 31.9 WAR, respectable totals but ones hardly worth belaboring in a Hall of Fame debate. He’s 249th in JAWS, one spot below Hall of Famer Rube Marquard, the second-lowest ranked out of the 65 enshrined starters, but unless the zombie Frankie Frisch and Bill Terry head up the 2061 equivalent of the Veterans Committee, I’m not wild about his odds. Undeniably, however, he left his mark on the two Bay Area teams. The chance to revisit his long and winding road through the majors, and in doing so to Remember Some Guys, is one of the peripheral benefits to being a completist when it comes to Hall of Fame ballot season.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

One and done. Interesting guy though, and great curveball.