Tuesday, March 14, 2006

As you may have noticed, Angel news has been less than rampant over the past few weeks, which I consider to be a good thing. During Spring Training, no news is infinitely preferable to Star Player Gets Injured, Ruins Team's Chances of Competing.

Of course, if unlike me you have to write a column for a real life newspaper every day, such doldrums are less than optimal. So yesterday in the LA Times Bill Shaikin contemplated what might happen to Athletic starter Barry Zito after this season. That's right; the 2006/2007 Hot Stove Season has already begun!

The talk is about the possibility of Zito coming to Los Angeles of Anaheim, and there are several things that could easily happen to make this a possibility. For one, both Kelvim Escobar and Jeff Weaver complete their guaranteed contracts with the Halos this season. For another, Jered Weaver may or may not be ready to move into the rotation next spring.

And, of course, Zito's contract with the A's will expire. As the A's are relatively cash-strapped, and have shown a willingness to let their pricey veterans sign elsewhere, Oakland re-signing Barry is not a given. Add into the equation that the Angels lack a lefty starter, and that Zito has connections to the Southland, and it seems a pretty good match all-around. Let's take a closer look.

Here are Zito's last four seasons, with strikeouts and everything presented as a proportion of batters faced. The final column is "earned salary", which is something I came up with ... basically, you figure the pitcher's Earned Runs Prevented Above Replacement (replacement level is set as BB-Ref's park-adjusted league-average ERA plus 0.60), divide by ten to approximate Wins Above Replacement (as roughly ten additional runs garners you an additional win), and multiply by 2.5 million (the high end of what an additional win is worth in dollars).
Year  BFP  K/BFP  BB/BFP  HR/BFP  H/BFP  ERA+  Sal(Act) Sal(Ear)
2002 939 .194 .083 .026 .194 169 $ 0.30M $15.93M
2003 957 .153 .092 .020 .194 129 $ 1.00M $10.04M
2004 926 .176 .087 .030 .233 105 $ 3.00M $ 6.97M
2005 953 .179 .093 .027 .194 116 $ 5.60M $ 7.80M
(By the way, for those that wonder why I show K/BFP instead of K per 9 Innings ... if you allow a lot of baserunners, you will face more batters, and thus have a chance to inflate your K/IP. For instance, in 2004 Zito struck out 6.89 batters per nine innings, and in 2005 he struck out 6.74, a slight decrease. But what really happened was that his higher hits allowed just meant he was facing more guys in 2004; when you look at everything as a percentage of batters faced, that's negated, and we see that his strikeout rate actually increased slightly in 2005).

As you can see, Zito's had kind of a strange run. In 2002, he was marvelous, and won the Cy Young Award. But 2003 saw a huge drop in his strikeouts and a large increase in walks; he was able to keep this in check by cutting down his home runs allowed.

But 2004 came around to bite him, as the home runs and hits allowed shot up, negating his improvements in strikeouts and walks, both of which settled between the extremes of 2002 and 2003.

Zito was a bit more on track in 2005, with the strikeouts and walks essentially holding constant, and his home runs allowed stabilizing between his prior seasons. Aside from 2002, which looks more and more like a peak season, Zito has actually been a pretty consistent -- and very good -- pitcher.

Of course, he's going to cost a lot. He's been a great bargain for the A's so far, as he's been early in his career and pre-free agency. He's been "worth," using my quick-and-dirty method, roughly $10M per season over the last four years, and you can bet that if he gets on the market, he'll command more than that, possibly a contract worht $12M-$14M per over four or five years -- assuming he stays healthy and productive in 2006, of course.

That's going to be a pretty big investment for any team; what the Angels have going for them is that they are scheduled to be playing (and paying) a lot of rookies at the league minimum in 2007, freeing up some salary. However, that won't necessarily mean that paying Zito that kind of money will be the best use of it; the gap between Zito's and Escobar's salary, for instance, may be much greater than the actual gap in their performance. Saving $5M or something on Escobar and taking the "loss" of a win or two might free up money to pursue a real center fielder or something like that, which could play even larger dividends for the team.

Obviously, this speculation is a bit silly one year out, and any number of things can happen between now and November. Zito could blow his arm out and Escobar could win the Cy Young, or Oakland might re-sign Zito to a large extension in July. But it's something to have on the radar in 2006, as the performance of our primary division rival might affect our starting rotation in 2007.

If I remember correctly, some people were saying that Zito started tipping his pitches in 03 or 04 (whichever of those years that he had a particularly bad run in). This had the effect of ruining his 12-to-6 curveball's effectiveness. And whether that is true or not, it seems that people have started figuring out that curveball (in the same way that people have figured out to lay off of Frankie's slider).

Also, not that you said it wasn't (although it seemed as if you were trying to imply it wasn't very useful), but K/IP is still a very useful stat as it tells you perecentage of outs in the form of a strikeout.
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