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Barry Zito and the zen of pitching in TBIA

The Rangers have targeted Barry Zito as The Guy they want heading up their rotation the next several years.

Which has caused a certain amount of consternation amongst many learned observers (and me, for that matter), because of Zito's reputation as a flyball pitcher, and the fact that TBIA is TBIA, the place where flyball pitchers go to die.

It got me thinking...why Zito? Why have Daniels, Levine et al made him The Guy? And more specifically, is there something more particular about Zito that makes Ranger management less concerned about his flyball tendencies than the baseball media at large (and yours truly) is?

While contemplating this, I stumbled upon this neat little applet available for download. It is a program that allows you to break out, by pitcher or hitter, for each year from 2003 through 2006, the direction of every ball put into play, and whether it was a fly ball, pop up, ground ball, or line drive.

With this program, I was able to gather some data about hitters/pitchers at large, and Zito (and some other pitchers of interest) in particular.

Looking at types of hits, for hitters as a whole from 2003 thru 2006, we have this breakdown:

Lefty hitters Righty hitters
Ground balls 45.1% 44.1%
Fly balls 28.4% 28.5%
Popups 7.3% 8.6%
Line drives 19.1% 18.9%

Okay, that gives us some baselines to work with, and also lets us note that you don't have a huge split in types of balls put in play by lefties versus righties.

Now, let's compare that baseline to balls put in play against Zito in 2006:

Zito 2006 Lefty hitters Righty hitters
Ground balls 41.7% 38.2%
Fly balls 32.2% 29.5%
Popups 10.4% 15.1%
Line drives 15.7% 17.3%

In the interest of completeness, let's look at 2005 for Zito, as well:

Zito 2005 Lefty hitters Righty hitters
Ground balls 48.4% 39.0%
Fly balls 29.7% 25.5%
Popups 3.2% 16.1%
Line drives 18.7% 19.4%

So what can we glean from this data? First, that it is true that hitters -- particularly righthanded hitters -- have fewer ground balls against Zito than against the average pitcher.

However, it is also true that righthanded hitters don't have demonstrably more fly balls against Zito than against the average pitcher, either...they had 1% more in 2006, but 3% fewer in 2005.

Why is this? Because Zito is getting almost twice as many pop ups from righthanded hitters than the general pitching population is. So while Zito is inducing fewer ground balls than the average pitcher, he also isn't giving up a ton of fly balls...instead, he's just getting more popouts.

Now, part of that could be referable to the fact that he's playing half his games in the rather cavernous Oakland Colisseum (or whatever they are calling it now -- Network Associates, maybe?). Lots of foul ground, and thus lots of pop ups that otherwise would go into foul territory are instead caught.

But at the same time, Zito posted a 2.97 ERA on the road last season, versus 4.71 at home. For his career, he has a 3.44 ERA on the road, versus a 3.66 ERA at home. So if the home foul territory is helping him, it doesn't appear to be having a huge impact on his performance.

Now, you may be saying, "Not giving up flies to the righties is all well and good, but look at his high percentage of fly balls allowed against lefthanders! That's going to hurt, particularly since the ball carries so well to right field at TBIA."

In response, it is worth pointing out that you are going to have a lot of variability in the lefty performance against Zito, since so few lefty hitters actually hit against Zito. In 2006, for example, there were 32 fly balls hit by lefties against Zito, total. And of those 32 fly balls, only 4 went to right even on the rare occasions when a lefty faces Zito, if he gets the ball in the air, he isn't pulling it, making the jet stream a lot less of an issue for Zito.

But while lefties hit fly balls the other way against Zito, righthanders appear to pull just about everything against 2006, righthanders hit 75.7% of ground balls to the left side, 33.8% of fly balls, and 50% of line drives, versus 16.7% of grounders, 24.8% of flies, and 16.7% of line drives to right. In 2005, it was similar, with righties having a 63.3/22.6% left/right split on grounders, 36.6/28.6% split on flies, and 53.2/22.3% split on line drives. (And yes, none of those numbers add up to 100%...the remaining percentage are balls to the center of the field).

So with Zito, we have a pitcher who appears uniquely well suited to avoid the biggest pitfall of pitching in TBIA...the jet stream to right field that victimizes so many pitchers. He faces few lefties, and he doesn't give up a bunch of opposite-field flies to righthanders...something that helps explain why he's only allowed 13 homers in 96 career innings at TBIA.

And he isn't an extreme groundball pitcher, which means that the weak Ranger infield defense shouldn't hurt him too much.

How does this compare with, say, Jason Schmidt, the other high-profile, big-dollar free agent pitcher some folks wanted the Rangers to pursue? Check out the charts for him, below:

Schmidt 2006 Lefty hitters Righty hitters
Ground balls 41.8% 33.3%
Fly balls 32.3% 40.8%
Popups 4.8% 10.9%
Line drives 21.1% 15.0%
Schmidt 2005 Lefty hitters Righty hitters
Ground balls 39.6% 38.1%
Fly balls 30.0% 37.2%
Popups 6.6% 12.6%
Line drives 23.8% 12.1%

Schmidt allows more fly balls to righthanded hitters, and looking at the data, has righties going the opposite way much more often (not surprising, given how hard Schmidt throws).

This isn't to suggest that signing Zito is without risk. I've got some concerns about his walk rate. I've got some concern about his strikeout rate. And with any pitcher, going more than three years is playing with fire.

But Barry Zito has made 208 starts the last 6 seasons. He has never had any health problems. He's been good for 220 or so innings per year, year in and year out, since he arrived in the major leagues. And he's still just 28 years old.

Looking at this, I think Rangers management sees, in Zito, a younger, better version of the guy considered to be The Perfect TBIA Pitcher...the Gambler, Kenny Rogers. In 2005, 27.5% of balls in play against Rogers by righties were flies, and in 2004, the number was 28.2%...numbers that correspond neatly to Zito. Like Rogers, Zito walks more guys than you'd like, doesn't strike out as many as you'd like, but has shown a knack for knowing how to manage his performance, and when and how to pitch to contact.

I'm still not completely sold on Zito. And I'm still not completely sold on the notion that Zito wants to come to Texas, that he isn't just using the Rangers as a mechanism to juice a few more million out of the Mets.

But I am more confident that Zito would be a quality pitcher for the Rangers, and am thinking that the concerns about whether he can pitch in TBIA may not be warranted. I'd rather spend the money we are talking about on someone like Brandon Webb, but as far as starting pitchers who have hit the market in recent years goes, Zito looks like a pretty good fit.