Barry Zito, Aaron Rowand, Tim Lincecum; Bernard King, Andrew Bogut; Reggie McKenzie, Rolando McClain, Hue Jackson; Anthony Davis
AFTER FIVE poor-to-mediocre seasons, Barry Zito has turned his career around, and Giants fans seem to be willing to overlook his previous efforts in a Giants uniform.
Why this change in Zito? Some think it’s because he got married in December, 2011, and they’re probably right, though perhaps not for the reason they think. I believe his wife got Zito to face reality: If he’d continued to pitch the way he had with the Giants, he might have been released before the end of the season, just as the Giants did with Aaron Rowand when he had more than a year left at $12 million. Zito would have been paid for this year but his baseball career would be over. When a team is willing to eat a big contract, that’s a red light to other teams. Rowand’s only offer was a minor league contract with the Miami Marlins – and they released him in March last year.
As it is, Zito will not only pitch out this year but, if he pitches 200 innings, will qualify for another year at $18 million. I’m sure his wife was aware of that.
Zito is a good person without question; his charitable acts prove that. But he doesn’t have the focus that top baseball players have to have. I think at heart he’s more of an artistic personality. His parents were both musicians and he’s written at least one song. There’s a big difference between a musician/singer and an athlete. The musician is reacting to what he wants to do and how the audience is reacting. The athlete always has to focus on his competition – hitters for a pitcher – and blank out everything else. Zito, by contrast, has often seemed to be moving in his own private world, as a musician might.
His personal behavior has also been somewhat erratic. He was drafted out of high school but chose instead to enroll at USC. Under baseball’s rules, he would not have been eligible for the draft again until after his junior year but he transferred to a junior college after his freshman year, so he was drafted a year later by the A’s. He was an early success with the A’s, winning 17 games in his first full season then following that with a 23-5 year that won him the Cy Young Award in 2002, though he never got a mention in the “Moneyball” movie.
After that, Zito drifted through the rest of his A’s career. He was only nine games over .500 in his next (and last) five seasons with the A’s, and his ERA went as high as 4.48 one season.
His last two games, in the 2006 postseason, were an accurate assessment of his A’s career. In the Division series, he pitched brilliantly against the Minnesota Twins, yielding just one run in eight innings as the A’s won. His next appearance, a game I saw at the Coliseum, started at dusk and the hitters couldn’t see the ball for three innings. After that, it was bombs away for the Tigers and Zito was out with two outs in the fourth inning, having surrendered five runs on seven hits.
Despite that, the Giants gave him the richest contract for a free agent pitcher in history, about half again the only other offer, by the Mets. Yikes! I wrote at the time that it was a terrible decision by the Giants, and Zito proved me right for the next five years. Time and again he’d tell writers in the dressing room that he didn’t know what had happened, that he thought he had good stuff, etc. , etc., etc.
What he didn’t have was concentration. It wasn’t difficult to see what Zito needed to do to win: He had to throw strikes early in the count, so he didn’t have to throw a fat pitch or walk a hitter. But, time after time, he’d nibble, nibble, nibble, which meant he’d walk batters and then have to come in with fat pitches.
Now, finally, he has some focus and is pitching well. Still not up to that contract he signed, but that’s not his fault. The Giants did a very poor job of scouting him with the A’s, I guess because they had to go so far to see him.
IRONICALLY, THE pitcher who twice won Cy Young awards, Tim Lincecum, is now pitching as Zito did in his first five years with the Giants. Apparently, cutting his hair wasn’t the answer. The Giants have won in both of Lincecum’s starts but it’s been in spite of him, not because of him. He gave up six runs last night but the Giants, in a rare offensive display, scored nine themselves to beat the Rockies.
One of Lincecum’s problems is physical: He’s lost some zip on his fast ball. There have been many lefthanders who have won despite mediocre fast balls – remember Kirk Reuter? – but that’s seldom true of righthanders. Greg Maddox is an obvious exception but Maddox never threw anything that didn’t have movement, so hitters who thought they were zeroing in on his pitches never were.
Baseball people will tell you that lefthanded pitchers never throw the ball straight, either, but I think their primary advantage is that hitters see few lefthanded pitchers until they reach the majors. Billy Beane once pointed out the number of righthanded hitters who had trouble with lefthanded pitchers, and I think that’s the reason. It’s rare to see a lefthanded pitcher in high school, and there are still relatively few in the minor leagues.
Lincecum has a variety of pitches, but it’s been his fast ball that has set up those other pitches. That’s especially true of his changeup, which is much less effective now that there is much less difference between that and his fast ball.
When he pitched out of the bullpen in the postseason last year, Lincecum was very effective, and I think that will eventually be where he’ll wind up. I also think it will be for another team. The Giants have committed considerable money to long-term contracts for Buster Posey and Matt Cain, and even to Angel Pagan for four years. They can’t afford to make the same kind of commitment to Lincecum with is uncertain future. And, they’re probably quite happy he didn’t agree to one when they offered it earlier.
BERNARD KING, who was elected to the basketball Hall of Fame last week, had a short period with the Warriors but it was memorable.
King was a dynamic player, with moves around the basket designed to get him an open shot, but what I’ve always remember about him was the way he could get the ball at midcourt and just explode to the basket on a one-on-one fast break. Dribbling, he could move faster than his defenders. Before and since, I’ve never seen a player who could do that.
The Warriors traded him after two years for Michael Ray Richardson, one of the moves that the Warriors used to make which kept them from duplicating the one NBA title they’ve won, in 1975.
I don’t expect this year’s team to win a championship either, but at least they’re making the right moves. I was skeptical of the Andrew Bogut trade when it was made because of his injury history and, of course, he has missed several games this season. But when he’s in the lineup, he gives the Warriors a defensive presence they haven’t had for years, blocking shots and forcing awkward trajectories on shots he can’t quite reach.
And, I don’t miss Monta Ellis and his me-first attitude a bit.
This Warriors team has been an exciting one to watch because they’re working together – most of the time, anyway – and forging their own identity. And, they’ve made the playoffs for only the second time in 19 seasons. It’s also a good sign that they seem to be a team which can improve while the Lakers, long the dominant team in the west – and sometimes, the entire NBA – have been a dysfunctional bunch all season, with a coach who has the wrong system and star players who are too old or too temperamental to play together. Kobe Bryant has played heroically to keep them in contention but if they make the playoffs, which is still in doubt, they’ll soon be out.
None of those in the media who follow the NBA closely expect the Warriors to get beyond the first round of the playoffs. They’re probably right, but they’re building a foundation for future success, unlike the Don Nelson teams which could be fun to watch but were always limited.
THE CAL WOMEN didn’t quite reach their ultimate goal, winning the NCAA championship, but they justified President Obama’s prediction by making the Final Four, and that accomplishment solidifies the program. Now, the Bay Area has two of the top women’s programs in the country – because they have two of the top coaches, Tara VanDerveer at Stanford and Lindsay Gottlieb at Cal. Interestingly enough, Cal had no All-American players but then, neither did Louisville, which won the tournament. The media obviously doesn’t look beyond the schools that have traditionally been the powers in the women’s game. The draft picks by WNBA teams will probably give a much better indication of who the best players are.
OOPS! The Raiders newly-acquired quarterback, Matt Flynn, was a seventh round draft pick of the Green Bay Packers, not a first-rounder as I wrote last week. He still looks like a solid quarterback, though, and one young enough to be able to play for several years yet, which Carson Palmer clearly could not have. He should be healthy, too, because he’s hardly played, so he hasn’t been hit often.
General manager Reggie McKenzie has been busy this offseason, getting rid of the dead wood, most of whom had absurdly high salaries. Rolando McClain was the latest to go. Frankly, I thought McClain was a good pick at the time because he’d played well in college but he was exposed in the NFL because he didn’t have the ability to move quickly, side to side or back and forward that a pro linebacker needs. He was also an example of the late Al Davis’s consistent failure to examine character flaws in his high draft picks. If he had, surely McClain and quarterback JaMarcus Russell would never have been drafted. Of course, Hue Jackson made the McClain situation worse when he refused to sit him for at least a game when McClain was charged with firing a gun beside the head of a “friend.” (The charge was eventually dropped because the man involved didn’t want to pursue it any longer.) McClain played in that game in Miami, the Raiders were thoroughly trounced and began a slide that took them out of the playoffs. After the last game, Jackson publicly blamed his players. Yet, one Oakland columnist still maintains he shouldn’t have been fired. Are you kidding me?
Meanwhile, McKenzie has been very busy in the offseason, not only getting rid of the overpaid, underproducing players who were cluttering up the roster but filling their spots with players who seem to be solid players, though without great reputations.
The question of what he will do on draft day is still open because the Raiders have the No. 3 pick in the first round and then none in the second and fifth rounds. I think the Raiders would be better served by trading that pick to get 2-3 picks, perhaps one later in the first round and others in rounds 2-3, but that kind of trade depends on a willing partner. If he can’t do that, I’d expect the Raiders to draft for defensive help, probably a lineman. Most of McKenzie’s moves so far have been to pick up defensive help because he knows that, if your defense is strong, you’re always in the game. When you have a defense giving up 30-plus points a game, the quarterback has to take too many chances to put points on the board – and he gets blamed by fans for throwing interceptions. I learned that lesson with John Brodie and the 49ers in the ‘60s – and that’s exactly what happened to Palmer last year.
NEXT WEEK: My column may be late appearing because the 49ers have tentatively scheduled a pre-draft meeting with general manager Trent Baalke that day. I’ll go to that, though I know Baalke won’t give away any 49ers secrets, because I always learn something from those meetings.
In general, I’ve liked the moves Baalke has made so far, including signing offensive tackle Anthony Davis to a long-term contract. Right after the draft in which Davis was selected, Baalke had a media session in which he showed videos of the drafted players. They were the best shots of the players, of course, but the ones of Davis showed his athleticism, which was very important. He was the youngest starter in the league that year and he made many mistakes, which earned him criticism, but knowing his youth and his potential, I always felt he would become a star.
Baalke and his predecessor, Scot McCloughan, have used high draft picks to get offensive linemen because, as McCloughan explained in one media session, proven offensive linemen are almost priced out of the market. The McCloughan/Baalke picks have transformed the 49ers line into one considered the best in the NFL, certainly the basis for their offensive success.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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