You wouldn't blame the San Francisco Giants for cutting Barry Zito, if only so they wouldn't have to be reminded of him during the last month of his massive seven-year contract. But it seems they're keeping him, and you can't blame the Giants for that, either. By all accounts, Zito worked hard for seven years, and maybe it says something for management that, however frustrated they might be with the results of Zito's hard work, they're allowing him to exit the franchise with some grace.
Not to mention his $7 million buyout. But that's another, far less attractive story.
All this serves as a useful reminder of just how unpredictable this game can be. And no, I'm not really talking about Zito's performance over these last (nearly) seven seasons. Someone might have predicted this; in fact, here are three predictions offered shortly after Zito signed his deal with the Giants ...
Rob Neyer, ESPN: "Based on the facts at hand, this looks to me like one of the dumber free-agent signings ever. Zito just isn't very good."
Keith Law, ESPN: "Zito should be billed for all the ink and electrons spilled over him in the last eight weeks, since the sports media seems to have fallen for the spin that he's actually some sort of ace pitcher, when in fact he's just a durable mid-rotation guy with good marketing...That's a guy you want to get into for seven years and a gazillion dollars?"
Murray Chass, New York Times: "The Giants can boast all they want about Zito's durability, his six successive seasons of more than 200 innings and 34 or 35 starts, his history of never having been on the disabled list or even missing a start. It's still a dumb contract."
Hey, even a blind squirrel (that is, me) finds an acorn now and again. I just wanted to point out that I wasn't the only pundit who was less than enthusiastic about this deal. Granted, I don't think anybody figured that Zito would move to a pitcher's park in the National League and post a 4.63 ERA over seven seasons. But it was not at all difficult to figure the Giants would be disappointed by his performance.
Which isn't my point. My point is that while a player's performance is not terribly difficult to predict, the long-term impact of a player's performance is exceptionally difficult to predict. To that end, let us pose a fundamental question:
How many World Series would the Giants have won without Barry Zito?
As you know, they won two in Zito's seven years, which was two more than they'd ever won before. The San Francisco Giants were 0 for 49 without Barry Zito, and 2 for 7 with Barry Zito. I will not argue -- not with any gusto, anyway -- that the Giants won twice because of Barry Zito's contract. But let's go back to that question ...
In 2007 and 2008, Zito didn't pitch well. But the Giants weren't within miles of the playoffs. They wouldn't have been within miles of the playoffs with Roy Halladay, or anyone else they might signed with the money they instead spent on Zito.
In 2009, the Giants finished four games off the wild-card pace ... but this was actually Zito's best season with the Giants. His record (10-13) was nothing special, but his ERA+ was solid and he was roughly two wins above replacement. If they'd spent their Barry Zito money well, they might have made up those four games in the standings ... but probably not, and even grabbing the wild card would have left them with roughly a 1-in-8 chance of actually winning the World Series.
In 2010, the Giants won the World Series. Zito didn't pitch well during the regular season; in fact, he pitched so poorly during the regular season that he wasn't allowed to pitch at all during the postseason. If they'd spent their Barry Zito elsewhere, the Giants probably would have fared even better during the regular season ... but it's impossible to say they would still have won the World Series. Probably. They won 11 postseason games while losing only four; it's unlikely that whoever was getting Zito's money would have played poorly enough that October to keep the Giants from winning.
In 2011, the Giants again finished four games out in the wild-card standings. Zito spent most of the season on the Disabled List, and pitched poorly when he did pitch. His replacements in the rotation were pretty awful, too. There's actually a pretty good chance that the Giants would have won the wild card in '11 if they'd spent Zito's money elsewhere. So this time let's actually give them a 10-percent chance of winning the World Series without the Zito contract.
In 2012, the Giants won another World Series. Zito didn't pitch well during the regular season, but a) he went 15-8, thanks to great run support, and b) the Giants walked away with the division title. During the regular season, he didn't cost them anything. And in the postseason, he got a no-decision in one start, and won his other two (pitching effectively in both). The Giants swept the Tigers in the World Series, but one of Zito's wins came in a National League Championship Series that went the distance. I would argue that the Giants' chances last October are worse without Barry Zito than with him.
In retrospect, of course.
This season, Zito's terrible and the Giants aren't much better. Clayton Kershaw wouldn't make contenders of them.
Add it all up? Again, all of this is easy to say now. But based on what we do know now, Zito's contract hurt the Giants' chances an iota or two in 2009 and '11, helped them win a World Series in 2012, and made essentially no difference in the other four years.
Was it a terribly misguided contract? Yeah, it was. In the wake of two World's Championships, if you're a Giants fan would you like a do-over on that terrible contract? I think maybe you wouldn't.
That's how weird baseball is. And how terribly hazy the future.
For much more about good contracts and bad contracts and World Series rings, please visit SB Nation's McCovey Chronicles.