SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Barry Zito made a slight change to his delivery this winter he hopes will help him rebound from an injury-plagued season.
During the offseason, he worked on bending his front leg to get lower to the ground and speed up the momentum the ball gains traveling to the plate. The San Francisco left-hander is headed into the sixth season of a $126 million, seven-year contract as the Giants’ projected fifth starter and is out to prove himself once again.
Zito revealed his new crouching style during a spring training throwing session Sunday.
“It’s pretty subtle from a feel standpoint. As far as when it manifests in momentum, that’s when it’s a little more noticeable,” Zito said. “It was something I was doing a little bit last year that you guys were aware of, just getting a little bit more momentum down the mound. That was something that I worked on all offseason.”
Zito’s plan is fairly simple: get back to keeping hitters guessing by disguising what he’s throwing. While he wouldn’t acknowledge whether he thought his pitches might have become too easy to pick up, he noted, “I think there’s always room for improvement.”
Zito’s nasty curveball often comes from him first establishing a reliable fastball.
That’s where he hopes the latest change might make a difference. He’s not promising a spike on the radar gun just yet.
“… You get down the mound faster,” Zito said. “And when you have more momentum that you’re transferring it might equivocate to more arm speed. I’m just trying to get late movement. If velocity comes, great. They talk about the tunnel, when all of your pitches look like they’re coming out of the same tunnel. That’s ideal.”
Zito’s extended time on the DL last year allowed Ryan Vogelsong to emerge as one of the most reliable pitchers in the rotation. He became a surprise All-Star. Now, Vogelsong is nursing a strained back for at least a week and possibly up to two.
The Giants asked Zito to arrive stronger and in better shape, and he obliged. As the No. 5 starter, the pressure should be off: eat up innings and get deep enough into the game until it’s time for the bullpen to take over.
“He looks good,” manager Bruce Bochy said. “He’s coming in with a renewed freshness. He’s excited to get going.”
Zito spent two stints on the disabled list last season both because of a strained right foot, the second time starting Aug. 1, a day after he lost his third straight decision in a 9-0 defeat at Cincinnati. His velocity had regularly been clocked at 82 mph, a sign to the Giants he still wasn’t right.
When Zito missed time earlier in the 2011 season because of the foot that he hurt attempting to field a bunt, it was the 2002 AL Cy Young Award winner’s first career stint on the DL. He won his first three outings after coming off the disabled list the first time, but then struggled again.
He wound up 3-4 with a 5.87 ERA in 13 games and nine starts, pitching only 53 2/3 innings.
The 33-year-old, who received his big-money deal before the 2007 season to come across the bay from Oakland, is ready to start fresh this spring after two rough years.
He was left off the postseason roster for all three rounds in 2010, when the Giants captured their first World Series title since moving West in 1958.
He went 9-14 in 2010 and lost to the Padres on the second-to-last day of the year when San Francisco had a chance to clinch the division. The Giants wound up doing it in their final game, then made their improbable postseason run to capture the franchise’s first championship since moving West in 1958.
Zito could only watch.
He has faced the criticism with class — knowing full well he has greatly underachieved since joining the Giants. He hasn’t backed down from any challenge.
“It’s important to keep coming back out there, keep improving and keep working on things,” Zito said. “Looking back is good to learn but you’ve got to look forward.”
In 2010, he failed to reach 10 wins for the first time since his rookie season in 2000. His 4.15 ERA was the fourth-highest of his career. He went 1-8 with a 6.72 ERA over his last 11 outings and 10 starts and only had one victory in his last 15 appearances. The stretch included a career-worst nine-game losing streak from July 21 to Sept. 14.
Zito would rather not revisit the ups and downs of the past two years, or his entire tenure in San Francisco for that matter.
“I think I’ve made progress. Just keep working and move forward, don’t look back,” he said. “As long as we go out and have fun things end up pretty good. It’s just about keeping it fun and light.”
Zito understands the Giants are preparing highly touted lefty Eric Surkamp as a starter this spring and that the young prospect will be eager to prove he belongs in the big leagues. Surkamp was promoted from Double-A Richmond in late August last year to make a much-hyped debut.
And Zito still has that huge contract hanging over him at all times — as much as he tries to push it out of his mind. San Francisco released outfielder Aaron Rowand last Aug. 31 in a surprise move considering he was the club’s second-highest paid player behind Zito. At the time, general manager Brian Sabean said he wasn’t sure if Zito would even be in the plans for this season.
Zito, who got married in December, keeps going about his business. So, just how does Zito go about staying loose when the pressure is mounting?
“It’s an individual approach that I have. It’s more of something I just keep it balled up, keep the energy there,” Zito said. “It’s a magic formula.”
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press
Giants’ Zito alters delivery to gain momentum
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