Late Friday night, after the Giants failed to beat the Padres and clinch a spot in the championship tournament, someone asked me (and others) via Twitter this fundamental question:
If Barry Zito wins tomorrow, does that justify his contract?
I actually answered the question in my last blog entry, but just cursorily. So please allow me to expand my answer a little ...
You want more. I don't blame you. Especially if you're a Giants fan, because this is the biggest game the Giants have played since Zito joined the club, and it's tempting to consider what happens today infinitely more important than everything that's happened before.
So let's consider just one tiny element of what's come before.
Before today, the Giants won 91 games. That's a fantastic season for most teams, and particularly for a team that was considered -- as this team was -- a good bet for third or fourth place in most quarters.
Still, if they'd won 92 games before today, they already would have popped the champagne, the regulars would be resting, and Bruce Bochy would be obsessing over his Division Series lineups rather than mucking about with these pesky Padres.
One more win.
Which really, really kills the case for Barry Zito.
The math on this thing isn't difficult.
Leaving aside his losing record (9-13), he's been better than a replacement player -- that is, some guy from Triple-A without a bright future -- and almost exactly average, relative to other National League pitchers.
There is a great deal of value in being better than a Triple-A guy, and there's a great deal of value in being average. If we give Zito credit for winning today (stick with me on this) and maybe a few bonus points for wearing those nifty high socks, we can push his value to the Giants to almost $10 million.
That's a lot. Teams lose pennants almost every season because they don't have one more pitcher worth $10 million.
The problem, of course, is that Zito doesn't make $10 million. He makes $18.5 million.
Of course, Zito's contract is a sunk cost; the money's gone, so there's no reason for the Giants to worry about it.
We can worry about it, though. We can consider the opportunity cost: the opportunities left foregone because that $18.5 million was already spent. Essentially, if the Giants had spent that $18.5 million on another player (or players) they would have been either really foolish or really unlucky to have gotten a worse return on their investment -- fewer wins -- than they've actually gotten.
It's impossible for Zito to justify this season's salary, but he can make up some of that (roughly) $10 million discrepancy by winning today and pitching brilliantly in the postseason. We have no reason to think he will pitch brilliantly in the postseason, and in fact it's not even clear that he should pitch in the postseason, given that he's probably the Giants fourth- or even fifth-best starting pitcher. But as a for-instance.
He really can't do anything about his contract, though. It's three years too late for that.