When the movie "Moneyball" came out -- based on Michael Lewis' best-selling book of the same name -- one of the chief criticisms from baseball fans was that the movie downplayed the efforts of the Oakland Athletics' big three starting pitchers: Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder. Hey, it was a movie, and while the book and movie were about a small-market club and its stat-friendly general manager exploiting market weaknesses to outsmart the big spenders, it's fair to say both sort of glanced over the contributions of those three.
From 1999 to 2004, Hudson went 92-39 with a 3.30 ERA, finishing second in the 2000 Cy Young vote, and fourth and sixth two other seasons. From 2000 to 2004, Mulder went 81-42 with a 3.92 ERA, finishing second in the 2001 Cy Young vote, making two All-Star teams and averaging 18 wins per seasons from 2001 to 2004. Zito, who announced his retirement Monday, lasted the longest. While Billy Beane traded Hudson and Mulder, he kept Zito through 2006. As with Mulder, Zito debuted in 2000; he would go 102-63 with a 3.55 ERA for the A's and won the Cy Young Award in 2002, when he went 23-5 with a 2.75 ERA.
Maybe some of those numbers don't blow you away in this year of Kershaw, Greinke and Arrieta, but those seasons came in the heart of the steroids era, when offense was much higher octane than now. Those three were really good. Mulder was your classic, tall left-hander with a good fastball. Hudson was small but threw hard when he first came up.
Zito was a different breed altogether, but just as fun to watch. He couldn't crack 90 with his fastball but had that huge curveball, a pitch out of the 1950s and '60s that you rarely see anymore. He was fearless, changed speeds and knew how to pitch. Still, as we now watch guys such as Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Matt Harvey blow hitters away with fastballs in the upper 90s, it's easy to forget that just a decade ago one of the best pitchers in the league was surviving on a fastball that averaged 87 mph.
Of course, the legacy of those A's teams were four consecutive Game 5 defeats in the American League Division Series. The 2001 loss was controversial as Zito didn't start until Game 3; he pitched well but that was in the 1-0 loss in the Jeter Flip Game. Zito started Game 5 in 2003 against the Red Sox and led 1-0 in the top of the sixth when he gave up home runs to Jason Varitek and Manny Ramirez as the Red Sox scored four runs on their way to a 4-3 victory.
Zito never came close to matching those 2002 numbers again. He still was around when the remnants of those A's teams made the playoffs again in 2006 and even won a division series before the Tigers swept them in the ALCS.
Zito then signed with the San Francisco Giants for seven years and $126 million, and he'd spend most of his Giants career ending up on "worst contracts in the game" lists. He was left off the 2010 postseason roster as the Giants won the World Series. But he had two finals moments of glory in the 2012 playoffs, games that will erase the rest of his Giants' tenure in the memories of most Giants fans.
In Game 5 of the NLCS against the Cardinals, with San Francisco down three games to one, he tossed 7⅔ scoreless innings in a 5-0 victory. The Giants won the next two as well. Zito then matched up against Tigers ace Justin Verlander in Game 1 of the World Series. Zito's fastball averaged 84.2 mph that sunny day in San Francisco; Verlander's averaged 94.2 and hit 101. Zito allowed one run in 5⅔ innings and won the game. The Giants would sweep the Tigers.
I remember the postgame interviews after the Giants won. Most of the Giants star players -- Buster Posey, Matt Cain and so on -- were hiding out in a trainer's room, celebrating quietly rather than meeting with the media. Left in the Giants clubhouse were the Latin players and Zito. You can take that as you will; there's a certain obligation to get the dirty work with the media out of the way. Zito was doing his job, enjoying the title, especially after not participating in the 2010 run. He was a veteran pitcher, maybe realizing this would be his last moment in the spotlight, a guy who delivered in the biggest games after years of criticism.
He deserved that moment. The man could pitch.