Thursday, March 22, 2012

The back 2/5ths of the rotation and the Zito question: The case for giving the veteran 38 year old Guillermo Mota a chance to compete for a starting role

With Ryan Vogelsong unlikely to begin the season in the rotation following a fairly serious offseason weightlifting injury, and the trade of Jonathon Sanchez for Melky Cabrera, the Giants currently have a need for two starters to follow the triumvirate of Bumgarner, Cain and Lincecum in the most heralded rotation in baseball west of Philly.

This is not an article about Zito, his strengths and weaknesses, or anything else anyone can say about the guy. This is about objectively analyzing the best starting pitcher available currently to fill the 5th spot (lets assume that Vogelsong returns soon and is effective).

In this post we will completely ignore respective players salaries, contract statuses, and history of big league achievement. A very simple concept that seems lost on many big league front offices, Sabean’s included, is that of sunk costs. Sunk costs are simply costs that cannot be removed and are thus irrelevant. What Zito is making is irrelevant. So is the fact that he won the 2002 Cy Young (which Pedro deserved but that’s not the point).

You are probably thinking, moving a 38-year-old reliever who in 717 career big league appearances has never once started a game into the rotation to replace a Cy Young Award winner making $20.00 million a year is absolute horseshit.

However, looking beyond this superficial argument reveals good reason to at least give Mota a chance to compete for the starting role:

On April 16th, 2011 Mota was called on to relive the injured Zito. He pitched the following line

W,4.1 innings pitched, 53 pitches, 33 strikes, 4Ks, 0BB’s, 3 hits, 1 earned run.

On  June 21st in relief of Madison Bumgarner, Mota pitched the following line in a no decision:

4.2 innings pitched, 61 pitches, 38 strikes, 3K’s, 0BB’s, 3 hits and no earned runs.

These two long relief stints were made without the conditioning that a starter is able to do between starts knowing that he won’t be summoned from the bullpen before his 5th day turn in the rotation.

What strikes me as impressive in Mota's performance is his high strikeout to walk ratio 7:0, and his pitch count efficiency; he was able to throw 9 innings on just 114 pitches.  Yes the sample is small, but it accentuates the following points that demonstrate Mota can be more than a middle reliever:

1.     He has 3 quality pitches, a fastball that averaged 92.8 mph last year, a slider that gets lots of swings and misses against righties and a solid changeup to keep lefties off balance.

2.     Because he has these three pitches Mota can face the same batter multiple times per game without seeking severely diminished returns as the batter adjusts. Sergio Romo could not be a starter. His slider is deceptive, but could not be thrown to the same hitters 3-4 times per game. Additionally, Mota in the past has thrown a splitter and a curveball, two pitches that he could work in more as a starter to keep hitters off balance the second or third time through the lineup.

3.     Mota is effective against both lefties and righties because of his arsenal of pitches. Lefties hit .234 off Mota in 90AB’s while righties hit .243 in 200AB’s in 2010. This was not simply an aberration of 2011, in his career Mota has allowed hits to righties at a .241 clip and lefties at a .231 clip. While OPS tells a slightly different story, it is clear that Mota is not a bullpen arm like Ramon Ramirez or Romo who is really only effective against righties and would likely draw lineups of 7-8 left handed batters as a starter. His arsenal of pitches including the changeup makes him less susceptible to platoon spits. 

4.     He has a rubber arm and could handle the transition to pitching in the rotation. Mota threw 80.1 innings in 2011 compared with Zito’s 53. At his advanced age, the Giants are really not concerned if Mota’s arm were to blow out after a season or two in the rotation. However, based on his career durability (he once threw 105 innings out of the bullpen in one season and has never needed Tommy John), I would place my money on Mota being able to make 30 starts in 2012 if given the opportunity.

While Mota is certainly not the next coming of Doc Halladay, there is a good chance that he would be significantly more effective than Barry Zito, who at best given reports about his current velocity in the low 80’s could be Jaime Moyer of 10 years ago, and more likely worse given his lack of command and uncanny feel for his low 80’s fastball that Moyer once possessed. Additionally, who is to say that Moyer always belonged in a major league starting rotation? The guy threw a lot of very mediocre innings, and played the game a long time, which is to be respected, but he was never a guy I would want taking the ball for my team every fifth day.

All told Mota in 2011 produced a K/BB ratio of 8.6/3.4=2.57 compared to Zito’s 5.4/4=1.33. Mota posted a 3.81 ERA compared to Zito’s 5.76 mark. Zito simply does not have the stuff anymore to get big league hitters out consistently.

The point is that even if Mota could just be an average big league starter, he would still be significantly better than Barry Zito.

These is an instance where the front office could be creative, stretch Mota out and give him a chance to compete for the job especially because the team will most likely need a spot starter while Vogey recovers. Let Surkamp season in AAA where he belongs (you don’t last long in the big leagues when you are walking more than you strike out as Surkamp did in 2011) and let the Mota experiment begin, after all what’s the worst that could happen?  My money is on him helping the Giants win more ballgames than Zito could, which is the point right? Or wait is it to make veteran players on bloated contracts happy?


A blueprint for the reliever to starter transition was developed by the Texas Rangers and Nolan Ryan

CJ Wilson went from the bullpen to an All-Star starter, Alexi Ogando made the transition effectively as well. It can be done.

While I don't believe in making conclusions on a player ERA after just 26 innings in the big leagues, what is revealing about Surkamp was that he walked 17 compared with 13K's and got swing and misses on just 4.9% of his pitches compared to Zito who got 6.2% (for reference Zito's career average is 8.3% and Tim Lincecum's is 11%). Surkamp posted a 1.83 WHIP and a 5.86 xFIP alongside his 5.76 ERA.

While any starter can have a few good starts in a row, combining starting pitching like Surkamp and Zito with the Giants offensive is not the recipe for good baseball.


  1. i doubt the giants are amart enough to do this.

  2. I agree. Its the kind of thinking this organization needs more of though.

  3. Giants are still too concerned with Zito's salary and feel they have to use him. Once he gets knocked around for a few innings, he'll be out. Mota was needed and he gave the bullpen a break when he was in there. I agree that he could have stretched Mota out to be a starter because anyone is a better choice than Zito but I don't see him being a started in the long run because of his age. I think Surkamp will come through in the end and we'll be better off in the long run.
    In any case, good post. I like to keep in touch with Giant fans since I'm a big fan of the Giants. I'm on Twitter RickHolman. E-mail.

  4. You know I read this article a few days ago and thought it was stupid but after hearing today's game on the radio I am warming up to the idea