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Barry Zito, a new man?

The other day, I heard somebody on ESPN say that the A's second-half success this year has been due to Barry Zito's resurgence.

That looks better, doesn't it? Some improvement in ERA and a huge improvement in his won-loss record. But that only tells, well, not even half the story -- Zito has also faced much easier competition in the second half than in the first.

In the first half, Barry faced Anaheim three times, and Texas and New York twice, plus Boston, San Francisco, St. Louis and the Cubs. In the second half, he has seen Texas once and the Yankees once. It certainly looks bad, but as we know, ERA is heavily influenced by the quality of the defense behind a pitcher. So what about Zito's defense-independent pitching stats, home runs, walks and strikeouts?

In his second half starts against Texas and New York, he was better than he had been in the first half of the year, but that's only two starts, not a significant sample size. He still has to face Boston, Anaheim and Texas at least another six times this season. Against bad teams, he was basically the same.

It's clear: Barry Zito's second half record is better than his first half record because the A's scored more runs. Partly it's because they faced teams with weaker pitching, but it's mainly because the offense has just been a lot better when he's on the mound. Period. In reality, Barry hasn't changed one bit.

What about Eric Chavez, a new man?

We've all heard the stories about "nutty" Barry Zito. He's into yoga and astrology. He's in a band. He maintains an apartment in the Marina, affectionately known to the other A's as the "stabbin' cabin". But what about Eric Chavez?

Well, apparently he used to be quite a bit like Zito, and enjoyed partying with Jason Giambi and the mulleted Canadian, Matt Stairs. His first marriage ended quickly. But now a more mature Chavez has become more serious and more religious, though he's quick to point out that he's not involved in any specific religion. And though it's only been 144 at-bats, he can finally hit lefties this year.

Is this a fluke? As the slugger Pedro Cerrano famously noted: "Jesus Christ can't help you hit a curveball." But if Chavez has matured as a person, he can certainly mature as a player. Never underestimate the value of getting a good night's sleep. Mickey Mantle may have hit all those home runs while he was hung over, but that doesn't mean he couldn't have hit even more if he went to bed early like Roger Maris. (Billy Crystal has changed my understanding of baseball forever.)

At any rate, if this is not a fluke, if Chavez really has figured out how to hit lefties, then he can be the best third baseman in the majors over the next few years. A-Rod will move back to short, Scott Rolen will age, and Adrian Beltre will never take a pitch, while Chavez is just entering his prime. Billy Beane was well-justified in signing him to a six-year contract.

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