SAN FRANCISCO -- There are many ways to measure an athlete's popularity, but when it comes to Barry Zito's recent renaissance, here's an easy rule of thumb: They don't give away bobbleheads of players who might be booed.
Zito's bobblehead day is May 26, but a greater, more meaningful honor will come Friday. When Zito takes the mound for the home opener, he likely will receive the loudest ovation of his seven-year Giants career, completing the improbable trip from punching bag to postseason hero.
"It'll be exciting to see," said Tim Lincecum, a fan favorite even during his 2012 struggles. "You've really got to hand it to the guy, especially with what he's been through and knowing what he's come back from. He's earned a lot of respect from the fans and players alike.
"He has always really worked hard to get back to what he wants to be and where he wants to be."
Therein lies the crux of Zito's comeback, on the field and off. Set for life at the age of 28, Zito never stopped working to try to justify the then-record $126 million deal he signed Dec. 29, 2006.
In his first five seasons as a Giant, Zito never had a winning record and twice had an ERA over 5.00. But inside the organization, the respect for Zito increased with every rough stretch. As fans and the media clamored for his removal from the rotation, with many even demanding that the Giants simply cut the left-hander, Zito kept plugging away.
"Barry has been amazing," Giants president and CEO Larry Baer said. "When things were not going well in the early days, sometimes the tendency is to come up with excuses. With Barry, it was: 'I own it. It's me. I need to improve.' And he has."
The improvement was gradual and had plenty of stops and starts as Zito experimented with his mechanics. Ultimately, Zito found that he had to scrap the style that earned him a Cy Young Award in Oakland and that lucrative move across the Bay Bridge.
"He's a different pitcher now," said Marco Scutaro, who played three seasons behind Zito in Oakland. "He used to be all about the fastball and the big curveball, but he mixes pitches better now, and he's added that cutter."
Scutaro, acquired by the Giants from the Colorado Rockies last July, faced Zito in his first start last season, a shutout at Coors Field that was the first sign Zito might be poised for a bounce-back year.
Hunter Pence faced Zito last season while with the Philadelphia Phillies, and like Scutaro, points at the cutter as one of the biggest reasons for the comeback. Zito's fastball tops out at 85 mph most days, but the cutter, Pence said, bores in on right-handed hitters and keeps them honest.
"Pitching is about deception, and he's got a lot of deception," Pence said. "He's really smart out there and doesn't give you good pitches to hit. Even his strikes are tough to hit. You think you're seeing a cutter out of his hand and it's really the fastball down the middle. And if you protect too much against the cutter, he'll go back outside."
That ability to keep hitters off balance was never more evident than in the postseason. Throwing a fastball that averaged 84 mph, Zito pitched 72/3 shutout innings against the St. Louis Cardinals in a must-win Game 5 of the NLCS. He followed that by beating Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers in Game 1 of the World Series.
Teammates say Zito was louder in the clubhouse as the season went on and got more aggressive on the mound in the second half, culminating in his late transformation into a postseason hero.
"Other teams might have been surprised," left fielder Gregor Blanco said. "But none of us were."
Zito might have one more surprise in store for long-term observers of his time with the Giants. He is unlikely to hit the 200-inning mark this year, triggering an option for 2014, but the Giants have expressed an interest in bringing Zito back next season and beyond.
"Years ago, that would have sounded crazy," Baer said.
General manager Brian Sabean views Zito as someone who will age well, thanks to his dedication to conditioning, his ability to pitch with diminished velocity and the fact that he's left-handed.
"He's put himself in a position to be able to reinvent himself," Sabean said. "We're open-minded to anybody that can help the organization, not only this year but going forward. He's a key cog with the kind of teammate and kind of person he is."
Zito said he isn't worried about anything too far in the future. Throwing the home opener is an honor for Zito, but it's one he put out of his mind quickly, just as he did with all the lows over the years.
"I just want to stay healthy and enjoy the game," he said. "If I can do that, everything else will take care of itself."
St. Louis (Jake Westbrook) at Giants (Barry Zito), 1:35 p.m. CSNBA