Friday, August 6, 2010

The State of Zambrano

This Monday, Carlos Zambrano will be giving us a sliver of a reason to actually watch because he will be starting!!! (And for those who haven't been watching, neither have I; the TV rating have been collapsing just like our record has been.)

So Zambrano will be starting, which givers hopers some chance to hope and haters a chance to hate... some more. According to the probable pitchers section on the official Cubs.com site:
This will be Zambrano's first start since that fateful June 25 game when he threw a tantrum, was sent home, and eventually underwent treatment for anger issues. He will be limited to 75-80 pitches. His velocity has been better.
Zambrano, to many, has been a disappointment since last season. Of course, people who thought Carlos Zambrano was disappointing in 2009 are often the ignorant type who use wins to gauge a starter's quality. His 2009 season actually gave many of us a glimmer of hope that he was indeed still a quality pitcher.

In reality, Zambrano had been an average pitcher for years. Since 2006, he has had average-ish xFIPs and high LOB percentages, meaning his low-to-excellent ERAs and high wins were functions of luck, and likely little else.

Let's look at the statistics for Cub Carlos here:

       xFIP   LOB%   ERA
2002   4.15   72.8   3.66
2003   3.82   73.0   3.11
2004   3.88   79.1   2.75
2005   3.54   75.0   3.29
2006   4.20   75.6   3.41
2007   4.62   74.9   3.95
2008   4.45   73.4   3.91
2009   4.27   71.9   3.77
2010   4.33   66.9   5.61

League average for LOB% is usually around 70.5% to 72.0%. Really, anything outside of that little normal-luck range is pretty much going to come back to earth. Carlos Zambrano's career LOB% is 73.9%, meaning he has -- more than likely -- been pretty lucky. There are cases, however very rare, where a pitcher performs better out of the stretch and in turn can have some rare LOB% "skill."

Either way, his current LOB of 66.9% will not and cannot continue. Several of my colleagues -- whose opinions I trust and whose perspectives are very valuable to me -- have suggested that Carlos is broken and has been broken for several years. This possibility makes 2009 an aberration of improvement. I however, see a lower LOB% (one within our realistic range, no less) and an improved xFIP. Therefore, I think that Zambrano is not broken, but neither is he the next Cy Young incarnate (who was left-handed anyway).

This year is a different story though. I honesetly think that Z's 2010 campaign has been sabotaged -- read: sabotaged -- by the whims and reactions of a Cubs regime that does not employ statistics to cool the fickle flames of the human heart.

I think Carlos is still promising. He is young yet and will be a decent-to-good pitcher, if he's given more than 40-ish innings to prove himself (which is all he received as a starter thus far in 2010). I think he will be okay; however, we still have to be concerned by some elements of his game -- namely his steadily decreasing velocity. In his peak in 2004 and 2005, Zambrano's fastball was around 93 mph. That velocity has since dropped to a flat 91 mph. For some pitchers, 2 mph and mean the difference between a Hall of Fame career and no career. For Zambrano, I believe it is the difference between an All-Star and an innings-eater. I think that's okay. I think 4.33 xFIP is okay too. It's about average, but with a 66.9% LOB, we can expect it to become above average very soon.

In summation: the state of Carlos Zambrano is not as desperate as the press wants us to think. The press wants a villain -- because villains are easily made and they are paper-sellers. But if we give Carlos Zambrano a chance, I think Z will be Big.

2 comments:

  1. Not sure what all the initials mean (you need a key-code somewhere on this page), but it's encouraging to think that all is not lost on Big Z.

    I just wonder if we can continue to afford to pay him just to be a mediocre pitcher. I thought Cubby Blue's economical comparison of Z-Lilly was interesting, where he showed how much a win cost the team for each pitcher.

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  2. If you click the hyper-links on xFIP, LOB, and ERA, they should take you to the Sabermetric Library entry on that stat. Basically, xFIP (expected fielding independent pitching) is like a more honest ERA; LOB% (left on base percentage), or the strand rate, is something we use to see whether a pitcher has been lucky or unlucky; and ERA is just regular, old ERA.

    And, as much as I love Cubby-Blue, he engages in a major flaw with baseball statistics: using wins as a metric of greatness. Wins for pitchers come vie their context, not just their pitcher (i.e. you can throw a perfect game for nine innings and get lifted before receiving a decision, or lose on an un-earned run; or you can pitch 5 terrible innings, but earn a win on the merits of your offense).

    Lilly's contract dump makes sense because: A) he's not young, B) he's been kind of lucky so far this year (he has a high xFIP, but low ERA), and C) the Cubs are in no way contending anyway. As much as I love Lilly, I think moving him was the right idea -- although we really didn't get too much in return.

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