What is Carlos Zambrano?

About a week and a half ago, the Atlanta Braves decided that rather than pay Derek Lowe $15MM to take the ball every fifth day for them, they’d pay him $10MM to do so for the Cleveland Indians.  Having just suffered one of the worst seasons of his career, and with pitching depth to spare, the Braves apparently valued $5MM in savings more than the guaranteed 30+ starts Lowe provides every year.  They didn’t get any significant talent in return, netting just a marginal pitching prospect in the exchange, but of course, that’s the way salary dumps work.

Whether Lowe’s salary was actually one worth dumping is something I’d say is more debatable than others might.  At first glance, his ERA looks pretty ugly, and it’s well documented how many promising young arms are waiting in the wings for the Braves at the moment.  But it’s equally well documented how fleeting rotation depth can be (just ask Jim Hendry), and when you dig a little deeper, it isn’t clear that Lowe should bear the entire blame for his big ERAs in Atlanta.You can also learn more about Matt Gaza at http://www.rooftop-view.com/matt-garza-the-even-bigger-race-changer/

In his three years with the Braves, Lowe’s ERA (4.57) was roughly 17.5% higher than his FIP (3.89), and more than 20% higher than his xFIP (3.78).  Now, it isn’t all that tough to figure out the cause of this discrepancy– in 2009 and 2011, when his ERAs were at their worst, Lowe really struggled to strand runners once he put them on base.  This year, when he ran a 5.05 ERA in in 34 starts, Lowe stranded just 66% of his baserunners, which was the fourth lowest figure among qualified starting pitchers.  In his 101 starts as a Brave, he stranded 69.5% of his baserunners, while, according to the predictive formula provided by The Hardball Times’ Dave Studemund, Lowe’s LOB% should have been closer to 73.5% during that span.  This is obviously just an estimate, but we shouldn’t dismiss the gap between the actual and expected rate of his stranded baserunners, which is actually pretty substantial.  The average strand rate for pitchers this season was 71.6%, and as far as we know, deviations from this number mostly result from some combination of bad luck and bad defense.

All of this is a long way of saying I think Derek Lowe is a better pitcher than some Brave fans may realize.  At this point though, I’ve written too much about a pitcher that only has a little bit to do with the point I’m trying to make.  But it should be fairly obvious that the reason I’m mentioning Lowe is the parallel between him and Carlos Zambrano.  While Big Z is presumably as available as Lowe was, anyone familiar with the Cubs knows the circumstances surrounding Zambrano’s availability are a little different than Lowe’s were.  The Braves were willing to part with an expensive starter because of their pitching surplus, as well as a need for increased payroll flexibility.  On the other hand, Cub fans are clamoring for Zambrano to be shipped out of town mostly for reasons pertaining to the inexact science of clubhouse chemistry.  However, at the risk of putting myself firmly in the minority on this issue, I’m gonna use this space to argue that considering the Cubs’ dearth of options for the rotation, as well as the general unpredictability of pitchers, it might be foolish for them to assume they simply have to find a taker for Carlos Zambrano this offseason.

First, the obvious consideration: the Cubs are not the Atlanta Braves, and do not have more pitching than they know what to do with.  In fact, the exact opposite is true of them; at this point, we don’t know who the hell is gonna pitch for this team next year.  Other than Matt Garza and Ryan Dempster, the Cubs have nothing but giant question marks in the rotation.  A year ago, Randy Wells looked like a nice, #4/5 starter who could probably be counted on to give the team at least ~180 innings of average-ish production. 135 innings, and 23 home runs later, it’s anybody’s guess what should be expected from him (again, pitching depth = often fleeting).  Furthermore, if 2012 is to be anything better than a disaster, the new braintrust in Chicago is gonna have to do whatever it takes to make sure the Ramon Ortizes and Doug Davises of the world don’t sniff this team’s rotation.

To put it differently, this team is hurting for pitchers.  And especially since Andrew Cashner is most likely gonna spend the majority of 2012 working out of the bullpen, they’re not in any position to just give away a starter who could easily provide 180 innings of work.  There are undoubtedly some people who feel like the Cubs’ long odds at contending next year are sufficient to say that Zambrano is an expendable piece of the puzzle.  But unless they’re interested in seeing this team lose another 90 games next season, they should really reconsider that line of reasoning.

The other thing that I’m afraid most Cubs fans aren’t allowing themselves to consider, is the possibility that Carlos Zambrano is still a decent pitcher.  I understand that he hasn’t done much to endear himself to anyone lately, but were you aware that 2011 was the first time in his entire career Zambrano posted an ERA over 4.00?  Now, his 4.82 cleared that number by a wide margin, and his diminished strikeout rate is certainly a cause for concern, but lost amidst the drama that ensued (in Atlanta, of all places) is the fact that Zambrano only threw 145 innings this year, which isn’t the kind of sample size we should make any sweeping conclusions based on.  And when you have a look at it, his strikeout rates have been all over the place in recent years, so we shouldn’t try and make this out to be some sort of trend.

Something that does appear to be a trend is Zambrano’s diminishing ground ball rate, which has plunged in each of the past three seasons.  Again, there are sample size issues here, but it looks like Zambrano’s days as a ground ball pitcher are behind him, which may partly explain his inflated home run rate from this year.  And when you check the numbers, the home run rate pretty much tells you exactly why things went so wrong for him in 2011.  Zambrano’s career HR/9 is a stellar 0.75, but this year that number ballooned to 1.17, the first time in his career Big Z allowed more than one homer per nine innings.  The thing is, though, even if we can definitively say he isn’t a ground ball pitcher anymore, that doesn’t mean we should just expect him to keep allowing home runs at the kind of rate he did this season.  In fact, given what an outlier it was, it’s probably safe to say we’ll witness substantial regression to the mean here in 2012.  If that happens, Zambrano could easily return to being the pitcher that’s run a 3.60 ERA for his career. And if you think the Cubs are in a postion to pass on that kind of production for the sake of appeasing a pissed off fan base, well… then your just sorta nuts.

Equally nuts would be if anyone thinks a trade would provide the team anything of real value, unless you think there’s such thing as “addition by subtraction.”  Everyone in baseball knows the Cubs are expected to shop Zambrano this offseason, and thus, they have no leverage whatsoever in any potential deal.  At best, the Cubs could hope to save something like $4-5MM, because there isn’t a single team out there that’ll be willing to pay more than a fraction of the $18MM he’s due in 2012, and there’s absolutely no way a trade would land them a player of any long-term value.  The fact is, this team has more money to burn this offseason than I think they’re actually prepared to spend, and saving a few million bucks just is not worth depriving itself of the much needed innings Zambrano could provide.

To answer the titular question of this post: among other things, Carlos Zambrano is a large, temperamental, overpaid starting pitcher from Venezuela.  What he may not be, though, is imminently expendable or replaceable.  So to Theo Epstein and Co., I have this to say: before succumbing to the demands of crazed fans and media, whose anger ranges from exaggerated to disingenuous, please consider the aforementioned points.  His actions in Atlanta last year were selfish, and short-sighted, and his teammates had every right to be seriously irritated with him.  But with new leadership at the top, and soon to be new leadership in the dugout (Mike Maddux?), I encourage everyone, including those reading this post who disagree with me, to forgive and forget.  It may not seem obvious, but doing so could be to the benefit of the Cubs’ chances at winning, and that should matter more than anything else.