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.

Forget Vazquez– what about Webb?

After a few slow days for baseball news, offseason activity picked up again yesterday when Javier Vazquez officially agreed to a one-year $7MM deal with the Florida Marlins. Word is he turned down multiple two-year deals that would’ve paid him something in the neighborhood of $20MM; apparently he was intent on signing with the team closest to his home in Puerto Rico. While I doubt the Cubs were responsible for one of the multi-year offers he supposedly left on the table (even at $7MM he may not have fit the budget), it’s nice to see they had interest in a nice low-risk, high-reward proposition.

A couple weeks ago I wrote about the Cubs’ run prevention capabilities, and how his consistently above-average strikeout rates made Vazquez one of the only free agent starters who made sense for them given their collective defensive shortcomings. Based on that logic, Brandon Webb wouldn’t appear to be a great fit for the Cubs right now, but it’s hard not to get excited hearing they’re interested in the former Cy Young winner.

In all likelihood, the Cubs will probably field another poor defensive club next year, particularly in the infield. Hendry is reportedly targeting a strong defender to fill the void at first base–Carlos Pena is said to be the front office’s current favorite among free agent options– but short of replacing Aramis Ramirez at third, there’s only so much that can be done to address this problem. 21 year old Starlin Castro will probably still be a somewhat mistake-prone shortstop next year, Blake DeWitt doesn’t get any love from the advanced defensive metrics, and really, bringing in a defensive whiz at first would only have so much of an impact.learn more about Carlos Zambrano by clicking here

All this would seem to make Webb and his 64.2% career ground ball rate something of a mismatch for this team right now. However, after making just one start in the past two years as a result of an (evidently) serious shoulder injury, Webb is supposedly ready for action and will almost certainly have to settle for a one-year deal, perhaps with vesting options that would reward him for making a certain number of starts. Shoulder injuries often spell doom for pitchers, and the fact he missed all of the past two seasons tells you everything you need to know about the severity of his, but it’s tough to overstate how good this guy was before going down.

Forget Vazquez– what about Webb

From 2006-2008, Webb finished no worse than third in the Cy Young vote, bringing home the hardware in a 2006 campaign where he was worth 7 WAR according to FanGraphs. It’s unlikely he’ll ever recapture that kind of success in the future–almost nobody who suffers an injury like his ever does–but if he’s able to regain just some of his pre-surgery abilities, he’ll be worth every penny at whatever discount rate he ends signing for. And since he clearly doesn’t appear to have rushed through his rehabilitation, we shouldn’t rule out the possibility that he can have an immediate impact.

It isn’t every year that former Cy Young winners become available, and even if you think that’s irrelevant since Webb may very well be a different guy after his surgery, the opportunity to bring in a pitcher with his pedigree is an exciting proposition. The reality is, he could be viewed as something of an investment even if the Cubs do hope to get production out of him right away. They have the kind of depth in the rotation that would allow them to wait it out in case he isn’t ready to go on Opening Day, and even if his injury was so bad that he doesn’t make it all the way back until 2012, the reality is whichever team invests in him now will probably be interested in keeping him. Such a commitment would allow the Cubs to reconfigure their infield defense in the future if he ends up becoming a fixture in the rotation.

One other key consideration: previously armed with one of the nastiest sinkers you’ll ever see, Webb has never been dependent on big-time velocity to get people out. While averaging about 88-89 MPH on his fastball on a good day, he’s always been content to allow his defense to do most of the work while he forces hitters to pound the ball into the ground. It’s tough to say what kind of effect the operation may have on the depth and movement of his sinker, but if it only costs him velocity going forward, then there may be reason to be more optimistic about his chances to make it back than your average pitcher who needs a good fastball to have any kind of success.

Hendry hit the jackpot when he bought-low on a recuperating Ryan Dempster back in 2004, and he’s been the best pitcher on the Cubs for a few years now, their shoddy defense notwithstanding. Meanwhile, Cubs fans have seen enough of Chris Carpenter over the years to know that shoulder injuries don’t claim the careers of every pitcher who falls victim to one. Webb isn’t likely to cost any more than $3-4MM in 2010, and he has a chance to have twice the impact that Dempster has ultimately had in Chicago. I’ve argued that this team probably doesn’t need another starting pitcher, but at the right price, Brandon Webb would be an exception.

Rooftop Resume: What to make of Matt Garza thus far

I’ll keep this part brief…

This is my first post here in some time– something like a month or so. I wish that wasn’t the case, but unfortunately the first month of baseball season coincided with the last month of my college career, so I hope anyone who was keeping up with Rooftop View understands that I had to prioritize; graduating from college has meant a little more to me these past few weeks than blogging about a mediocre baseball team.  It’s a shame I had to let up after gaining some momentum here, but I expect to pick up the pace again, starting now.  If you were a reader before I took off April, I hope you’ll continue to check this place out occasionally.  There are a lot of reasons I’m glad to be done with school for awhile, and one of them is that I’ll finally be able to focus on Cubs baseball.learn more about Forget Vazquez by clicking here

I usually don’t rely on any television broadcast for my stats-fix, but yesterday the WGN crew informed me of something I doubt I would have learned anywhere else.  Before giving up a three-run homer to Jay Bruce in the fourth inning, Matt Garza set a franchise record by recording his 55th strikeout before surrendering his first home run of the season (fittingly, Bruce homered in the same half inning WGN made the announcement with an accompanying graphic).  Who, you may be wondering, did Garza surpass in setting the record?  That would be Mark Prior (2003 version).  And who did Prior pass when he set the record?  You may have guessed it: Kerry Wood.

The record itself may not be all that significant, but I do find it an interesting achievement, if for no other reason than the company Garza now finds himself in.  Before he got hurt, Prior could miss bats with the absolute best of them, and I don’t think anyone needs a reminder of what Woody was capable of back when he was a starter.  As brief as they may have been, at their respective peaks, both of these guys were better than Matt Garza, and it isn’t a stretch to say they were among the very best pitchers in baseball.

Matt Garza

When Hendry made the big trade that brought him to Chicago, I was among the countless people who pointed to Garza’s middling peripheral numbers in arguing that he had just paid a king’s ransom for a number three starter.  However, just seven starts into his Cubs career, apparently it may be time to rethink what kind of pitcher this team went out and got this offseason.

Garza recorded seven more strikeouts in his six innings of work yesterday, and is striking out better than 11.5 batters per nine innings so far in 2011.  Entering this season, his previous career best K/9 rate was 8.38, which he posted back in 2009 with the Rays. Even more encouraging: it’s really no mystery how he’s getting it done.  A quick peak at his PitchFX profile reveals that he’s going about his business in a completely different fashion this year.  This is old news really, but in case you don’t have it duly noted, Matt Garza really is a different pitcher this year.

He’s also issued just 13 walks in 44.2 innings pitched (just 2.65 BB/9), and as previously noted, the homer he allowed yesterday was his first of 2011. Now, some would probably argue that it’s too early in the season to try and make any concrete judgements of Garza’s performance, but in some regards, that really just isn’t true.

Yesterday at FanGraphs, Steve Slowinski, the curator of the FanGraph’s Saber Library, had a nice post about what he calls “stabilizing” statistics.  The concept of “stabilizing” stats is pretty simple– at a certain threshold of either plate appearances (for hitters) or batters faced (for pitchers) a number will stabilize such that it can be taken at close to face value.  For instance– a pitcher’s strikeout rate is believed to become mostly stable after 150 batters faced.  Garza has now faced just under 200 batters, and was already past the 150 threshold before his start yesterday.  So as crazy as his 11.69 K/9 rate is, there’s actually good reason to believe he’s established a new level of swing-and-miss ability (11.5 SwStr% this year, compared to 8.2% for his career).  This doesn’t mean he’s a guarantee to whiff better than 11 batters per nine this year, but it’s probably safe to say he’ll exceed his previous career best strikeout rate, perhaps by a wide margin.  Gotta love the National League if you’re a pitcher, no?

This is actually a pretty huge development.  In March, I had this to say about Garza:

Maybe it’s something that’ll be a gradual process.  In reality though, it’s more important that we see him start to miss some more bats now that he’s in the NL.  Especially given the question marks this team has on defense, it’ll be key in the near term for Garza to rediscover some of the strikeout stuff he had back in 2009.  If the groundballs come eventually, that’ll be nice, but he’ll never be the guy the Cubs think he can be if he doesn’t pick up his strikeout rate.

That’s another thing we should not overlook– the fact that Garza’s groundball rate has also taken a huge spike this year– over 50% of his batted balls, compared to a career GB% of roughly 40%– is another really encouraging development, and it’s worth noting that GB% also stabilizes at 150 batters faced.  Among the biggest concerns with Garza coming into this year were his pronounced flyball tendencies, which were thought to be potentially problematic now that he’s pitching his home games at Wrigley Field.  Garza has almost certainly been a little lucky in allowing just one home run thus far, but if the increased GB% is any indication, he’ll probably continue to do a good job keeping the ball in the park, which obviously bodes quite well for his future in a good hitter’s park.

All these positive steps help explain why Garza currently has a superhuman 1.58 FIP, but there are undoubtedly some who are much more concerned with his mediocre 4.43 ERA, and 1-4 win-loss record. It’s as simple as this– Garza has stranded just 59.4% of his baserunners, and he’s allowed a .388 ball-in-play average.  Pitchers just don’t have very much control over either of those figures, so it’s actually fair to chalk up some of his poor results to plain-old bad luck. That LOB% will start to regress toward 75%, and his BABIP will being to retreat back toward .300, and when this happens, we ought to see him get his ERA comfortably under 4.00, hopefully for the remainder of the season.

And no one cares about win-loss records.  Or should.

This much must be noted though– Garza has allowed a healthy 23.3% of his batted balls to go for line drives, which explains in part his super-inflated .388 BABIP.  So it probably isn’t fair to say his weak ERA is totally thanks to bad luck.  He’s the sort of pitcher who pounds the strike zone with a ton of consistency, and perhaps partly as a result, he’s allowed a lot of hard contact this year.  That said, Garza has most certainly been better than his ugly 4.43 ERA suggests.

At this point, it’s simply a matter of how much better he is than that number, but that’s kind of a tough question to answer at the moment. Some of his peripheral numbers seem to point to a guy who’s ready to take his place among the elite pitchers in the game, but the early results would have us temper those expectations.  I think most people understand there’s probably no way Garza sustains these kind of peripherals, but coming from a guy who’s been pretty critical of the Garza deal since the moment it became official, I think everyone would agree he’s a lot better than a ~4.50 ERA pitcher in the National League.

Again, coming from someone who wasn’t ever thrilled about his acquisition, given the choice between being concerned over his high ERA, or encouraged by his drastically improved K/9 and GB%, I’ll most definitely take the latter.

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