Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Is Carlos Zambrano the Cubs' worst starting pitcher?

I have little doubt that that question rings of hyperbole, but it's not intended. I'm quite serious when I wonder if the Cubs' $18 million man is the weak link of the staff. And I'm not asking this simply because Zambrano' s 9.45 ERA is easily the worst on the staff right now, or because his WHIP is the most inferior, or because he's been okay-to-bad in all three of his starts this season. Allow me to elaborate.

First, a non-statistical reason: the most important factor for how you feel going into a baseball game is the pitching match-up. If you say to someone, "You think the Cubs will win today?" their first response will be, "Who's pitching?" And right now, I feel the worst about the Cubs' chances when Zambrano is scheduled to pitch. And it's not just this year--his struggles and inconsistency last year resulted in a rather uncomfortable feeling on days when he took the mound.

The truth is, being a Cubs fan, I overdose on optimism before pretty much any game. There are always reasons to believe that the Cubs will pull out a victory. So usually, I rev myself for any Zambrano start as well, thinking, "He'll have his good stuff today." But as soon as he inevitably goes 2-0 on the first hitter, I remember why, deep down, I was less than excited to watch him pitch.

Dempster's pitching today? Sweet. Lilly's turn in the rotation? Nice. Randy Wells is on the hill? I'll take it. Big Z's slated to go today? Hmmm ...

But maybe my feelings are unfounded, or perhaps I'm simply overreacting to his slow start. Let us explore:

After saving 85 games in three seasons as the Cubs' closer, Dempster became a starter in 2008. He surprised everyone with a 17-6 record, the result of a 1.21 WHIP and 2.96 ERA. He followed that up with a more pedestrian, but still solid, 11-9 campaign last year.

Jim Hendry brought Lilly to the Cubs from Toronto in 2007, and the consensus was that he would be serviceable but not a savior. He went 15-8 with a 3.83 ERA in 2007, won 17 more in 2008, and collected 12 wins last year while posting a career-best 3.10 ERA. He has arguably been the Cubs' best starter over the last three years.

Wells got called up to the majors last May and made a run at the Rookie of the Year award. He finished 12-10 with a tidy 3.05 ERA.

While Zambrano had at least 14 wins every year from 2004 through 2008, he gathered just nine wins last year and had a 3.77 ERA.

To recap: Lilly, Dempster and Wells all had more wins, a lower ERA, and a lower WHIP than Zambrano last season. But there's more:

I'm a HUGE proponent of the importance of going deep into games. This will be vitally important for Cubs pitchers this season given the struggles of the bullpen. Rich Harden is a great example of a pitcher who is flawed in this area--his value is severely diminished by the fact that, no matter how well he's pitching, he just can't seem to keep his pitch count down. Unfortunately, the same is true of Zambrano:

Pitcher------------Average innings per start in 2009
Silva (2007)-------------------6.12

Silva's is a very small sample size for this year, so I threw in 2007 when he had a solid season with the Twins. This year, he's averaged 6.5 IP in two starts, compared to Zambrano's 4.43 in three starts.

Zambrano is simply too wild. While this might (I repeat: might) not be true of his emotions any more, it remains true of his pitch control. He threw an absurd 121 pitches in just five innings against Milwaukee on Thursday. Even when Zambrano is going good, he doesn't match the skill set owned by pitchers like Roy Halladay, CC Sabathia, or other pitchers who can be efficient on the mound.

I have one more piece of evidence in my case against Zambrano--defense. Somewhat amazingly, Big Z has made an error in all three of his starts this season. On Wednesday, he inexplicably tried to pick off 39-year-old Jim Edmonds with two outs, and threw the ball away. Edmonds would later score. I'm inclined to think that his fielding errors are really mental errors rather than an indication of limited athletic ability. But whatever they are, they represent another chink in Z's armor.

Obviously, we've all seen Carlos Zambrano at his best. Jim Hendry didn't give him five years and $91 million for no reason (and I for one did not oppose the contract extension at the time). Hopefully his first few starts this year will look like an aberration when the year is through. But for now, based on both history and the first two weeks of 2010, I think it's fair to ask: Is Carlos Zambrano the Cubs' worst starting pitcher?


  1. And Randy Wells record should have been much better last year, had the offense supported him by scoring a few runs.

  2. I think it's definitely fair to say that Z is currently the Cubs' worst starting pitcher, but if we take into account his historical success (all the years with 14 wins) and potential for future success, I don't really consider him the worst. When considering the totality of their careers, I think Silva might get that distinction.

  3. A quick look at WAR (Wins above Replacement) for Lilly Demp and Z over the last three years:

    Player 2009 2008 2007 Total
    Lilly 3.7 2.7 3.6 10
    Demp 3.6 5.1 0.3 9
    Z 3.6 2.8 2.8 9.2

    Silva was a 3.3 in 2007, a 3.0 in 2005, and a 3.4 in 2004 , so he has the potential to be as good as Z in a year, but I would easily take Z over Silva. Wells was a 3.0 last year, so he clearly also has the potential, but til he is proven, I would still take Z over Wells. Now, Lilly and Demp I think you can make a case for. I think the 5.1 for Dempster was probabably the best you will ever see out of him, he just doesn't have the kind of stuff to consistently put up those kind of numbers. He has pitched over 200 innings in his first two year as a starter and as you talked about, eating innings is very valuable. Lilly only logged 177 and Z 169 last year. Lilly has been Mr. Constant for 3 years in a row but he still just doesn't have the stuff that Z can.

    Zambrano had an average WAR of 4.5 from 2003 to 2006, that makes him a top 10 pitcher in baseball for that time period. Why do people think Z is so bad compared to the other Cubs starter the last couple years? I think its because they remember the pitcher from 5 years and expect that. As you have said, Lilly and Dempster have been nice suprises. The 3 pitchers however are not that different in terms of value for the last 3 year. And before you get too flustered about this year, Z has had some extremely bad luck to start 2010. His Batting Average on Balls in Play (a pretty good indicator of luck and bad luck for pitchers) so far this year is .437, that is second worst in all of baseball behind Gavin Floyd's .456. The worst in all of baseball last year was Aaron Harang's .339.

    Big (Baby) Z is just as good as your other pitchers right now, and his upside is that maybe he can regain his swagger from 5 years ago and be a truly dominate pitcher again. I dont see this upside for the other guys (except for maybe Wells, still need to see more from him though, but so far he doesn't look like the type of pitcher we have seen Z be in the past).

  4. Yes, you are correct to be worried when Big Z takes the mound. I know I am.

  5. Thanks everyone, and Tyler for your in-depth comment. I love the sabermetrics you bring to the table since I'm still trying to gain a better understanding of things like WAR.

    This post was partly meant to be provocative--I know that Carlos Zambrano is not really worse than Carlos Silva, especially over the long haul. But it's interesting to see that Dempster and Lilly really might be better, and it's unfortunate that our $18 million "ace" struggles so mightily to be consistent.