Carlos Zambrano Reborn in Miami

Through all the tirades and tantrums that marred his eventual exit from Chicago, it can be easy to forget Carlos Zambrano is just 30 years old. This season, Zambrano is showing the world that he just might have something left in the tank. Through 41 innings, Zambrano is the proud owner of a 1.98 ERA. Despite his effectiveness, he wasn’t rewarded with his first victory of the season until Monday night, when he twirled his best start of the season, a complete game, nine-strikeout shutout of the Astros in Houston. In many ways, Zambrano is looking like the pitcher who shined with the Cubs throughout the last decade.

For his entire career, Zambrano has been one of the classic exceptions to DIPS theory. He owns a career .275 BABIP and an ERA a full 0.40 runs lower than his FIP. With 1867.2 career innings and 7957 total batters faced under his belt, Zambrano’s ability to control balls in play is an established phenomenon. That essential piece of his success deserted him in 2011, leading to the 4.82 ERA and the frustration which would eventually serve as the last straw for both Zambrano and Cubs management. His arrival in Miami has seen his peripheral-defying ways return. His 2.3 K/BB is hardly impressive — a fraction below league average, in fact — but he has ridden a .234 BABIP and a 0.66 HR/9 to a 1.98 ERA in the season’s early going.

It should be noted, though, that Zambrano’s peripherals are also at the highest level they’ve been in years. His K/BB ratio is just 0.06 short of his career high of 2.35 in 2005 and 0.03 short of the 2.32 mark he posted in 2004, easily his best seasons as a Cub. In these two years, Zambrano averaged 219 innings, a 69 ERA-, an 82 FIP- and 4.6 WAR. The key is a 10.2% swinging strike rate, which would be his highest in 10 years if he maintains it.

There’s reason to believe this change is real. Zambrano has radically changed his pitch mix, almost completely eschewing the four seam fastball in exchange for more pitches with movement. According to his Brooks Baseball player page, his four-seam usage is down from 27% to 10%, with that 17% going instead to the splitfinger (+5%), the cutter (+7%) and curveball (+3%), among others.

Observe, the eight swinging strikes from Zambrano’s start Monday:

Eight swinging strikes in 99 pitches is a touch below Zambrano’s pace coming into the start, but part of it was the Astros hitting into outs before Zambrano could get to splitter counts. When he did throw the splitter, it dazzled, drawing four swinging strikes out of 17 thrown and going for strikes nine times. Of course, if it were just as easy as throwing fewer fastballs and more moving pitches to generate more whiffs, every pitcher would do it. Zambrano will have to keep throwing those breaking pitches — the splitter in particular — for strikes. He’s thrown the splitfinger for a strike 61% of the time so far, five percent above the MLB average for the pitch.

Six starts in, the Carlos Zambrano reclamation project has been nothing short of a rousing success for the Marlins. The farther Zambrano’s dreadful 2011 gets in the rear-view mirror, the more it looks like he can return to the form that convinced the Cubs to commit $91.5 million back in 2008. If Zambrano can keep using his splitfinger and other breaking pitches with the success he’s shown so far, there’s no reason to believe he can’t remain an effective cog in the Marlins’ rotation.

Jack Moore's work can be seen at VICE Sports and anywhere else you're willing to pay him to write. Buy his e-book.

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10 years ago

I remain skeptical that Zambrano has “established” an ability to outperform ERA estimators. Considering the number of pitchers in MLB I am not convinced that we shouldn’t see a number of pitchers exhibit long ERA-outperformance streaks like Zambrano’s simply due to chance – even if you believe in the predictive value of ERA estimators (which I do), in any season a given pitcher has a 50% chance of outperforming and a 50% chance of underperforming. With 300-ish pitchers, 150-ish starters, and a strong survivorship bias in favor of longer outperformance streaks (i.e. pitchers who underperform in a given year are more likely to drop out of the sample the following year than those who outperformed), I will need more evidence than Zambrano has amassed to convince me that this particular performance is more attributable to skill than luck.

10 years ago
Reply to  mcbrown

Having said that, Zambrano *is* looking like a better pitcher to me, and his swinging strike rate certainly supports that notion.

10 years ago
Reply to  mcbrown

How many more innings than 1800 do you need to see?

10 years ago
Reply to  mikesavino85

If we are cherry-picking a pitcher from the entire sample of active MLB pitchers ex-post and making a non-falsifiable claim about his past performance, a lot more than 1800.

If we are making a falsifiable claim about Zambrano’s future and rigorously testing it going forward, a lot less than 1800. If he does it for 3 years starting from now I will be sufficiently confident.

10 years ago
Reply to  mcbrown

Since when did the burden of proof fall on those who would argue skill.

Perhaps I need more data to convince me that it’s luck.

Why don’t YOU make a falsifiable claim. It’s easy to test claims, disagree with them on the amount of data that is there and say that it will test negative with more data.

It’s certainly more likely now that he exceeds his FIP, from a purely bayesian perspective. That’s a pretty robust prior. I understand that the distribution is there, but it was not generated by a stochastic process. It was generated by the skill of major league baseball players competing against one another.

Jacob Knapp
10 years ago
Reply to  Nick44

The burden of proof falls on whomever’s argument is harder to accept, in this case, that is you. There could be 30 million pitchers in the major leagues, the odds of Carlos Zambrano outperforming his FIP over 1800 innings only through luck would still be exactly the same – very low. That’s a simple math principle, if you’ve even taken a high school pre-calculus class you should understand your mistake.

Also, I think its a generally accepted fact that some batters and some pitchers can influence their BABIP. Mariano Rivera has a career .215 BABIP. It’s not because he’s lucky, it’s because he breaks a lot of bats.

10 years ago
Reply to  Nick44

@ Nick44: Here is my falsifiable claim: Carlos Zambrano will outperform xFIP by more than 0.05 ER/9 for the rest of 2012 (beginning May 9, to eliminate the influence of his YTD performance), all of 2013 and all of 2014. I estimate the probability of doing so to be about 12.5%, so if he fails to do so we cannot be more than 90% confident that he has a sustainable, identifiable outperformance skill.

@ Jacob: This is simply not true. With a sample of only 300 pitchers I estimate that in any given 10 year sample there is a 25% probability of someone having a 10 year outperformance streak (which, by the way, Zambrano has not even had). The odds would be c. 95% with 3,000 pitchers, and indistinguishable from 100% if there were 30,000,000 pitchers. And by the way, the odds of seeing a 10 year streak by chance alone would be even higher if we are looking for 10 year streaks in a 15 or 20 year period (i.e. we eliminate the constraint that the streak must begin at a specified point in time).

Furthermore, if you think I made a math error, please explain what it is rather than resorting to insults about my alleged lack of education. Here is how I arrive at my estimate, based on very basic probability:

P[see a 10 year streak in a particular 10 year sample of N pitchers]
= 1-P[no streak in N pitchers]
= 1-P[no streak for individual pitcher]^N
= 1-(1-P[individual pitcher DOES have streak])^N
= 1-(1-P[pitcher outperforms in given year]^10)^N
= 1-(1-0.5^10)^N

This does not even consider the survivorship bias issue, which should bias the odds higher as the sample is not random but skewed towards pitchers who have tended to outperform.

Overall, I find the SABR’s community willingness to uncritically accept the “DIPS outperformance” skill extremely puzzling, considering its long history of disbelieving “skills” that could be explained easily by chance, such as clutch performance. I have yet to hear a plausible explanation of why Zambrano in particular should have this skill. I can see an argument for someone like Rivera; DIPS metrics are formulated to explain the fat part of the pitcher performance distribution, not the extreme tails, and Rivera is clearly on the extreme tail. But Zambrano? He is an above-average pitcher for sure, but what about him is so extreme that we should believe he in particular has this skill? Is it his perceived intensity? Roger Clemens was known to be pretty intense too, and he didn’t outperform his career FIP. Is it something about his pitch mix? His skill with a particular pitch, a la Rivera? What is it exactly about Zambrano that we can hang a hat on here?

9 years ago
Reply to  mcbrown

definitely luck. Rebirth in the bullpen, eh?