The honeymoon is over for the Miami Marlins and Carlos Zambrano. Big-Z may have gotten off to a great start in Miami, but a recent swoon, in which he has given up 35 earned runs in his last 41.1 innings, has put the 31-year-old pitcher back in the bullpen. The Chicago Cubs used the same approach in 2010, after Zambrano got off to a poor start. The experiment lasted just 16.2 innings. With the Marlins paying Zambrano just $2.55 million this year, they can justifiably move Zambrano to the pen with little argument from their fans. But even though it’s tough to complain much about the move, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right one.
For once, Guillen’s comments will come in handy. When asked why Zambrano was being moved to the bullpen, Guillen explained “”I want to see why he pitches one, two innings and then he lost it.” That quote can mean many things. Zambrano might implode after just one or two innings, or maybe he’s losing his stuff as he goes deeper into games.
A look at Zambrano’s splits reveals that while Guillen may have a point, it’s still unclear whether this is the right decision. Zambrano’s performance from inning-to-inning has been puzzling this season.
Both theories are correct with Zambrano. He hasn’t had major issues in the first innings, but things start to unravel in the second. During the third inning, Zambrano has been prone to the long-ball. Four of Zambrano’s nine home runs have come in the third inning this season. But after the third, he’s settled in. His 83 tOPS+ and 79 tOPS+ during the four and fifth innings indicate that those have been Zambrano’s best innings this season.* But things taken a turn for the worst during the sixth, which has been Zambrano’s worst inning according to tOPS+ this season.
*I excluded the seventh, eighth and ninth innings here since the highest sample was just 6.2 innings.
Zambrano has rarely gone past the sixth inning this season because of his struggles. And perhaps Ozzie Guillen didn’t see the value in having Zambrano throw five decent innings before pulling him. With his recent struggles, moving Zambrano to the bullpen might even be defensible. He wasn’t getting the job done lately, and he wasn’t going deep into games all season, so there’s no point in leaving him there.
Problem is, Zambrano is not all that likely to pay off as a reliever based on his performance by inning. Since Zambrano tends to experience some struggles in the second and third innings, he may not have a ton of value as a long-reliever. Guillen can choose to make Zambrano just a one inning guy, and maybe he’ll perform well in that role, but it seems like a bit of a waste. Zambrano is still a guy that can pitch five effective innings, and even though that isn’t necessarily desirable, it’s much more valuable than being a one-inning reliever.
But it’s not like the move is going to hurt the Marlins. The team is not going to compete this season and should be looking at their future. Zambrano is 31, and in the final year of his contract. He’s not going to trigger his 2013 option with his performance. While Wade LeBlanc is nothing special, his move to the rotation is likely to be temporary. The team acquired Jacob Turner in the Anibal Sanchez trade, and there’s a good chance he’ll finish out the season as the Marlins’ fifth starter. Moving Zambrano to the bullpen allows the team to get a look at Turner. While that makes the move defensible, it’s probably not the best way to employ Big-Z.
Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.