Another shitty Cubs season in review: Carlos Zambrano

I was planning to do a few of these a week and I know berselius is going to help, but then Theo-mania started and I got sidetracked. I started thinking about doing them again and my first instinct was to start with some of the back-ups since I’d already done ones for Marlon Byrd, Randy Wells and Alfonso Soriano (player review series). Then I read Jack’s excellent article on Carlos Zambrano so I wanted to write about Big Z.

Jack’s argument won’t be a popular one among Cubs fans. He’s arguing the Cubs should keep Zambrano as they don’t have the pitching depth to replace him. There’s a lot of other stuff in there that you should go read but I think that’s the gist of it. Zambrano became my favorite player in 2003. Although no man of his size needs little ol’ me to back him up, I’ve done just that over the years. Cubs fans have failed to realize how good Z has been in his Cubs career and once a year I’ve tried to remind them.

This isn’t to say he’s not without his issues. He’s paid more than he’s worth, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you just get rid of him. For example, say someone is paid $10 million and they are only worth $7 million. So you trade the guy away, include either $3 million in cash or $3 million in value in prospects in the package, and get little to nothing in return. Now you’re down $7 million in production and you’ve saved only $7 million. So you spend that on the free agent market and what do you get? $7 million in value. Ever heard of doing things for the sake of doing something? That’s what this is. Our imaginary team made a couple of transactions involving players, cash and/or prospects, brought a new guy on and are in the same shape. They’re no better than they were.

Now imagine our imaginary player makes $18 million and that few teams would consider paying him more than $4-5 million for the final year of his contract. Our imaginary player may not be worth $18 million, but he’s still a decent pitcher. Maybe he’s worth $10 million in value. Perhaps more. Doesn’t really matter since this is an imagnary player. So we trade this $18 million away and save $4 million. We traded $10 million in value and now have ony $4 million to reinvest in the free agent market. Doesn’t make sense, does it? In these transactions the imaginary team has made the team $6 million worse and they’ve wasted the time necessary to complete these transactions.

Our imaginary player above is Carlos Zambrano. Best case scenario is the Cubs come out $6 million worse they otherwise would be. In this example, the team valued Zambrano’s poor behavior as costing the team $6 million. While that may be possible, it’s highly unlikely. This is why trading Zambrano isn’t a simple decision. But it is also a relatively small amount of money that it won’t stop them from doing just that. Yes, one of the first moves of the new front office will essentially be making the team worse and fans will cheer. It’s an odd world we live in.

There’s very strong arguments to be made to keep Zambrano. The lack of depth in the Cubs system is one. The fact the team will be worse in talent level is another. There’s only one weak argument that can be made to trade him: clubhouse chemistry.

There is evidence, or at least several examples anyway, that teams are willing to give up on players that are league average or worse. You probably can’t find a player a team has just released or given away for nothing that was a 3 WAR player, but there are examples of players who were 2 WAR or less that teams have released or given away.

This doesn’t mean that their poor clubhouse attitude affected the team by that much. Phil Birnbaum offers an idea.

My suspicion, though, is that the Milton Bradleys don’t actually cost their teams 1.4 wins that way. I think there are other reasons that the Cubs might have for releasing Bradley than just a sober calculation of his effect on the team’s on-field performance.

First, there’s deterrence. There has to be some mechanism by which teams prevent their players from going off half-cocked and ruining team chemistry. There has to be the threat, explicit or implicit, that if the player is disrespectful towards the team, he will pay a price. For most players, who want their time with the team to be as pleasant as possible, the desire to get along with their teammates might be enough incentive. But when an anti-social player crosses the line, the punishment may have to have a negative cost to the team.

This is like any job. Employers aren’t going to let their employees get away with whatever they want even if they are very good employees. Doing so might encourage other employees to behave similarly and then you have a mess. Some might say you have the 2011 Red Sox clubhouse. The employer controls the behavior of the players by not allowing others to do certain things. If you’re a very good Barry Bonds, you get away with it. You’re too valuable. If it’s Barry Bonds looking for one more year and only about 1.5 wins worth of value, he’s out of luck.

Teams may make themselves worse in talent level, but it’s in an effort to ensure that other players don’t behave in similar ways. This is more than reasonable. You won’t find too many jobs that are different than this.

Before we figure out how good Zambrano is going forward and whether or not he’s one of those guys that qualifies as being released or given away, let’s take a look back at the 2011 season.

Zambrano has had an xFIP above 4.20 every year since 2006. xFIP normalizes HR/FB rate to 10%, but Zambrano has consistenty had a HR/FB rate below that. As a result his FIP has been considerably lower and the same is true of his ERA. While his FIP was between 4.14 and 4.56 between 2006 and 2008, it has generally been lower. Only twice in his career was his ERA in the 3.9 to 3.95 range and never was it higher. It had also been quite a bit lower.

Things changed in 2011. His ERA jumped to 4.82. His FIP was 4.59, which was high, but he’d been near that before. His xFIP was 4.34, which wasn’t really that high. It had been higher twice in his career. The reason for the high ERA isn’t entirely HR/FB rate. It was only 11.3%, which is higher than you’d expect and higher than his career average, but not by that much. The biggest reason is this:

1st and 2nd: .994 OPS allowed
1st and 3rd: .814
2nd and 3rd: .840
1st, less than 2 out: .840

Zambrano was hit very hard in those situations, which are going to result in a lot of runs. This is sequencing. There’s no reason to believe that Z’s talent level is .994 OPS with runners on 1st and 2nd. His true talent level in that situation is equal to his true talent level overall.

This doesn’t mean that Zambrano pitched well. He gave up 9.5 hits per 9 (a lot higher than any other season). He gave up 1.2 HR/9 (also the highest in his career). He only struckout 6.2 per 9, which was by far the lowest in his career. His walk rate improved to 3.5 per 9. As a result, his K/BB was about the same as it’s been for Zambrano since 2006. His fastball velocity was a bit lower than last year, but not much different. Both years are a mph slower than previous years. Or more.

Zambrano is getting hit harder, striking fewer out and in 2011 gave up a lot of home runs. There’s been a lot of talk by the pundits about who could bounce back in 2012 and I haven’t heard Zambrano’s name mentioned. Carl Crawford has the best chance of bouncing back, but I could also see Z being quite a bit better. He’ll never be the pitcher he was many years ago, but he could still be useful.

Looking ahead to next year we can get an idea of how well Zambrano is expected to be by looking at the available projections. Bill James is projecting a 4.13 FIP. CAIRO projects 4.05 FIP while ZiPS projects 4.26. That’s a 4.15 average projection.

He’s pitched only 275.1 innings the last 2 years. He’s been injured a bit more than the past and his behavior has cost him significant playing time. There’s no way we could project him to pitch 200 innings. James projects 181 innings, but CAIRO projects just 103 and ZiPS projects 137.2. The average is 141. That’s 1.8 WAR.

That puts Zambrano in the range that teams have shown a willingness to get rid of problem players for little or nothing.

I don’t know if I’d trade Zambrano or not. I’d have some questions, but I’m sure Theo and Hoyer have better ones. Can we expect him to pitch more than 140 innings? Can we expect him to bounce back a bit or is closer to what he was last year? The projections look at the previous years so there’s some regression involved. Considering the mileage on his arm, it’s entirely possible his true talent level is closer to what he did last year than what the projections are. If he could pitch 180 innings at a 4.13 FIP, that’s about 2.4 WAR. A 4.3 FIP in 180 innings is 2 WAR.

Whether or not trading Zambrano makes the Cubs better, and I don’t see how anyone can argue it does based on what we know, teams have made decisions to cut loose player similar to Zambrano so it’s hard to say it’s a bad decision to do so. In fact, I’m inclined to think it’s the best thing to do and that really is tough to say considering how much I’ve enjoyed watching him pitch over the years.