Carlos Zambrano Kept On Truckin’

Sometimes the lights all shinin on me

Carlos Zambrano earned a cup of coffee in 2001 and then earned his spot in the 2003 rotation with his half-season of MLB work in 2002. Mark Prior and Kerry Wood were all anyone could talk about and Carlos Zambrano was quietly, and impressively, going about his business and becoming one of the better pitchers in the game. The years following 2003 saw Wood and Prior, one by one, taken out of the game time and again. Neither could stay healthy. Neither were guys you could ever count on to get 200 innings. Finally in the spotlight by himself, Carlos Zambrano would entertain us for for 7 or 8 years.

Zambrano had become the third name in the three-headed monster that was going to lead the Cubs to multiple World Series Championships. In their absence, which was a lot of the time, Zambrano showed that his name belonged at the top. He may not have had the exploding fastball and pinpoint control that Mark Prior had or the 100 mph fastball and ridiculously good curve that Kerry Wood had, but Zambrano was a very difficult pitcher to hit. And most importantly, he was healthy, which was something neither of the other two could do.

In the 2003 postseason, Zambrano did not pitch particularly well. It was the first time that the light had shined on him. Due to injuries to Wood and Prior, Zambrano would get the opening day start in 2005. After pitching poorly he was ejected. I believe this was the game in which he gestured to the umpire that he needed glasses. Dusty had already taken him out, but as he walked off the field he couldn’t help himself. It’s still one of my favorite Zambrano memories. 

Let’s jump back to 2004. Zambrano had what was arguably the best season in his career. He followed up his first full season in which he posted a 3.11 ERA and 3.47 FIP with a 2.75 ERA and a 3.57 FIP. He was worth 4.7 fWAR (4.9 in 2003). His rWAR was highest of his career at 5.5. Zambrano had posted what was arguably his best month of his career that September. While the club had fallen apart at the end of the month, it wasn’t Zambrano. Te Cubs won every single game Zambrano started in 2004 and he got the win in 4 of them. After the Cubs had been passed by the Astros and eliminated, Zambrano had a poor start against the Braves on October 2nd, but it was all over then anyway. In September he threw 35.2 innings over 5 starts, allowed 27 hits, 4 earned runs (5 runs overall), walked 11 and struck out 28. His ERA entering the month was a solid 2.94 and by the end of September it was 2.60. His poor start on October 2nd increased it to 2.75. 

From 2003 through 2007 Zambrano was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. Only Livan Hernandez, Mark Buerhle , Barry Zito and Brandon Webb threw more innings than Zambrano did. Of that group, he was the youngest. Only Johan Santana and Roy Oswalt won more games than the 77 Z won. He was 4th in strikeouts. He had the 8th best ERA+ and only Santana, Roy Halladay, Webb and Oswalt had more rWAR. 

2008 was a fun season to be a Cubs fan until the postseason. It was the best Cubs team I’ve ever seen them assemble and they gave us some memories to enjoy for a long time. One of those was on September 14th against the Astros in Milwaukee. Zambrano was coming off a rough month. In August plus his first September start (September 2nd) Zambrano had thrown 31.2 innings, allowed 36 hits, 26 runs, walked 18 and struck out 21. All of that was forgotten on the 14th when Zambrano faced only 28 Astros and allowed only one of them to reach base. It was the Cubs first no-hitter that I had ever seen. Zambrano threw just 110 pitches, 73 of them for strikes, walked one batter, struck out 10, hit another batter, but allowed no base hits over 9 innings. 

Considering his August performance, it was difficult to believe and even more difficult to believe as he allowed 9 hits in 7.1 innings over his final 2 starts. He also allowed 13 runs, walked 7 and struck out only 3. On the night of the 14th, Zambrano was nearly perfect. Obviously in decline, most people realized that what the future saw for Zambrano wasn’t anywhere near as bright as it had been or as it was on that night. We’d known for several years that Zambrano could no-hit any team on any night. It was the high point of Zambrano’s career and it came at a time that was arguably the low point in terms of performance. 

Other times I can barely see

Zambrano didn’t burst onto the scene like Wood. There was no 20-strikeout game early in his career. He didn’t impress the Cubs or the rest of the National League early in the ways that Mark Prior did. Even in the minor leagues things didn’t come especially easy to Zambrano. He wasn’t a highly touted prospect. Juan Cruz was considered the sure-thing starter entering 2003 spring training. Dusty Baker had different ideas. Like Wood, Zambrano was quite young when he reached the big leagues, but Sportscenter wasn’t covering his every pitch. 

Compared to Wood and Prior, Zambrano was able to pitch in relative obscurity. He was the 5th starter when the 2003 season began. Nobody had high expectations for Zambrano. Not even after his very good first full season in 2003. I remember thinking at the start of 2004 that I was most anxious that year to see how Zambrano would perform. We all knew what we had with Wood and Prior. When they were on the field they were unbelievably good, but Zambrano was that guy that could give them the Braves-like rotation that everyone my age remembers. Zambrano had his best season in 2004. 

Despite the early success, there were signs he wasn’t yet mature. He was young so it wasn’t a big deal. I recall him throwing more than a few fits early on. It wasn’t a big deal because he wasn’t the guy you were relying on to get you to the postseason. In reality you can’t rely on one player, but the Cubs weren’t relying on Zambrano to be their best starter. They had two who were better in Wood and Prior. After injuries started to derail their careers, Zambrano was thrust more into the spotlight than he ever had been. 

That first opening day start wasn’t memorable for reasons Zambrano would have preferred. All I really remembered about that game was the Cubs scored 16 runs, made Javier Vazquez look ridiculous and that Zambrano was ejected and gestured to the umpire that he needed glasses. To my surprise, Z’s start wasn’t as bad as I thought. He did last only 4.2 innings and had thrown 106 pitches. Only 57 of them were strikes so he had little command. He allowed 7 hits and only 3 runs. He walked 4 and struck out 8. For some reason I was thinking he allowed 7 or 8 runs in 4.1 innings. 

The next opening day in 2006, I also remembered that the Cubs won and scored 16 runs. I’m even pretty sure that Juan Pierre tripled to lead off the game. I also knew that Zambrano had a poor start, but had to look to be sure. Yeah, he allowed 7 hits in 4.2 innings, walked 5, struck out 5 and allowed 5 runs. He also gave up 2 home runs. 

A year later, Z had another poor outing on opening day, but this time the Cubs lost to Cincinnati. He allowed 6 hits and 5 walks over 5 innings and 2 home runs resulting in 5 runs allowed. I actually didn’t remember that one but remembered he pitched well in his next start that year against Milwaukee. I remember that because after his strong performance he said something he probably wished he hadn’t. He said something along the lines of the Reds being very good hitters and the Brewers weren’t. I recall Rickie Weeks saying something about how everybody in baseball knows that Zambrano is a nutcase. 

As fun as the 2008 season was, 2007 did not start out too well for the Cubs. After spending $300+ million on free agents, the Cubs got off to a terrible start. Nearly 10 games out in early June, Zambrano took his frustration out on catcher Michael Barrett. And he really took his frustrations out according to reports. He supposedly, after hitting him in the dugout, went to the clubhouse and beat the shit out of him. 

That was the first time I can remember Zambrano publicly apologizing for his actions, but it wouldn’t be his last. The 2007 team turned it around and that helped take much of the attention off of Zambrano. 

Following Z’s no-hitter a year later, incidents involving Zambrano seemed to happen far more frequently. He was in decline, surely frustrated that he was being paid more than he was worth, the injuries started to hit him making him more frustrated and he once again would take out his frustration on a teammate in 2010. Most of us thought it would be his last, but another public apology, some anger management and he returned the team and pitched quite well. At least the ERA numbers were impressive, as were the wins, but some of the peripherals were more than a little concerning. 

It had become clear that Zambrano had alienated his teammates by that point. His actions were always tiresome, but as his skills eroded they became less tolerable. We saw the same thing with Sammy Sosa years earlier. When Sosa was at his best, the players put up with his nonsense, but when he was just another guy, the Cubs were forced to ship him out of town while paying almost his entire salary. The same thing will have to be done here and what was once a very valuable player to any team now finds himself in a position where even finding a job may be difficult. 

Lately it occurs to me, what a long, strange trip it’s been

After I got to the Des Moines hotel room the other night I checked in on the Cubs game. i saw that Zambrano had given up a million home runs. I wasn’t particularly surprised as berselius and I have been highlighting his decline this season. It made me sad to see someone who was once so good pitch so poorly, but bad starts happen. A few moments after that I read about the latest disaster that Zambrano caused. As I read about it, I found myself sittin’ and starin’ out of the hotel window wondering what in the world ever became of Carlos Zambrano? He had reportedly told people he was to hang it up and see what tomorrow brings. 

Being my favorite player for a long time, Zambrano’s actions that night somehow put that song in my head. Assuming this is the last straw I began thinking about Zambrano’s career. What I wrote here are my thoughts on Zambrano’s career, the highlights and the low points while being saddened by his actions and listening to the Grateful Dead that night.