The 3rd Annual How Good Has Carlos Zambrano Been In His Career Post

I had thought about doing this again this year, but held off for some reason. After listening to Wrigley Talk Friday this morning I thought I’d finally do it. WTF talks about Carlos Zambrano for awhile to begin the podcast and like Julie, Tim and Adam, I’m as confused as they are. I really do not know why Carlos Zambrano is held to a standard that no other Cubs player in memory has been or likely will be.

On Another Cubs Blog we wrote it about it frequently and finally realized that the hardest W for him to ever come by is going to be with the fans and media. In fact, he simply cannot win with the fans and media. It’s not going to happen.

Some of this was talked about on the podcast, but I’ll go over it briefly. Fans want players to run out every ground ball. Think about how many times you’ve heard announcers, journalists and fans criticize a player for not running out a ground ball. Zambrano runs them out as hard as he can and people complain. Fans want their players to love the city they play for. Zambrano loves the United States enough that he got his citizenship here and he loves Chicago. He absolutely loves the city, the fans, the atmosphere around the city. Everything. Fans ignore it. Fans want their players to be human beings and divulge some personal information. Zambrano does it all the time and fans tell him he needs to shut up. Fans want players to be good husbands and fathers. Zambrano, from everything we’ve ever read is. Fans criticize him for playing catch with his children in the park. Fans want players who care about winning. I’ve watched few players in my life who cared about winning as much as Zambrano does. Fans complain. Fans want players to show some emotion because if they don’t, they’re lazy. Zambrano shows as much emotion as we’ve seen and fans think it’s a problem. Zambrano saved an infant from a burning apartment firefighters were too frightened to enter. Fans complained. The last one didn’t happen of course, but if it ever did, the fans would complain. It doesn’t matter what he does. Everything is wrong. Nothing is good enough. That’s where these articles have come from.

The first article has a rundown of where Zambrano ranked among all starting pitchers and among all Cubs starting pitchers midway through the 2009 season. Last February I took another look at it and I’ll now take a look at it again through the early part of the 2011 season.

The goal was to look at stats that the average person accepts and uses regularly. Advanced metrics are fantastic and far better, but you’re not going to convince the average man by throwing weird acronyms at him. We will look at advanced metrics, but we’re going to start with much simpler ones. 

Wins is a pitching statistic that is mostly useless, but fans love them some wins. I used a cutoff of 1950 since pitchers prior to that finished many of the games they started. That was true in the 50s, 60s and even 70s, but I didn’t want to break it down into just 20 or 25 years. Zambrano has won 118 games in his career between the ages of 20 and 30. Among 20-30 year olds since 1950 only 65 pitchers have won more games than Zambrano over those years. Many of those pitchers were from the 50s and 60s. Since 1980 only 22 have won more games than Zambrano between those ages.

Not only has Z won a lot of games, he hasn’t lost that many. His career winning percentage is .615. Since 1901 only 54 starting pitchers with 1000 or more innings pitched in their careers have a higher winning percentage than Zambrano. That’s nearly the entire history of the game.

Wins among starting pitchers for the Cubs since 1980 (ages 20-30) has Z at the top (23 more wins than Maddux). That 46 more wins than the pitcher in 3rd (Kerry Wood), 58 more than Steve Trachsel (4th), and 71 more than Frank Castillo who sits 5th. There’s not even a Cubs pitcher who is even close to Zambrano in wins from the same age that Zambrano has been since 1980. Since 1950, Fergie is at the top by a wide margin, but Zambrano is 2nd. Since 1901, only Fergie Jenkins and Ed Reulback have more wins for the Cubs than Zambrano does (age 20-30 seasons). Since 1876, Zambrano ranks 16th in wins for the Cubs and his career isn’t over. As much as fans say they like wins, it’s hard to argue with someone who has put together more wins for the Cubs than all but 15 pitchers in its entire history.

Z’s .615 career winning percentage ranks 9th on the Cubs all time among starting pitchers. The latest year one in front of him began his career was 1906. Nobody that began their career after 1906 has a higher career winning percentage (among starters of course) than Carlos freaking Zambrano.

Fans like wins. Fans still complain about Zambrano even though they’ve not seen anybody with a higher winning percentage for the Cubs.

ERA is still a stat many fans like. ERA is relatively useless when trying to compare one era to another, but ERA+ can do that. Since 1950 Carlos Zambrano‘s 126 ERA+ ranks 18th among pitchers who started at least 60% of their appearances and threw 1000 or more innings in their career (equivalent of about 5 full seasons these days). 18th! He trails Kevin Brown, Matt Cain and Tim Hudson by 1. He’s tied with Bret Saberhagen, Sal Magile, and Jim Palmer. He’s 1 ahead of John Smoltz and John Tudor and 2 ahead of CC Sabathia.

Since 1901 (same parameters as above), he ranks 37th. ERA isn’t a great stat at all to evaluate pitching, but the fans love it. Only 36 pitchers since 1901 have a higher ERA+. He ranks 43rd if we go all the way back to 1876. Think about that a moment. Have you ever done anything in your life that ranks as the 43rd highest in over 130 years? Me neither. It is important to note that Zambrano’s career is not over and players get worse as they age so his numbers are likely to go down, but so far that’s where he ranks all-time.

Among Cubs pitchers (60% starts, 1000 or more innings) in the the entire history of the organization, only the following players have a higher ERA+ than Z’s 126: Mordecai Brown (153), John Clarkson (151), Jack Pfiester (139), Orval Overall (135), Lon Warneke (131), Pete Alexander (131), Cark Griffith (129) and Larry Corcoran (128). Only one of them started their career after 1906. That was Lon Warneke who began his career in 1930. Think about that one for a moment. No player who began his career with the Cubs in 80 years has a better ERA+ than Carlos freaking Zambrano!

Fans like ERA. They still complain about Zambrano.

People say Z is too inconsistent. Game Score is a relatively simple formula that has been around for awhile thanks to Bill James. It measures how well one does in each start by assigning a singular number to it. Z’s average game score in his career is 55. Since 1950, that’s tied for 63rd with Dan Haren, Tim Hudson, CC Sabathia, Justin Verlander, Mike Mussina, Dwight Gooden, Dave Steib, Phil Neikro and several others. Game score only goes back to 1919, but Zambrano sits in the same spot if we go back that far. Among Cubs starting pitchers with 1000 or more innings, only Fergie Jenkins and Kerry Wood have a better average game score. That’s it.

Similar to the above, we can use quality start percentage (QS%) to also see how consistent a pitcher was. It’s far from perfect, but no stat is (especially the traditional ones). Since 1950 he’s 54th. He ranks right behind Nolan Ryan and ahead of John Smoltz. He ranks 51st if we go back to 1919 (as far back as they have the stat). Only 50 pitchers have had a higher percentage of their starts be quality starts. Among Cubs players since 1919, only Bill Hands (.634), Fergie Jenkins (.628) and Kerry Wood (.624) have a higher QS% than Zambrano.

Moving on to some of the advanced metrics. Since 1950 (60% starts, 1000 innings), Z’s 31.1 WAR ranks 37th among for players through the age of 29 (Zambrano turns 30 later this season). Only 36 starting pitchers since 1950 have been better than Zambrano through the age 29 season. Since 1901 he ranks 53rd and in the entire history of baseball only 79 were more valuable than Zambrano. Since 1950, only Fergie Jenkins and Rick Reuschel were more valuable Cubs pitchers (same parameters) than  Zambrano. He’s also 3rd most valuable since 1901 and since 1876 he’s 5th (John Clarkson 2nd, Clark Griffith 4th).

Among all pitchers since 1950 (60% starts, 1000 or more innings), Z’s 31.1 WAR ranks 99th. WAR is a counting stat so it will continue to rise. Since 1901 he ranks 164th and 197th in the entire history of the game. Think about that one for a moment too. In the entire history of baseball, more than 130 years, not even 200 have been better than Carlos Zambrano. So far. There are hundreds of pitchers each and every season.

Since 1950, no age limit, only 4 Cubs starting pitchers have been more valuable than Zambrano. Only 7 have been since 1901 and he ranks 11th since 1876. Bill Hutchinson, Clark Griffitch and John Clarkson all pitches in the 1880s when baseball was such a different game than it is today. They’re just ahead of Zambrano. How many people who attended a Cubs game this season saw those guys pitch? How many of them saw Mordecai Brown, Pete Alexander or Hippo Vaughn pitch? For that matter, how many of them even saw Bob Rush, Fergie Jenkins or Rick Reuschel pitch? There are only 3 pitchers on the list above Zambrano that I saw: Jenkins, Reuschel and Maddux. I was -2 years old when Reuschel began his Cubs career and -6 when Jenkins did. Each had long enough careers that I remember watching them when I was a child. Maddux is still my favorite player ever and I remember not only his Cubs days well, but also his days in a Braves uniform. It would be silly to sit here and say Zambrano is as good as Maddux, because it’s not even close, but in a Cubs uniform he wasn’t much less valuable.

Everything above is where Zambrano ranks in various eras and various statistics. I didn’t cherry pick any of them. I looked for some stats that I know the average fan still loves. I looked for stats that fans have specifically criticized Zambrano for.


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