The comeback of Carlos Zambrano

May, 29, 2012
5/29/12
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Carlos ZambranoSteve Mitchell/US PresswireCarlos Zambrano's proof you can't keep a big man down.


On Memorial Day, Carlos Zambrano spun his eighth quality start in his 10th turn as a Marlin. In all of the stories of happy comebacks, this one may not get all that much play. But seeing him pitch effectively for the Marlins, for a manager getting his own second chance -- or so -- it’s a bet made, and so far, won by the Marlins’ front office and by Ozzie Guillen. They were correct in their assessment that the Venezuelan workhorse could still help carry a club as a capital-A asset instead of being a… quadruped’s keister.

There’s nothing especially funky to why Zambrano has been more effective this season. Maybe you can call it a case of getting a change of scenery, as long as you don’t ascribe Zambrano’s comeback to his new home park: If you’re already convinced that Marlins Park will be a pitching haven, Zambrano hasn’t been starting any more often in Miami, splitting his 10 starts evenly between home and road. He’s walking more people than your average bear, posting a strikeout rate just a little bit over league average, 18.4 percent to 17.9 percent, nothing to shrug off from a starting pitcher.

For Big Z, this has been equal parts reinvention and renewal. The beefy right-hander’s fastball has lost yet another tick, sitting around 89 instead of 90, and as much as you can place faith in Pitch F/X’s ability to properly pigeon-hole off-speed offering, it looks like he’s relying on his splitter more now than he did in his days in Wrigleyville.

Perhaps more significantly, his ratio of ground balls to fly balls is higher than it’s been since 2003, something a lot more important for his future than a nice dip in his ratio of home runs to fly balls: If he allows fewer fly balls in the first place, it’s going to be harder for more people to hit home runs at all. Regression monkeys will no doubt despair over an FIP or xFIP a run higher than his current ERA, fearing what that portends for the future, but I’d suggest that if, two months ago, you’d get an ERA anywhere between 3.80 and 4.00 from Zambrano every fifth day, the Fish would still be down with this deal.

So he isn’t the power pitcher he was back in his heyday, back when he was the best Venezuelan import among the Cubs’ highly-touted power arms in the early Aughties. But he is the guy who has actually delivered while the other, more famous guys like Mark Prior and Kerry Wood tried and failed and broke down. He’s the one who’s still here, having pitched 500 more innings than the now-retired Wood, or 1,200 more than Prior, the man with the so-called “perfect mechanics.” He’s the guy from the 2003 Cubs with the most career WAR, though that might be seen as a case of setting the bar low.

He isn’t even the most famous ex-Chicago pitcher on the staff, taking a back seat on that score to Mark Buehrle… while throwing one more quality start than the former White Sox stalwart. Instead, Zambrano’s tied with Anibal Sanchez with a team-leading eight, and just two of those have been the bare-minimum six-inning, three-run jobs. Not bad for a guy slotted as his new team’s fifth starter at the outset, and certainly better than Chris Volstad, the guy he was dealt for when the Cubs’ new regime dumped Z. Volstad’s now yet another one of the Cubs’ children in the corn, laboring in ignominy for Iowa.

Maybe the problem with touting this particular comeback is that Zambrano’s relationship with the media might be best described as "fickle." After all of the meltdowns, and perhaps especially all of the overreactions to his overreactions, there might be something quaint about the notion that the Big Z is simply news for how he’s pitching, not what he’s saying or doing.

How much any of that really matters in terms of having any impact on Zambrano’s career would be guesswork at best, and how much that matters in terms of his return to usefulness probably means even less. But Zambrano’s back. I say we enjoy the ride as long as it lasts.

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