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Victor Zambrano Revisited

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I wrote this about Victor Zambrano back on May 1 at Baseball Rants, before we moved here. One month later, I'd like to take a quick look:

After the most recent debacle from Mr. Zambrano, we see a hearty 5.81 ERA through 5 starts, through which he's averaged less than 5.1 IP in each one. Here's some info, though:

4/8: 5 IP, 2 ER
4/14: 6 IP, 3 ER
4/19: 6 IP, 2 ER
4/24: 5.1 IP, 7 ER
4/30: 4 IP, 4 ER

The two most recent starts are abysmal, but the first three weren't too bad. Looking further, though, we see the problem.

4/8: 5 IP, 10 runners
4/14: 6 IP, 13 runners
4/19: 6 IP, 11 runners
4/24: 5.1 IP, 14 runners
4/30: 4 IP, 9 runners

This is a bit too many. Opponents are putting up a .316/.429/.469 line on VZ, another absurdity.

But we see some bright spots. There aren't many, but we can dig deep.

Zambrano's .153 IsoP allowed isn't awful. Using some zero-sum game-theory type analysis (what's bad for one is good for another), we can see that a .153 IsoP, in 2004, was about where Shea Hillenbrand, Jody Gerut, Jeff Conine, and Jack Wilson were. These aren't bad names. Currently, the NL's average IsoP is .150, so VZ is right there. (I like to use IsoP over HR/9 most of the time just b/c I think that pitchers have some manner of control over EBHs).

The BABIP is also a very, very, very high .364. And Prospectus tags it higher; my estimate is at .364. The walk totals have been very high, but the hits are also way up. At this point, it's good to take a step back and think of DIPS logically. Can a pitcher dictate where a ball is hit? For the most part, no. If you're throwing pitches down the middle, however, you can count on them being hit harder. And DIPS, to me, is a measure that is most effective over larger samples.

The way I actually look at DIPS is regardless of what you believe about pitcher control over hits, it's certainly much easier for a pitcher to control his Ks, BBs, and HRs. So we look at that as a more effective measure of a pitcher's most relevant skills. Your degree of acceptance of DIPS is up to you, I guess.

So I attribute his high BABIP to mainly luck but partially his own fault. Hell, sample size makes it fairly irrelevant, too, but it is a reason why he's done SO poorly.

Even though Zambrano is walking everyone (5.65 BB/9), when he IS managing to get people out, the K is involved frequently. He's averaging 7.67 K/9. The FIP is also lower than his ERA at a surprising 4.87 (manageable home run totals and the high Ks are helping).

I supported the Zambrano trade with a few reservations back when it happened for a couple reasons:

  • I am and remain very skeptical of pretty much every pitching prospect, especially those who do not post impeccable control figures (Joe Blanton in 03-04 qualifies; Scott Kazmir does not).
  • I think that Kazmir, based on his size, will blow out his arm.
  • And I wrote this back on what is now known as Black Friday:
"Talk about high prices. When did Victor Zambrano become so freaking good? Well, he's pretty hard to hit; he's not allowing a high opponents batting average at all. His problem? Control. He walks more men than a lot of Little Leaguers, it seems. The Mets have to like his age and stuff, the former being 28, and the latter being a mid-90s fastball, a good changeup, and a slider. Someone in the Met organization really likes Zambrano, because Scott Kazmir became "touchable." Kazmir throws mid to high 90s as well, is young, and has dominated AA over the last month or so. In 4 starts in AA, he's got a 1.73 ERA, and he's not walking all that many. Also striking out everybody. The Mets are supposedly worried about his health...I've gotta give the D'Rays the slight edge on this deal in particular.... "

As you can see, I took a leap of faith. Ignoring the evidence, I opted to go with the fact that "God, the Mets can't be that stupid, can they?"

I still don't believe that Zambrano is a lost cause. And, unfortunately, his case is out of the realm of statistical analysis, because mechanically, if Rick Peterson can ever get Zambrano to do whatever it was that persuaded him into the "10 minute fix," it becomes better.

What it boils down to, though, is what I failed to see back in '04: regardless of what happens with Kazmir, the Mets probably sold him for a lot less than they could have gotten. This is why the Zambrano trade will always be a poor one: other GMs, I can assume, would have easily put together a package better than Zambrano if they'd known that Kazmir was available.

To me, Kazmir SHOULD have been available (for the right price), but that's because I tend to think that most pitching prospects can fetch their best value in trade while they're prospects. Many "can't miss" prospects do fail. But when the best you can do is Zambrano? Ick.

Anyway.

This wasn't supposed to become a rant.

I'm still holding out hope for Zambrano, because the indicators aren't all bad. But there's going to come a point where the Mets will be changing around their rotation, for when Benson and Trachsel comes back or they want to break Petit / Bannister into the rotation come August or September. Zambrano could easily become an odd-man out, especially if Heilman pitches well.

Guess what? Somehow, after 10 games, Victor Zambrano's ERA is 4.24, which is right around what he did last year and the year before. How does the man do it?

  • His BABIP, which was very high in April, came back down to Earth over the last month. It's currently at .298.
  • He doesn't give up many homers, and accordingly, keeps the ball down and induces grounders (these two things are not always related, but it does hold up in this case). His 1.72 G/F currently ranks 11th in the NL among qualifiers.
  • Opponents are hitting .259/.377/.373 against him. The isolated power is now at .114, which is quite low (around where Eric Chavez has been all season). More interestingly, I ran a simple comparison of that line to players from 2004, and the best match that I found was Ryan Freel, who hit .277/.375/.368. Now, I like Ryan Freel, but he's not a particularly good player.
  • I would say that Zambrano's last 5 starts have been rather flukish, much like his first 5 were. In his last 5, he has posted a 2.90 ERA with a 19/20 K/BB ratio. That can't keep up. But Zambrano just put together a good stretch of 31 innings.
This isn't computing, as expected. Just as Zambrano's stats were abnormally bad, they've turned to abnormally good. His dERA is at 4.88 right now, and even without that number, the lower strikeout rate and increasing walk rate (it's up to 5.8 BB/9 from 5.6 when last we looked)  don't portend too well.

I'd expect some regression at some point soon, but it would not surprise me to see Victor Zambrano's ERA, at the end of the season, somewhere around 4.3. That's not great, but Victor Zambrano is what he is: a serviceable back-of-the-rotation starter.

Maybe Rick Peterson's onto something right now; Zambrano just pitched his best outing in a really long time against the D'Backs, going 8 innings, surrendering 5 hits, 3 walks, 1 run, and getting 5 Ks. This is either a huge step in the right direction, or, most likely, just more of the same from Victor Zambrano. And, setting aside the fact that they overpaid (for a minute), that's not awful.