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Projecting Carlos Zambrano

It's no surprise that the Chicago Cubs are looking to lock up their 26-year old ace in Carlos Zambrano.  Though extension talks has apparently cooled down, I think it's still a good bet that Zambrano is extended by the Cubs during the current season.  The Cubs certainly don't want their ace to walk next winter, where he can test the market and probably reel in a deal larger than the contract Barry Zito signed with San Francisco this winter.

The general consensus among Cubs fans is that extending Zambrano isn't just a no-brainer for Jim Hendry, it's essential to contending for years to come.  After all, at just 26 years of age it's reasonable to believe Zambrano will remain productive for at least the next five seasons barring any sort of injury.

I personally believe much of the above is true.  Zambrano is an incredible talent and at just 26 years old, I believe he has many good years ahead of him in a Cubs uniform or not.  

His PECOTA forecast however, has grabbed my attention as well as the attention from other baseball fans.  It is here I will ponder whether Zambrano really is a lock to succeed in his years after signing his first big free agent contract.

What He's Done

Here is a look at Zambrano's production over the last three seasons:

Looking at Zambrano's 3-year numbers alone, I think most of us would agree that the Cubs should do everything in their power to extend their number one starter.

From 2004 to 2006, Big Z has combined to produce 24.7 wins above the replacement level player, a figure that not too many pitchers have topped over the last three years.  Zambrano has also never placed lower than twelfth in pitcher VORP during this stretch, showing an increase in his number of strikeouts per nine innings while also keeping the ball in the ballpark.  

Is Carlos Zambrano elite?  Not too much doubt in my mind.

But by the same token there also a few warning signs here.

While his ERA has risen each of the last three years, I'm more concerned over his PERA rising to a rather unhealthy 4.03 last season.  You can't ignore his walk rate either, which rose to an unacceptable 4.84 BB/9 last season, the worst figure among major league starters.  It's also interesting to note the declining groundball percentage.  

You can't find a perfect pitcher in the major leagues, and while Zambrano is still a terrific pitcher, he does have a few flaws.

The Projection

Here is a look at PECOTA's 5-year Valuation for Zambrano:

Yikes!  What happened here?

The first thing that jumps out to me has to be the decrease in workload.  For a guy Cubs fans refer to casually as "a horse," PECOTA expects to see a massive decrease in innings over the next half decade.  Zambrano isn't expected to improve his control and there should be no reason as to expect so given his recent history.  

Zambrano's 2007 projection still looks darn solid, but his WARP is projected to plummet a good three wins when comparing to his 2006 season, a pretty significant decrease.  

I personally find this forecast pessimistic, but in no way do I find it ludicrous.  I believe Zambrano is due for better things over the next five seasons, but this forecast should generate concern among Cubs fans.

The List of Similar Players

Outside of the amazingly accurate projections, my favorite feature of the PECOTA system is without a doubt the list of similar players.

Zambrano's list of similar players is an interesting one.  Appearing on the list is future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, who today at 40 years old is still producing.  Also appearing on the list is Freddy Garcia who is still producing at age 31.

But the list also features more than a few pitchers that don't sit so easy with me.  Let's take a look:

Mark Gubicza:

Gubicza was terrific with the Royals from his age 24 to 26 seasons but saw a tremendous decrease in workload and effectiveness beginning at age 27.  He would pitch 200 innings in a season just once more in his career as he pitched his last in the major leagues at age 34 in 1997.

Dean Chance:

Chance was an absolute horse during his age 21 though 27 seasons, pitching very effectively during that tenure.  He was ineffective, however from his age 28 season onward, as he saw three different teams throughout the next three years retiring at the age of 30.

Kerry Wood:

Carlos Zambrano the next Kerry Wood?  That's enough to churn the stomach of any Cubs fan.  Wood was awesome during his age 25 and 26 seasons, but has faced numerous injuries and surgeries since then.  At age 30, Wood still pitches for the Cubs, but is currently listed on the DL and won't be coming back as a starting pitcher.

Jose Rijo:

Awesome during his age 26 through 28 season, but saw a significant workload decrease at age 30. By age 31 he was out of the majors and somehow returned at age 36 pitching out of the Reds 2001 bullpen.  He was out of big leagues by the end of the following year.

Joe Coleman:

Very effective during his age 21 though 28 seasons, but declined at age 29 never amassing 150 innings in a season again during his major league career.  Coleman was out of the majors by his age 33 season.

For the sake of time and space, I'll stop but other rather "concerning" names on Zambrano's list of similar players include A.J. Burnett, Ralph Branca, Wayne Twitchell and Jim Maloney.

I'm beginning to see a pattern here:  Great pitchers during their early twenties, but saw massive decreases in workload in their late twenties.  Many didn't last in the major leagues past the age of 35.

Avoiding the Projection

While this projection is in no way set in stone (projecting a pitcher in itself is difficult, projecting a pitcher for five seasons is just that tougher); it does breed some concern on my part.  Certain precautions should be taken by the Cubs to protect their young ace.

Watch Your Workload:

Zambrano has placed eleventh, second and second each of the last three seasons respectively in Total Pitcher Abuse Points Accumulated.  While BP's Pitcher Abuse Points System often raises controversy, there is no denying that Zambrano has been worked hard, particularly over the last two years.  A guy like the soft-tossing Livan Hernandez, who is overworked year after year, can sustain productive levels of playing time each year, but a guy like Zambrano, who continuously exerts tremendous force on his pitches, needs to be watched more carefully.  Dusty Baker apparently wasn't a big fan of pitch counts; hopefully Lou Pinella is, as he needs to carefully monitor Zambrano's workload during his starts.

Watch Your Emotions:

I don't have any statistical evidence to back this argument up, but Cubs fans as well as myself know Zambrano has a tendency to pitch with "too much" emotion often leading to trouble. I'm sure the phrase "settle down" has often been muttered to Zambrano by either former Cubs' manager Dusty Baker, catcher Michael Barrett and pitching coach Larry Rothschild and it's a phrase Zambrano needs to start taking to heart.  When things don't go in Big Z's way, he starts throwing rather than pitching; trying to blow the ball past every hitter he faces often leading to poor control. As ridiculous as it may sound, Zambrano's emotions might be something holding him back.

Final Thoughts

As I mentioned earlier, projecting a pitcher for five season is an extremely difficult task, even for a projection system of PECOTA's prestige.    

But Zambrano's five-year forecast has opened my eyes to the possible dangers that lie ahead if the Cubs don't watch Zambrano carefully, both physically and emotionally.