Big Z Staying Grounded in Miami

May 7, 2012; Houston, TX, USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano (38) pitches against the Houston Astros during the third inning at Minute Maid Park. Mandatory Credit: Thomas Campbell-US PRESSWIRE

It’s an annual rite… I’ve written off Carlos Zambrano as finished for seemingly every season dating back to 2008. Let’s face it… There isn’t a single pitcher who walks the line between quality starter and spontaneous combustion victim quite like the Big Z. It’s almost as if he does that glove wiggle thing to slow the burning fuse.

Yet, here we are again. After a three hit, one walk complete game shutout of the Houston Astros on Monday, Zambrano picked up his first win of the season.

It was an impressive performance where he threw 109 pitches with 68 of them for strikes. Of the 20 balls Astro batters put in play, 10 of them were grounders. He finished with a Game Score of 89, which is tied for the fourth best score of 2012. (Behind a perfect game, a no-hitter and Matt Cain’s 11 strikeout, 1 hit gem against the Pirates.)

The question is: Can he continue to provide fantasy value?

The answer, following the jump.

First, let’s look at the standard sabermetric stats. Zambrano sports a 1.98 ERA against a 3.59 FIP and 3.74 xFIP. With a disparity that wide, it’s not surprising he has a whopping 88 percent strand rate. Yes, that’s extremely high, especially given he owns a career strand rate of 74 percent. However, at this point in the season, there are a ton of quality starters who have rates north of 80 percent. Including fantasy war horses such as Stephen Strasburg, Jered Weaver and Felix Hernandez. That’s not to say Zambrano (and the others) will occupy that territory all summer. It’s simply interesting to note that the starters whom we consider to be off to the best starts, also generally have the highest strand rates over the season’s first month.

Similarly, Big Z is sporting a tremendously low .234 batting average on balls in play. While that rate is way below the league norm for a starting pitcher, it’s actually not that far off from Zambrano’s career numbers. Hitters have generally had a difficult time squaring up and getting decent wood on Zambrano’s pitches. We generally accept the .300 BABIP as the standard and explain deviations in either direction as "lucky" or "unlucky." However, in a little over 1,800 career innings, Zambrano owns a career BABIP of .275. With a BABIP that low over that many innings, I wouldn’t call him lucky. I would call him good. Now, the last couple of seasons his BABIP has crept closer to the .300 range. Probably not a coincidence those seasons represent the lowest total innings he’s thrown since becoming a full time starter back in 2002.

Zambrano has always induced more ground balls than fly balls and owns a career 1.48 GB/FB rate. Except, like his BABIP over the last three seasons, his ground ball rate was inching in the wrong direction. Here are the percentages of grounders he’s induced over the last five seasons:

2008 - 47.2%

2009 - 44.7%

2010 - 43.6%

2011 - 42.4%

2012 - 50.5%

According to PITCHf/x, Zambrano is throwing a variety of fastball about 50 percent of all pitches. His four-seamer is the least effective of his fastball array - hitters are scorching it for a line drive 86 percent of all balls in play. Smart for him that’s the fastball he features the least. His other fastballs - a cut fastball and a splitter, along with a sinker - is where he’s finding the most success.

Here are his ground ball rates on his different "fastball" pitches.

Four-seam - 14%

Sinker - 4

Cutter - 54%

Splitter - 63%

That’s pretty impressive. Note how his pitch selection has evolved over the last four seasons:

Zambrano_selection_medium

(Pitch classifications come from Brooks Baseball. FA - Four Seam Fastball. SI - Sinker. FC - Cutter. SL - Slider. CU - Curveball. CH - Changeup. FS - Splitter.)

More cut fastballs and fewer four-seamers. And the result is more ground balls in play, which keeps his strand and home run rates in check. It's an ideal late career adjustment for a starter who has lost around 4 mph off his fastball since the early part of his career.

Zambrano certainly won’t keep his ERA under 2 for the entire campaign, it will creep closer to his xFIP. Plus, his BABIP will adjust, but I'd bet he keeps it around his career rate of .275.. Overall, his peripherals and pitch selection (not to mention his home ball park) lead me to believe he can be a valuable starter. He’s worth an add if you’re looking to fill a hole in your rotation.

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