The Miami Marlins acquired Carlos Zambrano and banked on the ability of Zambrano to bounce back from his career-worst season in 2011. At the time of the deal, I expected the Marlins to do somewhat well for themselves by picking up a decent-caliber pitcher to play in a fifth starter's role. Zambrano, after all, was only two seasons removed from a decent 2010 and the team was paying very little for his services. The worst that could happen was that Zambrano would not be a viable pitcher and the team would have to move him to the bullpen by midseason.
That is exactly what happened, unfortunately.
|Carlos Zambrano||132 1/3||16.1||12.7||4.49||4.47||0.8||0.2|
Yes, Zambrano's 2011 season was easily the worst season of Zambrano's career, but when you look at the strikeout and walk rates from that season, they did look good enough to expect a return to decency in 2012. After all, it was the lowest walk rate from Zambrano in his career, and while the strikeout rate was also at its lowest, it yielded a decent enough strikeout-to-walk ratio to expect some regression from him. The only problem that reared its ugly head in 2011 was that his home run rate was at its highest and included a home run per fly ball rate that was fairly high, especially with a move to a bigger park in Marlins Park.
Well, in 2012, home runs were not a problem. Zambrano threw 132 1/3 innings and gave up just nine homers, a rate of 1.5 percent of his batters faced. The problem was not in Zambrano's strikeouts either; his career low strikeout -rate went up a spell to 16.1 percent. The problem was in walks, as Zambrano gave up a whopping 12.7 percent walk rate in 2012. He essentially walked one out of every eight batters in 2012, which is an insanely high number. The problem for Zambrano was a combination of deteriorating skills, as he threw the second-lowest number of pitches in the zone since 2007 this season and got too few hitters to chase pitches. Like in 2010, Zambrano only got hitters to chase 25 percent of pitches out of the zone in 2012 despite some heavy cutting movement still present in the big righty's repertoire. But unlike in 2010, Zambrano allowed more contact, especially on pitches out of the zone, leading to fewer strikeouts with a similarly high walk rate.
The odd thing about Zambrano's year was that, up through May, it looked pretty good. In that opening time span, Zambrano put up a 3.00 ERA and 3.87 FIP to begin the season. The Marlins were dreaming of the possibility of having a stacked rotation to support a potential playoff run. But from the start of June until Zambrano was pulled from the rotation in late July, he was terrible. He threw 49 innings, walked 40 hitters with only 34 strikeouts, and allowed a 6.61 ERA and a 5.22 FIP that did not show how truly terrible he was. Sure, some of that was simple regression from an extremely low BABIP through May (.247 from April through May versus .303 from June through late July), but a good majority of it was just Zambrano losing his ability. In June, hitters swung at only 21 percent of his out-of-zone pitches and made too much contact that resulted in balls in play and foul balls rather than swings and misses. This trend continued in July.
The Marlins eventually had enough, and once they acquired enough rotation pieces via trades, the team relegated Zambrano to the bullpen. He found menial success there, putting up a 4.12 ERA and 4.15 FIP on the way to an uneventful end of his season. But even with the improved numbers out of the pen, the team relegated him mostly to seventh inning, long relief, or mop-up duty, no longer trusting him to provide quality innings. With the pen struggling as badly as it did, that is a telling sign that the Marlins believed Zambrano lost something, and it was hard to watch him play in June and July and not believe that as well.