Miami Marlins Season Preview: Carlos Zambrano

Mar 13, 2012; Jupiter, FL. USA; Miami Marlins starting pitcher Carlos Zambrano (38) warms up before the game against the Atlanta Braves at Roger Dean Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Scott Rovak-US PRESSWIRE

Welcome to the Miami Marlins Season Preview! After this, check out the other previews:

02/24: Catcher
02/27: First base
02/28:
Second base
03/01:
Third base
03/05: Shortstop
03/06: Left Field
03/08:
Center Field
03/12: Right Field
03/14: #1 Starter
03/15: #2 Starter
03/19: #3 Starter
03/21: #4 Starter

The Miami Marlins Season Preview series continues to look at the team's important pieces. The Marlins have re-stocked their rotation with free agent acquisitions and a trade for a fiery former ace who was likely never as good as advertised but may be better than he is valued now. The team is not asking much of Carlos Zambrano, which is good news, as he is not likely to be able to provide "much." However, for a fifth starter, he has a lot of upside on a one-year deal with little money involved.

Rotation

1. Josh Johnson
2. Anibal Sanchez
3. Mark Buehrle
4. Ricky Nolasco
5. Carlos Zambrano

Zambrano came over in the Chris Volstad trade, and both pitchers were coming off of very poor 2011 seasons. The differences between the two were simple:

- Zambrano had a better track record of success, dating back as late as the 2010 season.

- Volstad was the younger pitcher with the possibility of improvement on his side.

It was a matter of trusting the experienced, if declining Zambrano for one season over three years of Chris Volstad's possible improvement. But Zambrano did have a few other obstacles in between him and 2012 success.

We mentioned when discussing the trade that some of what Zambrano did go through was likely to regress, in particular the large number of home runs that he allowed in 2011 compared to his career marks. The idea was that simple regression should bring him closer to his career home run allowance rates, and that does not take into account his moving away from the Friendly Confines of Wrigley Field to the new, more spacious Marlins Park. However, it is not as if, in terms of home runs, Zambrano has fared all that differently between home and road.
Zambrano, Home/Road IP HR%
Home 902 1/3 1.9
Road 916 2/3 1.9

Zambrano has done an equally good job at home and on the road in suppressing home runs, so it is no guarantee that he will improve on his old rates by moving to Miami. But the spacious dimensions and his overall track record does suggest that the home runs will drop once more.

Unfortunately, some of the problems he had suffered from were real. In particular, Zambrano simply cannot get away with a lack of strikeouts because of his distinct problem with walks. For his career, he has walked hitters at a rate of 10.6 percent, and he needs a decent strikeout rate to balance his ballooning walk rates. Unfortunately, last season he struggled with strikeouts, posting a career-low 15.6 percent rate.

Zambrano, Season Swing% O-Swing% Contact% O-Contact%
2011 43,9 25.2 84.7 69.8
2010 42.6 24.8 80.9 62.3
2007-2011 (Pitch F/X era) 44.0 26.6 82.4 66.6

In terms of plate discipline, Zambrano did not change all that much. Yes, hitters made contact at a career-high pace, but his location in the zone did not seem to be affected, nor was his ability to induce swings. All in all, you would not have suspected, looking at just these numbers, a significant change in results when it comes to strikeouts. Yet that bump in contact rate was enough to condemn him to mediocrity last season.

Luckily for him, one factor that could have helped to contribute to this problem may be on its way back to normalcy. Zambrano's velocity has slowly been deteriorating over the course of five seasons.

Zambrano, Season FF Vel (mph)
2011 90.2
2010 90.5
2009 91.5
2008 91.6

The fall seemed to have actually occurred in 2010, meaning that not all of the craziness that went into moving Zambrano temporarily into the closer's role was unwarranted. Perhaps Lou Piniella saw something in Zambrano's starting pitching, which could have included a drop in velocity, and felt it best to move him to the 'pen. Of course, Zambrano had a mostly deserving 3.19 ERA as a starter, so some of that may have been Piniella's irrationality as well. Nevertheless, for two seasons now, Zambrano's velocity has been down one mph from his previous level. But in this offseason, we have heard numerous reports that Zambrano's velocity was up in winter league play and has shown decently high in Spring Training as well.

More than the result, Zambrano is measuring his outing on how he felt; physically, he's fine. A big number to watch is his radar gun reading, since his velocity was known to dip last year.

But Big Z threw 91-93 mph and maxed out at 94 mph, leading Mets left fielder Jason Bay to tell Zambrano, "It's too early in Spring Training to throw that hard."

If there is one statistic that can certainly benefit from an improved velocity, it is Zambrano's strikeout rate. If his velocity remains in the 91-92 mph range, we may return to seeing him whiffing close to 20 percent of hitters like in 2009 and 2010.

What do the projection systems think about those chances?

Zambrano, Proj IP K% BB% ERA FIP
ZiPS 137 19.7 10.9 4.20 4.12
Steamer 158 17.8 10.1 4.53 4.39
PECOTA 144 19.2 10.6 4.11 3.97
Fans 168 19.1 9.9 4.08 4.18

Most of the systems agree with a projection of Zambrano near the 4.20 ERA mark. The projected strikeout rates are almost identical between three of four systems, and almost all systems see a repeat of Zambrano's career walk rate as well. When averaging the four systems and eight stats, you get an estimated ERA of 4.20.

Projection: 168 IP, 1.7 WAR

I used the Fan projections for innings since the other systems' projections were affected by Zambrano's 2010 bullpen stay and his 2011 extended suspension. If he throws 28 starts and pitches to the caliber that we project here (and mind you, that is about the same caliber that we projected at the time of the deal), the Fish can almost expect league average performance from a starter who was essentially cast away this offseason. Compare this to a pitcher like Volstad, who may be improving but just as likely could still have severe problems with home runs and pedestrian strikeout and walk rates, and it is not difficult to see why the Marlins went with a more all-in approach in an attempt to improve almost one win in 2012.

The Marlins are likely to feature a few more starters in their 2012 team. With each player's projected innings total in the rotation, the team's starters currently total to 898 innings. Last season, the average major league team was able to rustle up 976 innings from their rotation. If we use that as our assumption for the team's total rotation component, that means 78 innings would go to the likes of Wade Leblanc and / or Alex Sanabia. For now, let us assume a 75 / 25 split in the innings between these guys.

Projection (Leblanc): 59 IP, 4.36 ERA, 0.5 WAR
Projection (Sanabia): 19 IP, 4.52 ERA, 0.1 WAR

Even the replacements, as bad as they are projected to be, are not all that awful and contributed 0.6 WAR to the team in replacement innings. As a total, the Marlins' starting staff is projected to contribute 14.8 WAR. That is a solid contribution from a staff that should compete as one of the better ones in the National League, primarily due to its depth from first to fifth slot.

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