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« Volstad's Act Against Lefties Predictable | Main | Dumpster Diving: Free Agent Outfielders »
Thursday
Jan052012

Hitters Teeing Off on Big Z's Heat

I can't wait for the third and final season of HBO's Eastbound & Down to start in February, but Kenny Powers' antics might look downright prudish compared to what goes down in the Miami Marlins' clubhouse next year. You've got a brand new park arousing SEC suspicion, a manager in need of a three-second tape delay, two star shortstops on the left side of the infield, an Elvis-impersonating closer, and a Twitter-loving left fielder. And now, add Carlos Zambrano to that South Beach powder keg.

The Cubs shipped Big Z to the Marlins for young but lefty-and-homer-prone starter Chris Volstad. Chicago will cover $15 million of Zambrano's $18 million salary for 2012 (no word on whether the Cubbies will chip in for the extra Gatorade dispensers and Louisville Sluggers the Fish will inevitably need). Zambrano waived a $19 million option for 2013 that would have vested if he finished in the top four in Cy Young voting.

While Big Z was once good for 200-plus innings and a sub-four ERA, he's a far cry from Cy Young form these days. The 30-year-old right-hander is coming off his worst season in the majors, striking out a career-low 15.9 percent of batters faced, surrendering a career-high 1.17 HR/9 and posting a career-worst 4.59 Fielding Independent Pitching in 145.2 innings before calling it quits on August 12 after a five-homer outing against the Braves. Volstad actually had a lower FIP, at 4.32.

Zambrano's on-field woes can mostly be traced to his heat. His fastball didn't miss nearly as many bats as usual, and his sinker, well, didn't.

In 2009, hitters slugged .381 against Z's fastball and missed the pitch 16.6 percent of the time they offered at it. Zambrano's fastball was even better in 2010, limiting batters to a .242 slugging percentage with a 21.6 miss percentage (those are just his numbers as a starter, to make an apples-to-apples comparison). But in 2011, opponents teed off to the tune of a .513 slugging percentage and they missed Z's fastball just 11.5 percent. Lefties were especially troublesome, slugging .589 and missing just 10.4 percent of fastballs swung at. Z has lost some zip on the pitch, averaging 90.2 mph compared to 90.6 in 2010 and 91.5 mph in 2009.

In '09 and '10, Zambrano did a good job of limiting contact on fastballs thrown at the knees or at the tip of the strike zone. Check out his fastball contact rate by pitch location, compared to the league average:

Zambrano's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2009-2010

Average fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2009-2010

This past year, though? Zambrano was seeing red just about everywhere in the zone, and that was particularly the case in the lower half:

Zambrano's fastball contact rate by pitch location, 2011While Z's fastball got hit more often and harder, his sinker refused to stay down. Zambrano threw about 14 percent of his sinkers high in the strike zone in 2009. That increased to 25.5 percent in 2010 and spiked to 28 percent this past year (the average for starters is about 23 percent).

With Zambrano putting more sinkers on a tee, opponents' slugging percentage against the pitch climbed from .343 to .444 to .489. Those high sinkers are the ones hitters scorched last year:

Opponents' in-play slugging percentage vs. Zambrano's sinker, 2011

Zambrano threw fewer fastballs and sinkers than usual in 2011 (a combined 50.5 percent, down from around 54 percent the two previous years), yet 13 of the 19 homers he coughed up came on those pitches.

The Marlins aren't taking much of a financial risk in adding Zambrano to a rotation that already includes Josh Johnson, Anibal Sanchez and Mark Buehrle, and the club's new stadium may well play as a pitcher's park that aids Z in keeping the ball in the park. But if Zambrano doesn't miss more lumber with his fastball and get his sinker to sink, Miami could regret giving up three years of Volstad for one year of mercurial mediocrity.

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