Carlos Zambrano kept the Miami Marlins in a three-way tie atop the NL East standings on Sunday, limiting the Phillies to one run over 7.2 innings and belting a 431-foot homer for good measure. Big Z, shipped out of Chicago this past winter after one too many tirades, has far more pop than most pitchers (his 24 career homers tie him with Bob Gibson and Walter Johnson for fourth all-time among moundsmen). But he has turned his career around in Miami by preventing big flies.
The 31-year-old has cut his home run rate in half (from 1.2 HR/9 in 2011 to 0.6 this season) and has improved his ERA+ from 80 last year to 145 in 2012. The key to Zambrano's comeback is his sinker -- he's using the pitch more, busting hitters inside more often and getting grounders at an elite clip.
In 2011, Zambrano used his sinker a little less than 30 percent and had a ground ball rate with the pitch that was slightly below the 53 percent average for starting pitchers. With the Marlins, he's throwing his sinker more than 40 percent of the time and waging a ground war:
|Year||Pct. Sinkers Thrown||GB Pct.|
Zambrano has allowed just one home run and is limiting hitters to a .376 slugging percentage with his sinker this year, compared to eight homers and a .489 slugging percentage in 2011. Big Z isn't just throwing the pitch more often; he's mixing up his location as well. Check out his sinker location to righty batters in 2011, and then 2012:
Zambrano is busting right-handers in on the hands more often this season, increasing his percentage of sinkers thrown inside from 28 percent to 37 percent. Same deal against lefties:
Big Z has doubled his percentage of sinkers thrown inside to left-handers from 13 percent last season to 26 percent in 2012.
Zambrano's stock dropped markedly in recent years, as he devolved from the power arm of his early twenties to a low-octane starter lacking great control and gradually losing the ability to keep the ball down. But, armed with a bat-busting sinker, Big Z's career prospects are looking up.