Thursday, April 22, 2010

Zambrano move more fodder for the sabermetric faithful

Let's just say the Zambrano move was very unpopular with the numerically inclined. The numbers have been crunched and the verdict is...Off with Hendry's head! For a look into what everyone is screaming about, here's a link...

So, does this mean this is an absolute horrible idea?

Here's a very brief recap of what people are saying...

*18M for a set-up man is a pretty inefficient use of funds in which the Cubs cannot possibly see a positive return on investment.

*Zambrano is a better pitcher than Silva per FIP and xFIP

*Silva cannot continue this torrid pace. His BABIP rate of .178 is unsustainable. He will "regress to the mean" over the course of the season.

You could go on and on. And, you know what? It's all true.

So...did the Cubs just really dash their playoff chances with one swift stroke?


When you look at sabermetric analysis, consider that it pretty much boils down to betting on the most likely outcome based on historical trends. But it isn't a black and white solution. This isn't irrefutable proof. This is like betting on the favorite at the race track. But you know what? If you always bet on the favorite, you will eventually go broke. Despite having the best odds, the odds of the favorite losing are often greater. If you really want to come out ahead, you have to buck the trend and beat the odds every once in a while. That is what the Cubs are trying to do -- and relax, everyone,they are not betting the whole farm on this one.

The odds are that over the course of the season with an equal number of starts, Zambrano will be a better pitcher than Silva by the year's end. However, analysis that uses FIP is using the most favorable argument. It deliberately eschews xFIP, which is more respected in most circles. Using xFIP, the gap between Zambrano and Silva is closer than you might think. And with Silva healthy and trending in one direction and Zambrano becoming less and less dependable and with some pretty mediocre xFIPs in the past few years, I'm inclined to believe the distance between Z and Silva has been greatly exaggerated.

And no one is expecting Carlos Silva to continue his current trend. We know he's going to regress. The Cubs know he's going to regress. Carlos Silva probably knows he's going to regress. We all know! The question is to what point? Since he is healthy for the first time in 3 years, is it possible that he can return to his 2007 numbers? Certainly. Silva's xFIP that year was 4.57. And it's not an outlier. In fact his career xFIP, including the horrid years in Seattle, is 4.47. For comparison's sake, Carlos Zambrano's xFIP in 2007 when he won 18 games was 4.62 -- higher than Silva's that year. Zambrano's xFIP numbers over the last three years: 4.62, 4.45, and an upward spike of 4.27 last season, though he didn't pitch deep into games and wasn't the workhorse the Cubs had come to depend on. Anyone who watched the Cubs last year couldn't seriously call Zambrano valuable last year, xFIP spike notwithstanding. And by the way, when you weight the averages for innings pitched, Carlos Zambrano's xFIP over the past 3 years is 4.47. The same as Silva's career xFIP. So taken into perspective, are those numbers really something to lose sleep over? I think if the Carlos Silva of 2010 can be as good (per xFIP) as the Carlos Zambrano of the past 3 years, the Cubs will take it. All it would take is for a return to his career average. That's what they're betting on. He doesn't need to sustain his current pace for this move to work.

As for spending 18M on a reliever, whoopie doo. That's overcompartmetalizing things. Let's look at the big picture. They're spending 18M whether he starts or whether he relieves. They are going to spend 25M between a starter and a set-up man anyway you slice it. If he can help the Cubs main weakness, the high leverage bullpen innings and Silva can at least approach Zambrano's numbers as a starter, then it may just be the best allocation of resources under the circumstances. The question it boils down to isn't whether Zambrano is a better starter than Silva. The question is this: Are the Cubs better off with Zambrano starting and Silva setting up games or a they better off with Silva starting and Zambrano setting up Marmol? The Cubs are betting that Zambrano will make a much better reliever than Silva and I'm inclined to agree on this one. Not only do all the stats we've talked about back that up, but you have to consider Zambrano's aggressive mentality, his power arsenal, and the fact that statisitically in his career, he has been much better the first time through the lineup. And it's less of a strain on the staff if the Cubs have to yank him early because of temper tantrums or crampy forearms.

So you get a possible major upgrade in the bullpen and a probable (but exaggerated) downgrade in the starting rotation. The overall payroll doesn't change one cent. It's the Cubs thinking outside the box. It may not work, but things weren't exactly working with Z in the rotation, and no one truly expected the Cubs to get much better. It's a move that took some guts. It's easy to recite the trends, salaries and numbers that most baseball people (including the Cubs who do have an advanced statistical analyst on the payroll) are already aware of.

Here's hoping the Cubs beat the odds and bet on a winner this time. It may not be the favorite, but it doesn't mean it doesn't stand a decent chance. And if it turns out to be the also-ran everybody thinks it will be, there's still plenty of time left in the season for the Cubs to hedge their bet and change their horse.


  1. When I first heard this yesterday I was wildly against the move. But now that I've had time to think about it maybe it's not as crazy as many people are making it out to be. When you have a strength (starting pitching) and a weakness (relief pitching) why not draw from your strength to improve the weak part of your team. If Z's arm can handle back-to-back outings this could actually work. Maybe we'll even see some old-time 2 or 3 inning saves. If you bring Z into the game in the 7th inning of a close game and he's lights out why not let him finish it? Things are going to get interesting come Friday.

  2. I had the same reaction at first. Initially, the numbers just jump out at you as a bad move. The more I looked at it, the more I thought, "This is just crazy enough to work!" Which, now that I think about it, is a better title for my post.

    One thing I've been wondering about with Z is if he'll go back to using his 4 seamer out of the bullpen. He relies on his 2 seamer as a starter because he needs to pitch more to contact and conserve pitches. My guess is that as a reliever, using his 4 seamer more and not worrying about pacing himself, he can get that heater backup in the 95-97 range where it used to be in his glory days. Z and Marmol can be a pretty nasty 1-2 punch out of the pen.