All hail King Theo for accomplishing the impossible: trading the undesirable Carlos Zambrano.
Some Cubs fans are wringing their hands over losing Zambrano's talent. But his high-mileage, lower-fastball arm makes it debatable whether he'll ever be the same ace who once threw a no-hitter in 2008.
What's more, if a winning Cubs culture is to be nurtured—as Epstein has promised—then addition by subtraction was necessary.
Distractions are not welcome in a Cubs dugout focused on winning. As a bonus, Cubs players can feel safer knowing that the likelihood of being punched in the face just got substantially lower.
At one point, Cubs fans thought the team would be lucky to get a bag of balls in return for the volatile Venezuelan with the hefty contract. In getting Chris Volstad, some fans think the bag of balls might have been better.
In 2011, Volstad posted an alarming 5-13 record and 4.89 ERA, worse even than the dreadful Rodrigo Lopez.
But is Volstad really that bad?
Yes, he is still young at 25, under team control until 2014 and an innings eater. But if Volstad is so bad, does all that other stuff matter? Do we really want Volstad under team control until 2014 if he's so awful?
As it turns out after digging a little deeper, I found three positive things about him that should give Cubs fans optimism for 2012 and beyond.
Mental headaches aside, comparing Carlos Zambrano and Chris Volstad on performance would appear to heavily favor Zambrano.
Over the past two seasons, Zambrano has gone 20-13 with a 4.12 ERA. Volstad, on the other hand, has gone 17-22 with a 4.73 ERA.
But digging a little deeper at some more meaningful numbers, we see a different story.
First, Zambrano has pitched 275.1 innings; Volstad, 340.2. Some of Zambrano's innings were curtailed due to team suspension and Lou Piniella's odd decision to move Zambrano to the bullpen.
But Zambrano also has had back spasms that have made him less durable than while in his prime. Regardless, Volstad has pitched 65.1 innings more than Zambrano during this period. That's about 10 or 11 extra games pitched!
Second, while Zambrano has a better K/9 ratio (7.13 to 5.79 for Volstad), Volstad has a better BB/9 ratio (2.88, compared to 4.09 for Zambrano).
Last, Zambrano's WAR the past two seasons is 3.2. Volstad's is 3.1.
The stats don't make this look so lopsided anymore.
And we have more numbers to look at.
ERA is a misleading statistic.
If a pitcher leaves the game with runners on base, his ERA is at the mercy of the pitcher who replaces him. If the incoming reliever gives up hits that allow the runners to score, those runs are charged to the pitcher who wasn't even on the field when those plays happened.
It's time to look at some advanced statistics to get a better idea of how the pitchers performed.
One such metric is called FIP. It stands for Fielder Independent Pitching (initially conceptualized by Voros McCracken), and it controls for balls in play that pitchers have little control over.
Another metric is xFIP, or Expected Fielder Independent Pitching. This was developed by Dave Studeman from The Hardball Times and is calculated the same as FIP except that it replaces a pitcher’s home run rate with the league-average rate, since pitcher home run rates have been shown to be very unstable over time.
Together, these two stats help give a better picture of a pitcher's performance than ERA.
Over the past two years, here is a comparison of the two pitchers:
Volstad closes in on Zambrano using FIP and actually is better under xFIP.
What's more, Volstad's FIP and xFIP both outperformed his ERA while Zambrano's FIP and xFIP were worse than his ERA.
Fangraphs points out that Epstein's other starting pitching acquisition, Travis Wood, also has a FIP and xFIP that outperforms his ERA, perhaps unveiling an statistic that Epstein is targeting.
So while Volstad's ERA doesn't give fans any confidence, a closer look at the numbers shows Volstad isn't as bad as the average fan would realize. In fact, he may even be (gasp!) better than Zambrano.
Remember how Volstad had a 5-13 record while Zambrano had a 9-7 record in 2011?
Wins and losses are a poor tool to measure pitcher performance. It doesn't account for run support, reliever performance, fielding errors, etc.
I looked at both pitchers' games in 2011 and collected the data of how many runs each pitcher gave up at the time he was pulled from the game. It is slightly simplified since it doesn't include the run expectancy of any baserunners left behind. However, for our purposes, and since a large majority of these games did not leave runners behind, this is a good starting point.
Using quality starts, 51.7 percent of Volstad's starts were quality starts. Zambrano was slightly better at 56.5 percent, but that 4.8 percent difference is a far different picture than what the win-loss records indicate.
And if you go game-by-game, you see that Volstad actually had four additional "decent" games—which I would loosely define as three runs allowed in five innings or four runs allowed in six innings—to go with those quality starts.
Volstad bad outings:
- Apr 12: 5 R, 4.2 IP
- May 2: 5 R, 5 IP
- Apr 6: 4 R, 5 IP
- May 30: 4 R, 3.1 IP
- Jun 14: 8 R, 5.2 IP
- Jul 5: 7 R, 4 IP
- Jul 17: 4 R, 3 IP
- Jul 22: 4 R, 5 IP
- Aug 19: 4 R, 5 IP
Volstad decent outings:
- Apr 21: 2 R, 5.1 IP
- May 13: 4 R, 6 IP
- May 19: 3 R, 5 IP
- Aug 14: 4 R, 6 IP
- Sep 12: 2 R, 5 IP
Volstad quality starts:
- Apr 26: 2 R, 7 IP
- May 7: 2 R, 6 IP
- May 25: 2 R, 6 IP
- Jun 4: 3 R, 7 IP
- Jun 9: 3 R, 6.2 IP
- Jun 19: 1 R, 7 IP
- Jun 25: 2 R, 7 IP
- Jun 30: 1 R, 7 IP
- Jul 10: 3 R, 6 IP
- Aug 24: 3 R, 6 IP
- Aug 31: 2 R, 6.1 IP
- Sep 6: 2 R, 6 IP
- Sep 17: 1 R, 7 IP
- Sep 23: 1 R, 7 IP
- Sep 28: 2 R, 6 IP
Let's see how Big Z fared in his starts.
Zambrano bad starts:
- Apr 13: 5 R, 5.2 IP
- Apr 24: 6 R, 5 IP
- May 16: 4 R, 5.1 IP
- Jun 10: 7 R, 6.1 IP
- Jun 15: 5 R, 6 IP
- Jul 16: 8 R, 4.2 IP
- Aug 12: 8 R, 4.1 IP
Zambrano decent starts:
- Apr 8: 4 R, 6 IP
- May 10: 4 R, 7 IP
- May 21: 3 R, 5.2 IP
Zambrano quality starts:
- Apr 2: 3 R, 6 IP
- Apr 18: 0 R, 8 IP
- Apr 29: 2 R, 6 IP
- May 4: 1 R, 8 IP
- May 26: 2 R, 6 IP
- May 31: 1 R, 8 IP
- Jun 5: 1 R, 7 IP
- Jun 20: 3 R, 8 IP
- Jun 25: 2 R, 7 IP
- Jul 22: 2 R, 6 IP
- Jul 27: 2 R, 7 IP
- Aug 1: 1 R, 6 IP
- Aug 6: 3 R, 6 IP
Let's compare starts between Volstad and Zambrano.
|Pitcher||Bad Start %||Quality Start %||Quality + Decent %|
We see that, despite the win-loss records, Zambrano is barely better than Volstad in all three measurements.
We've seen three reasons to have optimism about Chris Volstad:
1. Basic metrics show Volstad and Zambrano to be a lot closer than you thought.
2. Advanced metrics show Volstad to be slightly better than Zambrano.
3. Start quality also shows Volstad and Zambrano to be a lot closer than you thought.
So now when you read about how Volstad is under team control until 2014, you have objective reasons to believe that's a good thing instead of actually being a bad thing.
Volstad also had to deal with instability at manager and pitching coach (three of each in his four MLB seasons). Volstad should see more stability here in Chicago.
Combine that stability with the fact that (1) Volstad has more upside as he enters his prime, and (2) Volstad's production is very similar to former ace Zambrano—but without the drama—and it all adds up to optimism about this trade for this year and beyond.