Carlos Zambrano: A Careening Chicago Cubs Career in 10 Slides

Matt TruebloodSenior Analyst IAugust 15, 2011

Carlos Zambrano: A Careening Chicago Cubs Career in 10 Slides

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    If Chicago Cubs GM Jim Hendry has his way, Carlos Zambrano will never pitch again for the Cubs. His final act of sedition, a rather quiet one really, came Friday night in Atlanta, when Zambrano left the team (very briefly) and openly contemplated retirement after a performance as embarrassing as it was frustrating.

    Coverage of the decade-long saga of Zambrano and the Cubs has tended to be rather simplistic, while the issue at hand is unflinchingly complex. To say he existed in shades of gray would be a disservice to the man's legacy; Zambrano's career mosaic is a tie-dyed hodge-podge of which the media has too frequently taken stark black-and-white photos.

    Few have understood Zambrano, and none have sufficiently explained him. He is and has been an enigma wrapped inside an adventure, but it's not to be overlooked: He also won games for the Cubs, and without him, much of the team's not-insubstantial success over the past 10 seasons would be impossible. Here are 10 notes on one of the most tumultuous tenures in the history of baseball's most tumultuous franchise.

1. Early Success and the Baker Treatment

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    Zambrano first saw the big leagues in 2001, scarcely two months after he turned 21 years old. During stunted stints in both 2001 and 2002, though, he was shuffled between the rotation and the bullpen, both in Chicago and in the minor leagues.

    No one was quite sure what to do with Zambrano. He had starter-caliber stuff, with three or four viable pitches, he could throw at any time. Trouble was, his command was spotty, and it was hard not to dream of him simply narrowing his repertoire and becoming a closer, where he could throw 100 miles per hour and strike out the world with two offerings.

    Dusty Baker arrived prior to 2003 with a different vision. A somewhat seasoned Zambrano had begun to show signs of commanding, if not controlling, his stuff, and so, Baker thrust him into the starting role in which he had pitched at the end of 2002. Zambrano responded with a 3.11 ERA fueled by a nasty sinker that kept the ball in the park.

    Unfortunately, Baker had very little in the way of a bullpen in 2003, and as the Cubs marched toward the playoffs, the temptation to push Zambrano (as well as Kerry Wood and Mark Prior) overwhelmed Baker. During one stretch in July and August, Zambrano threw 118, 118, 120 and 121 pitches in four successive starts.

    After a complete-game 1-0 loss in mid-September in which he threw 129 pitches, Zambrano finished the season with back-to-back losses and three middling playoff performances. Still, he finished with 214 innings on the year, at age 22, and he tacked 16.2 postseason frames onto it.

    In 2004, Wood and Prior got hurt, and Baker asked even more of Zambrano. Beginning in mid-May, Zambrano threw at least 100 pitches in 22-of-23 starts. Overall, he eclipsed 110 pitches 21 times that year. He blew by 120 pitches 10 times. Zambrano rewarded his skipper's faith with a 2.75 ERA and 16 wins, but Baker had established an abusive pattern, and no one would realize the long-term impact for years.

2. Bat Gives Birth to Big Z

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    In recent years, it has been common for sportswriters in Chicago to tickle themselves by splitting Zambrano into two halves—Carlos, the fun but restrained hurler with a finite focus and a singular sinker; and Big Z, the lunatic with the temper and the big swing.

    It's an oversimplification, but it happens to be half-true; Big Z was born the day Zambrano became a slugger.

    He could always hit. He hit two home runs in 2003 and another in 2004, but he really came into his own at the plate in 2005. That year, he hit .300 with nine extra-base hits, including another homer. Zambrano became famous for his power. He could go opposite-field from either side of the plate and even learned to hit for average at times.

    He never developed patience, but he hardly needed it. He hit six homers in 2006 and four in each of 2008 and 2009. In both 2008 and 2011, Zambrano had an above-average OPS for the NL, regardless of position. For a better sense of how much that production helped the Cubs, check out this piece.

    But regardless of that tangible contribution, Zambrano's batting prowess made him a superstar.

3. The Fire Within

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    Different people locate the beginning of Zambrano's downfall in different places. But if one truly studies Zambrano's temperamental assets and liabilities, the first sign of trouble probably came on April 24, 2006.

    That day, in a game against the Florida Marlins at Wrigley Field, Zambrano pitched a great game. Recovering from a rough start, he fanned 12 batters over seven innings and gave up just three earned runs.

    In the bottom of the third, though, Zambrano struck out swinging. Without hesitation, he snapped the bat over his knee. It instantly, simultaneously thrilled and appalled everyone who saw. It was a show of brute strength but also of ill-controlled emotions.

    It signaled something deeper, something that became Zambrano's biggest problem—he demanded far too much from himself.

    It's not that Zambrano cannot hit or pitch or field or do anything on a baseball diamond. He can. But that was never enough for him. He is as proud and competitive a player as the Cubs have ever had, but too often, he dwelt on poisonous feelings of frustration when the going got tough.

    He simply cannot deal with failure, and in a game where failure is a constant bedfellow even to the stars, that is a death sentence. Some players get frustrated or even furious during long slumps; Zambrano could get that way during long at-bats, whichever half of them he performed.

4. The Contract

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    I love to tell the story. It was January of 2007, and as usual, several thousand Cubs fans had gathered at the Chicago Hilton and Towers to concelebrate the annual Cubs Convention.

    Zambrano was prepared for a season that could have been his last in a Cubs uniform, as he was under contract only through the end of that season. He had the following credentials at the time:

    • Four consecutive top 10 finishes in ERA among NL pitchers (he was in the top eight in each year for pitchers' WAR)
    • Four consecutive years of 200-plus innings pitched and 31 or more starts
    • Two All-Star selections
    • Two fifth-place finishes in Cy Young voting
    • One Silver Slugger
    • One league walks title, with 115 in 2006

    He deserved an extension, but the signs of erosion were already there, and Hendry probably well knew that the team had taxed Zambrano's arm too heavily when he was young.

    But the faction in favor of Zambrano was tenacious. At the opening ceremonies, Zambrano's highlight reel got the loudest ovations. Throughout the weekend, his was the name on everyone's lips. And one outspoken fellow seemed to pop up at every live radio broadcast and question-and-answer session with the same verbal petition to management: "Give Carlos whatever he wants!"

    In that context, in that time and place, when Hendry had just spent hundreds of millions of dollars building a 2007 team designed to erase 2006 from the collective memory of that hotel's patrons, it became inevitable that Zambrano would get overpaid.

    On August 17, it happened. That day, the Cubs moved into first place in the NL Central with a huge win at home over the St. Louis Cardinals. Zambrano celebrated the occasion by agreeing to receive $91.5 million over the five successive seasons.

    The agreement, come to think of it, had probably been made weeks earlier, but the organization used the moment (an arduous comeback effort coming to realization, the city in rapture) as cover for the announcement of what they may have known, even then, was an inefficient signing.

    Since then, though, Zambrano and Hendry have worn the same heavy yoke. Without inviting expectations in any voluntary way, Zambrano made himself a target just by taking Hendry's money. Anyone would have done it; Zambrano was the unlucky son of a gun who did. Ever since, though he still has not completed a season with an ERA north of 4.00, fans have considered him a disappointment.

    Hendry made the mistake; Zambrano will pay for it. That well sums up the duo's relationship, especially now that Hendry's handling of the latest crisis seems to have garnered him extended favor from the Ricketts family.

5. The Fighter

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    Here we begin to wander into the nuance of temperament in baseball: Some things are good in certain contexts but bad in others, and too often, broad brushes paint the pictures of history.

    Zambrano plays baseball with extraordinary passion. He breathes the game, sometimes in that easy way one breathes when the night is still and summer air cool through the open window, and sometimes in great snorts that reminded people of a bull (hence the sobriquet, "El Toro").

    When it comes in those short, shallow breaths, Zambrano breathes fire, and that can be both a benefit and a detriment. At the plate, it worked for him. On the mound, it often worked against him. In the clubhouse and in confrontations on the diamond, it often made him seem utterly manic and misdirected.

    The obvious examples are the easy examples, so naturally, they are generally not instructive. One that might best embody the problem:

    On June 16, 2007, the Cubs were playing the San Diego Padres. Zambrano was on the mound, and had cruised through four scoreless innings when all hell broke loose. He was in the Wrigley Field clubhouse changing his jersey but watching the game unfold on television.

    When Padres starter Chris Young hit Derrek Lee near the head with a pitch, Zambrano slowed his dressing to watch a bit. When Lee began jawing with Young, Zambrano accelerated again. By the time each man had swung their long arms at each other a few times, Zambrano was halfway down the tunnel.

    He flew into the fracas, pulling and tugging at people with wild eyes and his clothes only halfway on. he was pulled from the pile shouting and gesticulating, his belt undone, holding up his pants, his jersey flapping open to reveal his blue undershirt. He told reporters he was there to break up the fight, but he seemed steamed even as he took the mound the next inning.

    But he did not retaliate. Instead, he continued to mow down Padres hitters. He kept a no-hitter going into the eighth inning, pitched 123 pitches to finish the contest and gave up just a solo home run in the ninth. The Cubs lost, but Zambrano—showing all the good and bad of his temperament at once—had a glorious day.

6. A Magical Game, a Microcosm in Scale

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    Zambrano's crowning moment came on September 14, 2008, in a game played before fewer than 10,000 fans. That day, in Milwaukee but pitching against Houston, Zambrano threw a no-hitter and not a fluky one—he walked but one and struck out 10 along the way.

    In a season already assured of being special—the Cubs clinched their second straight NL Central crown not a week after the feat—Zambrano's great day stood out for all manner of reasons.

    For Cubs fans, it lent hope that the team had spent its money wisely on an ace who, between some arm fatigue and general lack of command, had scuffled horrifically for the previous six weeks. It seemed a great way to cap a special regular season and move on.

    But Zambrano was unable to build on the performance. He had an ERA of 8.10 in the five starts prior to the no-no and a hideous 18.47 mark in the two starts thereafter to finish the regular campaign. He had thrown the great game on 11 days rest, and many surmised that he simply did not have it in him that August and September to pitch in a regular rotation. His arm seemed tired.

    Another reason presents itself, in hindsight. Yes, Zambrano was going to be better on long rest at that stage of the season. But he also had the advantage of pitching before an essentially neutral, very small crowd. He had no pressure, really, and no great level of energy to draw from spectators. If any career has been defined by the Heisenberg principle, it is this one, and that moment was a microcosm of Zambrano when the world is not watching.

7. The Baker Effect

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    Zambrano's velocity has been on a statistically significant downward trend since 2006. That's a fact.

    For some reason, reporters in some major outlets thrill in saying things like, "Scouts around the game have been whispering for a while now that Zambrano has lost zip on his fastball," which might be a perfectly accurate and direct quote but is not much use even so.

    Instead of relying on that incisive bit of reportage, let's go to the numbers:

    Year Carlos Zambrano Avg. FB Vel.
    2006 92.2 MPH
    2007 91.6 MPH
    2008 91.3 MPH
    2009 91.2 MPH
    2010 90.1 MPH
    2011 90.2 MPH

    It's not difficult to see that Zambrano's main problem, as he has declined, has been a loss of heat, and it's not hard to find the reason for that erosion. He threw very nearly 1,000 big-league innings at very high pitch counts through his age-25 season.

    Hardly anyone could stand up to that kind of abuse. The fact that he has not already descended into some rotator cuff-specific circle of Hell is a minor miracle.

8. Betrayal

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    The Cubs were hardly wild about Carlos Zambrano's behavior in 2009, when he went off on an umpire and a Gatorade cooler in May, then spoke out about unfriendly hometown fans in September.

    When he showed up in 2010 and got rocked on Opening Day, Hendry and then-manager Lou Piniella got to thinking about how they would handle the Zambrano problem.

    Three starts later—two above-average, one slightly worse—they moved him to the bullpen. It was ridiculous. Yes, Zambrano was a head-case, but he belonged in the rotation. The team certainly did not make the move to accommodate a stable of star prospects.

    It was an open slap in the face, a knee-jerk move by two desperate and myopic men, and although the experiment ended after five weeks and 13 uninspiring appearances, Zambrano never recovered. Four starts into his return to the rotation, the wheels came off.

9. U.S. Cellular Field

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    Zambrano was fully defensible up until June 25, 2010. That's when he really began to come unglued. All it took, predictably, was a bad inning.

    The Cubs were playing the White Sox on the south Side, where Cub seasons are won or lost most years. In 2006, the train had derailed in a May 20 brawl. In 2009, it came when Milton Bradley put himself permanently in Lou Piniella's doghouse with some undue signs of frustration. In 2010, it was Zambrano.

    After giving up four runs in the first inning, Zambrano hit the dugout steps huffing and puffing. He yelled furiously as he stalked up and down the dugout, and Derrek Lee took special offense. Whether Zambrano directly addressed Lee, who had loafed on a grounder to first-turned-triple, was not quite clear, but the two got into it, and Zambrano soon found himself at odds with the whole team.

    Piniella sent him home; the team suspended him for a month. Through it all, Zambrano was contrite, but it was clear that the Cubs had driven him past the point of no return. Although he did, in fact, physically return, the incident in Chicago in June made clear that Zambrano permanently snapped when the team demoted him to the bullpen in April.

    A two-month slow burn merely made things worse.

10. The End

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    Zambrano probably is not done with baseball. He has made positive mechanical adjustments this season, and though his ERA is sky-high, his xFIP shows he's been more or less the same pitcher he had been for the past two years. He will be back at some point, although very likely, not with the Cubs.

    If he were gone, though, Zambrano would retire as one of the more fascinating players in baseball history. He behaved badly at the end, though he was rarely as far in the wrong as his organization. He fell quickly from the height of his powers, again, due largely to things beyond his control.

    He continues to be an active giver of his time and money to charity, and he and his wife are adopting a homeless child from Colombia as the season goes on. He is a good man, one who (happily, really) could always tell east from west better than first base from third. He is as thoughtful and virtuous away from the game as he is tempestuous and adrift within it.

    Maybe pitching is too much strain for him: Zambrano could yet carve out a decade-long career as a power-hitting bench bat. In fact, he could be great at it. In the meantime, feel not sorry for Carlos Zambrano, who is a rich man in every way. But don't harbor a grudge against him, unless you also harbor one against: 

    • Jim Hendry
    • John McDonough
    • Dusty Baker
    • Larry Rothschild
    • Mike Quade
    • Mark Riggins
    • Crane Kenney
    • Tom Ricketts