Z-Files: Mysterious Case of The Decline of Carlos Zambrano

Ricky ButtsCorrespondent IDecember 14, 2008

Decline in performance
Wrigley Field
Carlos Zambrano
Dusty Baker
Ricky Butts
Bleacher Report

SYNOPSIS:  Since the end of the 2004 season, the Chicago Cubs have noticed a decline in the performance of their "Ace" Carlos Zambrano.  In 2007 they signed him to a five year, $91.5 million contract.

BACKGROUND:  Hailing from Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, Zabrano was signed by the Cubs in 1997 as a raw 16-year-old.  He would move through the Cubs system in four years, making his debut on August 20, 2001.

2001 Review: Big-Z made one start and five relief appearances.  Six appearances that made it look like he did not belong on a major league roster.  He pitched only 7.2 innings and gave up 13 earned runs, equalling a 15.26 ERA.

2002 Review: Z made big strides in his second opportunity.  In 2002 he pitched 108.1 (16 starts and 16 relief appearances) innings.  He showed a big improvement in control and it showed in his 3.66 ERA.

2003 Review: Carlos' first full season found him in the rotation full-time.  He quickly became the third starter behind superstars Mark Prior and Kerry Wood.  he helped the Cubs make it to the NLCS where they... everyone knows that story.  Zambrano compiled a 13-11 record while throwing 214 innings with a 3.11 ERA.

2004 Review: Injuries to the top two in the Cubs rotation, Mark Prior and Kerry Wood, quickly moved Zambrano to the rank of "Ace."  He didn't disappoint as he put together a season that would anchor him as a number one pitcher.  He had a 16-8 record, with a 2.75 ERA.

2005 - 2008 Review: Over the next four seasons, Zambrano's stats have steadily fell off.  Is ERA saw a slight increase to 3.26 in 2005.  It then jumped to  3.41 in '06, 3.95 in '07, and fell slightly to 3.91 in 2008.

The most alarming stat comes with innings.  In 2005 Zambrano was over-worked, throwing 223.1 innings and many times throwing over 120 pitches in a single start.  His innings then went to 214 in '06, 216.1 in '07, and then a huge drop off to 188.2 in 2008.

EVIDENCE: Many believe that Dusty Baker was the downfall of the Chicago Cubs rotation from 2003-2006.  In his four seasons with Chicago he was widely scrutinized for over working his starting pitchers.

After his initial year, Baker's rotation was rarely ever healthy.  Injuries to Mark Prior and Kerry Wood only put more on Big-Z's workload.  Looking at innings won't show the true story behind Baker's misuse of the pitching staff.  Instead, pitch counts must be studied.

In 33 games in 2005 Carlos averaged 108 pitches per start (33 starts), it went up to 110 per start (33 starts) in '06 under Baker.  Piniela's first year, 2007, wasn't much different as Big-Z averaged 109 pitches in 34 starts.  But, 2008 was a different story.  Zambrano's average dropped to 100 pitches per start and he made only 30 starts. 

INVESTIGATION:  Over the past four years, the decline of Carlos Zambrano has went widely unnoticed.  He is still considered one of the elite pitchers in the National League, but would not be considered by some to be a number one pitcher.

I personally view him as the Cubs number three pitcher going into 2009.  Behind Ryan Dempster and Rich Harden.  Though a much more rested Zambrano could find himself right back at the top of the rotation in early 2009.  His talent can not be argued, but the strain put on him between 2005-2007 could hinder the rest of his career.

I believe after two years pushing the 4.00 ERA mark, Zambrano will be determined to push his way back to the top of the National League pitching ranks.  He undoubtedly wants to prove he is worth the $91.5 million the Cubs signed him for in 2007.

It must be noted that in 2008, after skipping two starts, Zambrano came back looking sharp.  On Sept. 14, he allowed only two base runners in route to his first career no-hitter. 

CLOSING:  Carlos Zambrano is a young man with a lot of experience and talent.  He could very easily turn his career around and find himself right back at the top of the National League's best pitchers.

Dusty Baker is guilty of over working Zambrano during his tenure as manager, but it is now up to Big-Z to perform like he can.