Z-Files: Carlos Zambrano's Decline Revisited

Matt PoloniCorrespondent IDecember 19, 2008

Bleacher Report Division
Agent Poloni
File No. 38

Our case was originally opened on Dec. 14 with an initial report filed by Agent Butts.

Typically the Bleacher Report Division takes cases that are fairly well-known, but this case is different. Carlos Zambrano, a 27-year-old Venezuelan import, is still regarded by many as a true ace for the Chicago Cubs. The offense in question is regarding his decline in performance between the 2005 and 2008 baseball seasons that is uncharacteristic of an ace.

Originally, the only suspect in this case was Johnnie B. "Dusty" Baker, the 59-year-old former manager of the victim. At this time, Baker is facing similar allegations against two of Zambrano's former teammates (see: files No. 22, 34).

Zambrano's first full year as a starter with the Cubs was 2003, the same year that Baker began his tenure with the club. That season, after pitching 276 innings the previous two seasons combined (138 per year), he pitched a total of 214 innings.

Over the course of the season (32 starts), he threw fewer than 86 pitches only once,  over 95 pitches 28 times (88 percent of his starts), more than 100 pitches 23 times (72 percent), over 110 pitches 13 times (41 percent), and over 120 pitches six times (19 percent). His highest pitch count was 129 and he averaged 106.5 pitches per outing.

From 2004 to 2006, Zambrano made 97 starts. In those three years, he went over 90 pitches 91 times (94 percent), over 100 pitches 82 times (85 percent), over 110 pitches 52 times (54 percent), over 120 pitches 19 times (20 percent), and had one game in which he threw 136 pitches. On average, he threw 110 pitches.

After four years with the Cubs and two consecutive losing seasons, Baker was relieved of duty.

Zambrano's first season under a new manager saw a slight drop in his pitch counts. In 34 starts, he went over 90 pitches 32 times (94 percent), over 100 pitches 26 times (76 percent), over 110 pitches 18 times (53 percent), and over 120 five times (15 percent). He averaged 108 pitches.

The 2008 season was a whole new story. He started only 30 games and his pitch counts dropped. Only 22 of his starts were over 90 pitches (73 percent), 18 over 100 (60 percent), seven over 110 (23 percent), and two over 120 (7 percent). He averaged 100 pitches.

There is very little doubt that his high pitch counts contributed to his drop-off in performance and stamina in 2008, but there is at least one other factor that might be influencing his progression.

It is now believed that the victim's plight may be, at least in part, self-inflicted.

Zambrano has long been considered one of the most intense players in Major League Baseball. While this intensity has worked in his favor on many occasions, including during his no-hitter on Sept. 14, it is also seen by some to be the prime culprit in his recent decline.

Intensity can wear on a player much more than pitch counts ever could. It will drain your energy and your patience. It will wear on you physically and mentally. It will eventually stop you in your tracks if it goes unchecked.

For pitchers, intensity takes its toll at a much quicker rate. While position players have to play every day, they will typically only feel the negative effects within the same day or if they sustain an injury as a result of their intensity. On the other hand, when a pitcher is intense, every pitch can have a negative effect.

Intensity can cause any player to press. When a pitcher presses, he tends to overthrow. Overthrowing usually causes the pitcher to use his legs and core muscles less and, as a result, use his arm more.

Even a small shift of use from the legs and core muscles can cause great stress on the lower back, shoulder, elbow, wrist, and fingers due to the fact that the former set of muscles can handle a greater amount of force. But injury is not required for there to be an adverse effect on the pitcher.

Since the legs and core muscles can handle more force, they are able to act more efficiently than the arm itself. Using too much arm can cause a pitcher to miss his spots. By missing his spots, he will most likely get hit harder, and the harder he gets hit, the harder he will press.

High pitch counts only intensify this process.

In addition, players who show their intensity the way Zambrano does expel large amounts of energy that (for purposes of performance) are unnecessary. This can also wear on a player, decreasing stamina.

But even the application of this theory is in question since Zambrano was credited as far back as 2006 with "keeping his emotions in check." With this opposing thought comes another theory: He needs to have more intensity.

It is true that a player who is naturally intense typically exhibits a decline in performance after that intensity begins to dissipate. And this may very well be the case.

It should be noted, however, that there is more than one kind of intensity. A player can be intense without running off the field pumping their fist, yelling, and jumping in the air. A player can be quietly intense with a more composed countenance.

If his problem is being too intense, it would be in his best interest to tone down his emotional outbursts. But if his problem is that he is not his old self, then he needs to bring back that intensity in a new form.

Baker has had a role in the current decline of the Cubs' longest-tenured starting pitcher, but may not be completely at fault. Zambrano needs to examine his approach to the game and act accordingly.

This file remains open.