Throw It Like a Ballplayer

providing baseball commentary and ponderings since April 2010

$20 Million Dollar Bullpen

Posted by dannmckeegan on April 21, 2010

Carlos Zambrano Is Going to the Bullpen

As Harry Caray would have said, HO-LY COW!  WSCR-670AM Chicago is reporting and Danny Knobler of CBSSports.com is confirming that Carlos Zambrano will be moved to the bullpen on Ted Lilly’s return from the disabled list this Saturday.  Zambrano, the Cubs opening day starter, is in the middle of a 5-year, $91.5 million contract.  Lou Piniella has reportedly said that the move is not based on Zambrano’s early season performance, but rather that he has the best stuff to succeed in a bullpen role.  Knobler’s blog proceeds to describe the move as “temporary, designed to give general manager Jim Hendry more time to find an adequate setup man in a trade.”With the impending return of Ted Lilly (44-26, 3.70 ERA, 3.28 K:BB, 1.145 WHIP from 2007-09) this weekend, Lou Piniella and Cubs pitching coach Larry Rothschild had a hard decision to make: what to do about the six-man rotation and three-man bullpen?

Entering play Wednesday, the team has coughed up 16 runs in the 8th inning alone.  Two relievers, Justin Berg and Jeff Gray, have yet to record a strikeout.  Forty-four individual relief appearances have yielded a 1.463 WHIP built heavily on 20 walks (compared to 37 strikeouts and 40 hits), not to mention 5 HBP, in 41 innings.  The eight relievers have allowed 6 home runs.  Opposing batters have feasted on the inexperienced and/or bad arms to the tune of a .258/.355/.445 triple-slash.  Of 188 batters faced, 33 (17.6%) have scored.

Really, the Cubs staff without Lilly is eight deep.  Carlos Marmol, Sean Marshall and rookie James Russell have each performed admirably in less-than-ideal circumstances.  Marmol has had to enter in the 8th a few times already.  Marshall has become the de facto 8th inning setup man, despite being a Big Lefty Curveball guy who was supposed to be a lefty specialist/emergency starter.  And Russell, a 2007 draft pick and spring training long-shot, has been forced into the “LOOGY” role Marshall left behind, twice sending down Prince Fielder on swinging strikes in high-leverage situations.

The starting staff, likewise, has performed better than expected.  Even including Zambrano’s horrific opening day, the starters have a 3.49 ERA and 4-3 record.  Zambrano lasted 1.33 innings on opening day.  Tom Gorzelanny was nailed with a lined drive on 17 April and left after 3 innings.  If we exclude those two outings, we have an average of 6.33 innings per start in the remaining 12. Without Zambrano’s laid egg and Gorzelanny’s shoulder bruise, the starters have an ERA of 2.97. It’s a pretty impressive start for a 5-9 team.

Likewise, the three good relievers have each had single bad outings.  Russell took the loss after serving up a home run to Angel Pagan on Monday.  Marmol blew the save against Houston Sunday, allowing an infield hit, stolen base, and double.  He finished the 9th before Marshall took over in the 10th, allowing a leadoff double, sac bunt, and sac fly to bring the winning run in.  Those three have put together some pretty good overall numbers:

G IP WHHBIP ERA K/BB Strike%
20 20 0.950 2.25 29:3 65.8%

Now, the bad relievers have been awful. It all just flows together. The five in question are John Grabow, Jeff Samardzija, Jeff Gray, Esmailin Caridad, and Justin Berg. Here’s a chart for them like the one above:

G IP WHHBIP Runs/9 K/BB Strike%
24 21 2.190 12.00 (9.86 ERA) 8:17 57.1%

WHHBIP: (Walks, Hits and Hit Batsmen)/Inning Pitched; Strike%: Percentage of Pitches Thrown Recorded as Strikes; R/9: Runs Allowed per 9 Innings

sources: G and IP tallied and WHHBIP, ERA, and R/9 calculated from data at Baseball-Reference.com; Strike Percentage calculated from data at Fangraphs.

An inability to get outs on strikes.  A ton of walks.  10:1 versus 1:2.  As a plumber might say, there’s something the size of a house cat in that there pipe.  You aren’t missing a house cat, are you?

The Decision

Ted Lilly threw 8 strong innings in his final rehab start.  Alongside Dempster and Wells, Piniella and Rothschild have 3 reliable starters capable of ≥6 innings and ≤3 runs per start.  Carlos Silva, as I type, issued his first walk of the season as the #4.  And Tom Gorzelanny is certainly a more-than-capable #5.  Because Grabow has a guaranteed contract and both Marshall and Marmol have been so solid, Lou would be very hard-pressed to demote Gorzelanny as a 4th lefty.  Silva, of course, pitches exclusively to contact, which is a negative trait for a reliever.

This is mad scientist stuff.  Crazy.  The kind of crazy you find in bat droppings.  Even if Zambrano earns 3 holds a week, and even if the team gets hot, is it in the team’s best interests to convert one of their better starters away from his usual workload?  Will this have a negative effect in the summer?

On one hand, this might be a great short term move to wake up a team, if that stuff exists.  This move might also allow Zambrano to be more effective in September and, knock on wood, the playoffs as a starter.  I say that purely because he will, at least for a few weeks, throw fewer innings, which means fewer pitches.  As much as people in the sports commentariat value the arbitrary 200-inning figure for a starter, I’d rather see a guy healthy enough for 200+ but actually at 180 because of early-season strategy.  Even if that strategy is equal parts desperation and rum.

The other way this goes is down like the Lusitania.  Lou might well be trying to get fired.  I doubt it, though.  Reports of this team’s demise are a little premature.  I still have to consider the potential effect of a team willingly taking one of their top starters out of the rotation.  The short-term negative is obviously the loss of Zambrano’s innings as a starter versus the lower number he’s throw in relief.  And there’s no guarantee he’ll have that many leads to protect.

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