Retroactively Evaluating The Carlos Zambrano Contract

”There was nothing wrong with the investment. This guy was an outstanding pitcher in the National League, in the game, for the four or five years before that. And there’s no question that the deal was a solid one in the industry. He certainly would have been one of the hotter tickets on the street if that thing went to the end of the season.”

This is Jim Hendry, talking to the Chicago Sun-Times about the Carlos Zambrano contract, which was signed in August of 2007 with free agency looming for the Cubs ace. The $91.5 million contract is now seen as an albatross. Here’s how it breaks down, starting in 2008, via Cot’s Contracts

08:$15M, 09:$17.75M, 10:$17.875M, 11:$17.875M, 12:$18M, 13:$19.25M vesting player option

Given that the option only vests if Zambrano finishes first or second in Cy Young voting in the 2011 or top four in 2012, we can be relatively safe in assuming that the contract will expire after the 2012 season. When we look back at Zambrano’s performance up to and including 2007, was Jim Hendry actually justified in handing Zambrano such a large contract?

Let’s take a look at Zambrano’s 2004-2007, the years that should be the deciding factors in this contract. 2002 and 2003 are far enough removed that their impact on Zambrano’s predicted future performance is minimal.

2004 (age 22-23): 209.2 IP, 8.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.6 HR/9, 3.57 FIP, 3.80 tERA, 3.88 xFIP, 2.75 ERA
2005 (age 23-24): 223.1 IP, 8.1 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.9 HR/9, 3.70 FIP, 4.36 tERA, 3.54 xFIP, 3.26 ERA
2006 (age 24-25): 214.0 IP, 8.8 K/9, 4.8 BB/9, 0.8 HR/9, 4.14 FIP, 4.44 tERA, 4.20 xFIP, 3.41 ERA
2007 (age 25-26): 216.1 IP, 7.4 K/9, 4.2 BB/9, 1.0 HR/9, 4.58 FIP, 4.53 tERA, 4.62 xFIP, 3.95 ERA

There’s a pretty simple picture painted here. Zambrano constantly managed to outperform his peripheral numbers, mainly because of BABIPs below .290 every season. Still, he was becoming worse and worse each season, as his ridiculous HR rate in 2004 normalized and as his walk rate ballooned in 2006, followed by a stirkeout shortage in 2007. At 26, there was no reason to believe that Zambrano had already peaked, but the trend is certainly disheartening. Marcel saw Zambrano as a 3.48 ERA pitcher for 2008 and a 3.90 FIP. CHONE was less optimistic, projecting a 3.82 ERA and 4.17 FIP.

If we use Zambrano’s 3.50 ERA as our input for WAR, the deal looks excellent. Over 200 innings, that would be worth about 5 WAR, and in 2008 a marginal win was going for about $4.5M on the free agent market. Even with a discount for contract length, with Zambrano at 26 years old, the contract would pay for only 3.3 WAR. That looks like a major win for the Cubs.

If we use 3.90, close enough to Zambrano’s CHONE ERA and exactly his Marcel FIP, the deal looks like a fair market value contract. That input produces 3.5 WAR, just above what the initial contract calls for.

If we instead use 4.10, the value of Zambrano’s CHONE FIP, the deal becomes a loss for the Cubs, as Zambrano would only produce 3 WAR in the first season.

If Jim Hendry had a legitimate reason to believe that Carlos Zambrano could keep his BABIPs ridiculously low, than there was a legitimate reason to believe that Zambrano would continue to be a 3.90 ERA pitcher or better, which would make the contract a reasonable one for the Cubs. However, given DIPS theory and how successful it typically is with evaluating pitchers, it seems likely that the 4.20 FIP which CHONE projected for Zambrano (and which he actually posted in 2008) was a much more realistic expectation.

Certainly, the case that we see right now with Zambrano is among the worst-case scenarios, but there wasn’t much reason to believe that Carlos Zambrano would produce that well, especially for five years after the contract was signed. It seems to me that Hendry saw too much of the 2004-2005 Zambrano when he offered this contract and not enough of the 2006-2007 version.




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27 Responses to “Retroactively Evaluating The Carlos Zambrano Contract”

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  1. BaconSlayer09 says:

    Jim Hendry doesn’t care for sabermetrics, so of course he would overpay for a pitcher who was on the decline.

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    • Jamie says:

      Yeah, I doubt Jim Hendry had even heard of BABIP in 2007. I wouldn’t be 100% sure he knows about it now.

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  2. Wreckard says:

    Doesn’t WAR undervalue strong-hitting pitchers like Zambrano however? The WAR estimates I’ve seen that include hitting usually push his value up enough to make the deal seem pretty solid at the time.

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    • Jilly says:

      Yeah, you have to account that he is if not the best, one of the top 3 hitting pitchers in the game. That’s probably worth another half a win a year. He’s also a good defensive pitcher, among the best among righthanders in controlling the running game. Again, not included in WAR.

      The deal has worked out very poorly, but at the time it looked good. A 5 year deal to a very talented 26 year old who had been putting up good numbers for years.

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  3. BaconSlayer09 says:

    Zambrano’s a career .220 hitter. He had that one really good season, but outside of that, it’s not relevant enough to really add on.

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    • astrostl says:

      Over the past three calendar years, Zambrano is second among all pitchers (>100 plate appearances) in offense: .305 wOBA, .707 OPS. Most of this value comes by way of power, not contact or on-base skills. Z is a big boy, and the Cubs let him swing for the fences.

      #1, unsurprisingly, is Micah Owings – and I think he should consider converting to a position player.

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      • Dr. Strangelove says:

        Re Bacon Slayer, the key word in WAR is replacement. While Zambrano is not a great hitter when looked at through the prism of all hitters, the player he replaces (a pitcher) would be far inferior unless he is Micah Ownings. Therefore, even is he is a .220 career hitter (and even if BA was a good way to evaluate a hitter) his value as a hitter is significant enough that it can’t be ignored. Idk if that changes whether or not this deal was a smart idea though.

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  4. Purple_Haze says:

    His hitting value is relative to the hitting of other pitchers. I could see it being (without actually looking anything up) worth a half-win per season in that context.

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  5. Wally says:

    Given the injury risks (or even just an all of a sudden loss of effectiveness risk) for starting pitchers, I’d like to know if 5 year contracts that assume a pitcher will remain among the top 5 or so pitchers in the league are ever a good idea. By my casual observation it seems far more normal for a pitcher that was very good to great for a few years to become merely a good to down right awful in a couple years, than for them to actually stay great.

    Combine that non-quantitative observation that may or may not be true with Z’s decreasing skills, I have to think this was a poor deal. Not horrific, like the Zito deal, but not good.

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  6. Vinnie says:

    Can anyone point me to a good discussion here or anywhere else that addresses whether individual pitchers or particular pitcher profiles exhibit consistent, explicable, one-sided spreads between their ERAs and xFIPs? It would seem inevitable that predictive powers of xFIP would break down the further a pitcher’s repertoire deviates from the “typical” pitcher. From a more stylistic than statistical perspective, I’ve always considered sinkerballers a different breed of pitcher than the standard four-seamer / curveball / change guy. Late movement and out-of-hand deception are two very different weapons, and I’ve always been skeptical as to whether peripherals are as meaningful for the former. Or perhaps the importance of individual peripherals vary with different pitching styles.

    (If this all sounds very naive, it’s because I am.)

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  7. Jack Moore says:

    The point of Zambrano hitting as a pitcher is one that I would like to address in greater detail in the future – I do believe that it is in fact important and I regret failing to address it here.

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    • yayforme says:

      I wish everyone that wrote for fangraphs was as willing to admit when they’d overlooked something, and was as open to criticism or disagreement. Looking forward to future articles!

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      • Wally says:

        No kidding, a lot of really intelligent people read these pages, so that’s a lot of minds thinking about any one topic. No one should be expected to think of everything, not even people that maybe think about this stuff more than most of us by an order of magnitude or three. There is no shame in having someone bring up something you haven’t thought of, only in getting short and defensive once they do.

        And yes, I’d be really interested to here about how much value a good hitting pitcher like Z, who can post OPS of .700 with wOBAs of ~.300, when most pitchers can’t OPS .400. Even if its only over 80 PAs or so, that’s such a huge gap it must be worth something fairly significant.

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    • frank says:

      I am also curious as to the hitting impact as well and whether that significantly alters the equation. And do you think NL GM’s factor this in on pitcher contracts (or agents for that matter)? Should they? If you’re in the NL and you have two equivalent WAR pitchers, but one has a higher hitting component, do you treat them equivalently from a value perspective or do you instinctually migrate to the guy with the higher value from the pitching component?

      I also wonder if people’s perceptions (and I’m by no means implying the author) are somewhat influenced by the fact that it’s the Cubs and also maybe a little colored by Zambrano’s antics?

      If this were a Theo Epstein signing or a Jack Z signing would people perceive it a bit differently? (again, to be clear, this is not directed at the author)

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    • poodski says:

      I am honestly really glad to hear that. Its refreshing to see someone on here admit they overlooked something.

      I did a little research here and just going over the last two years the numbers look as such:

      The average pitcher in 2008 was at a .153 wOBA where as Zambrano was at a .382.

      So that puts Z over 85 PA worth 16.9 wRAA or 1.7 WAA, assuming to put replacement level at average for a pitcher he was worth an extra 1.7 WAR in 2008 bringing his total to 4.5 WAR on the season.

      The average pitcher in 2009 was at a .155 wOBA where as Zambrano sat at .287.

      So that puts Z over 72 PA worth 8.3 wRAA or .8 WAR, which puts Z for the season at a 4.4 WAR overall for the season.

      So his hitting was worth around 2.5 wins over 2 years over the average pitcher. Thats pretty big, and certainly comes up to at least make the first two years of his contract worth it.

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  8. Temo says:

    Wait a second, Zambrano put up a 3.6 WAR just last year, paying for his contract. He has a not-inconsiderable 0.7 WAR this year, in a year where he’s been bounced all over the place.

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    • Dann M says:

      But that 0.7 WAR really just shows the limits of the statistics, not the value of the player. WAR says that in 2010, Carlos Zambrano has had equal value to Jamie Moyer and more value than Hamels, Correia and Wade Davis.

      Who are replacement-level (0.0 WAR) starting pitchers in 2010? Brian Burres of PIT, Vicente Padilla of LAD, and Joe Blanton of PHI.

      Tim Hudson and Jon Garland have supposedly only been worth 0.1 more wins than Big Z in 2010.

      Hokum.

      Feed all the data you want into the calculator. The calculator is lying to you. WAR also says that Randy Wells has been the best pitcher on the Cubs (1.9). Sorry. N’uh-uh. He’s not t-9 in the National League for most valuable starting pitcher. Hey, I know the Cardinals are getting big into the numbers. So I bet they’d GLADLY trade Randy Wells straight up for Chris Carpenter (1.8 WAR) right now. Or how about the Mets’ Mike Pelfrey (1.7) or Cincy’s Johnny Cueto (1.7)?

      WAR only tells a tiny piece of the story. Yes, Halladay, Johnson, Jimenez, Lincecum and Gallardo deserve to be the NL’s top 5.

      In conclusion, Zambrano’s WAR is not necessarily an accurate measuring stick. He sucked in the pen. He has been below average as a starter. Hard to believe that WAR likes him as much as the 0.6-0.8 WAR crowd.

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      • frank says:

        The problem is similar in nature to FIP… it should be used as a forward looking number as opposed to a past looking #. And shockingly enough, FIP is the major component of pitcher WAR

        Has Zambrano been as valuable (in terms of wins/impact to the team) as Moyer? Obviously not. But if I were to say Zambrano may have as much value to the team going forward as Moyer, that would be a lot easier to accept or at least consider.

        This is the fundamental problem of using predictive indicators like WAR and FIP (and etc…) to evaluate past performance and why I strongly dislike these being used to justify voting on things like CyYoung or MVP or even evaluating past contracts…

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      • BB says:

        But isn’t this just saynig “I don’t like the rseults, so i’m going to ingore them”? I could apply the same argument to any metric to dismiss it. “Well, ____ is hitting .400 and Pujols is hittingh .330. Certainly ____ isn’t better than Pujols, so we must disregard batting average because the calculator lies.” This, of course, is dumb.

        I think you’re assuming measured performance and true talent are the same. I don’t think anyone would argue that Randy Wells is better than Chris Carpenter. It’s certainly possible that so far this season in comparing the starts they’ve made that Wells has been equal or better than Carpenter. That’s what WAR is measuring.

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  9. Franco says:

    I wouldn’t want his contract, but I can see him somehow being worth the money in 2011 just to produce a negative WAR in 2012 along with a couple assaults on his teammates.

    He has enough ability to be productive at least unlike a Jeff Suppan or Oliver Perez, but at the cost of being a total nutjob. Good luck Cubs!

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  10. jackweiland says:

    So now everyone thinks Z sucks, huh? That’s funny, go read the comments here: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/piniella-zambrano-to-bullpen/

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  11. Matt G says:

    The odds that Jim Hendry looked at any of these stats are so long as to defy comprehension.

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  12. joeiq says:

    Zambrano was good and still is good. Arguably better this year than in the last two years.

    Starting this year the Cubs chose not to get max value out of him. He’s had lots of game 1 meltdowns in the past and bad Aprils. As a cusb fan I wasn’t worried about him going forward.

    Maybe the contract was a bit too high, but chalk it up to throwing a bone to the fans.

    The issue is over maybe he should have got 5-6 million less than he did.

    All of a sudden the Cubs aren’t cool with his tantrums, which they should have known was part of the deal. Zambrano should control his temper, but a good manager probably could have kept him a little less pissed off.

    The biggest albatross contract on the Cubs is Lou, who has provided a huge negative value. It would be easy to point out 5-10 wins that Lou cost the club. Lou at 0 dollars would be the most overpaid person on the team. I guess hendry too.

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    • oompaloopma says:

      This tantrum was aimed at players supposedly not playing defense or diving for balls which in turn became a player fighting another player. If he was 9-1 it would be okay, probably even welcomed. Its like Rameriz jumping someones butt for not hitting, or Soriano jumping someone for not catching a flyball.

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  13. Rich says:

    “There‚Äôs a pretty simple picture painted here. Zambrano constantly managed to outperform his peripheral numbers, mainly because of BABIPs below .290 every season. ”

    So? The guy’s ERA has been significantly below his FIP and xFIP for every year of his career except 2010.

    At this point, its not luck, there’s something there. You guys should know better than this. Fip/xFip are tools. Sometimes they’re not telling you the whole picture.

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    • Vinnie says:

      You just made the argument I was thinking but was too timid to say outright. I’ve always doubted the ability of peripherals to evaluate guys who live on sinkers and two-seamers.

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