Carlos Zambrano is back in the news. Unfortunately, in the world of Carlos Zambrano, no news is good news. This time, Zambrano exploded after giving up five home runs to the Atlanta Braves on Friday: he threw up-and-in at Chipper Jones, was ejected, and then promptly emptied out his locker and left the Cubs clubhouse with rumors of his retirement abound. Of course, Zambrano realized some $25 million over the next year-and-a-half is too much to walk away from. Now, the Cubs have placed Zambrano on the disqualified list for the next 30 days, and we surely haven’t heard the end of this battle.
All too often, Zambrano has made it difficult to remember he also, you know, pitches every once in a while. As Fox Sports’s Jon Morosi reminds us:
So while Zambrano told the Associated Press that he had a “fresh mind” after signing the extension, it didn’t last. Yes, he threw a no-hitter in 2008, but that’s not what comes to mind when you hear his name. You think about him attacking the Gatorade machine with the baseball bat (on live television). You think about him pitching a fit at Derrek Lee in the dugout (again, on live television). You think about him declaring the anger management issues a thing of the past, when in fact they were not.
Oddly enough, for having one of the most volatile personalities in the game, up until 2011 an above-average Zambrano was one of baseball’s constants. From 2003 to 2009, Zambrano threw at least 169 innings with an ERA- below 90 and an FIP below 100; even an injured 2010 saw him fulfill these constraints, albeit in only 129 innings. Zambrano never had particularly excellent control never limiting hitters to fewer than one walk every three innings, nor did he have big time strikeout stuff, never striking out more than a batter per inning. But Zambrano found ways to get outs recording a .276 BABIP, a number which could be considered fluky if not for the 7748 total batters faced and 5143 balls in play. Small sample caveats not necessary.
And we’d certainly be remiss if we forgot just how amazing Zambrano was as a batter against his fellow pitchers. Zambrano owns 23 career homers in just 708 plate appearances, and his .241/.251/.395 line is good for a career 59 wRC+. Adjusting for the responsibilities of pitching, Zambrano compiled a staggering 8.3 WAR just as a hitter.
It certainly appears that Zambrano’s declining phase had begun regardless of his off-the-field struggles. Zambrano’s ability to keep the ball on the ground has steadily declined since his breakout 2003 season — when he posted a 54% ground ball rate — to the point where he is only inducing 42% ground balls this season. With balls in the air come balls leaving the park, particularly at Wrigley Field, a particularly bad combination given Zambrano’s wildness. But at a mere 30 years old, the ability to stave off Father Time should have been there (and it still could be).
Unfortunately, at this point Zambrano’s legacy is one of emotional blowups and one of the league’s most unfortunate contracts, and not one of a consistently good pitcher and one of the best two-way players the game has seen in ages. If so, it is a legacy well earned (with some help from Jim Hendry). But let’s not forget — Zambrano was a baseball player too, and a very good one at that.