Through all the tirades and tantrums that marred his eventual exit from Chicago, it can be easy to forget Carlos Zambrano is just 30 years old. This season, Zambrano is showing the world that he just might have something left in the tank. Through 41 innings, Zambrano is the proud owner of a 1.98 ERA. Despite his effectiveness, he wasn’t rewarded with his first victory of the season until Monday night, when he twirled his best start of the season, a complete game, nine-strikeout shutout of the Astros in Houston. In many ways, Zambrano is looking like the pitcher who shined with the Cubs throughout the last decade.
For his entire career, Zambrano has been one of the classic exceptions to DIPS theory. He owns a career .275 BABIP and an ERA a full 0.40 runs lower than his FIP. With 1867.2 career innings and 7957 total batters faced under his belt, Zambrano’s ability to control balls in play is an established phenomenon. That essential piece of his success deserted him in 2011, leading to the 4.82 ERA and the frustration which would eventually serve as the last straw for both Zambrano and Cubs management. His arrival in Miami has seen his peripheral-defying ways return. His 2.3 K/BB is hardly impressive — a fraction below league average, in fact — but he has ridden a .234 BABIP and a 0.66 HR/9 to a 1.98 ERA in the season’s early going.
It should be noted, though, that Zambrano’s peripherals are also at the highest level they’ve been in years. His K/BB ratio is just 0.06 short of his career high of 2.35 in 2005 and 0.03 short of the 2.32 mark he posted in 2004, easily his best seasons as a Cub. In these two years, Zambrano averaged 219 innings, a 69 ERA-, an 82 FIP- and 4.6 WAR. The key is a 10.2% swinging strike rate, which would be his highest in 10 years if he maintains it.
There’s reason to believe this change is real. Zambrano has radically changed his pitch mix, almost completely eschewing the four seam fastball in exchange for more pitches with movement. According to his Brooks Baseball player page, his four-seam usage is down from 27% to 10%, with that 17% going instead to the splitfinger (+5%), the cutter (+7%) and curveball (+3%), among others.
Observe, the eight swinging strikes from Zambrano’s start Monday:
Eight swinging strikes in 99 pitches is a touch below Zambrano’s pace coming into the start, but part of it was the Astros hitting into outs before Zambrano could get to splitter counts. When he did throw the splitter, it dazzled, drawing four swinging strikes out of 17 thrown and going for strikes nine times. Of course, if it were just as easy as throwing fewer fastballs and more moving pitches to generate more whiffs, every pitcher would do it. Zambrano will have to keep throwing those breaking pitches — the splitter in particular — for strikes. He’s thrown the splitfinger for a strike 61% of the time so far, five percent above the MLB average for the pitch.
Six starts in, the Carlos Zambrano reclamation project has been nothing short of a rousing success for the Marlins. The farther Zambrano’s dreadful 2011 gets in the rear-view mirror, the more it looks like he can return to the form that convinced the Cubs to commit $91.5 million back in 2008. If Zambrano can keep using his splitfinger and other breaking pitches with the success he’s shown so far, there’s no reason to believe he can’t remain an effective cog in the Marlins’ rotation.