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Don’t Give Up On…Carlos Zambrano

“Don’t Give Up On…” will be a weekly feature this season, highlighting players who have proven that they’re better than their current slumps would suggest.

No, Chicago Cubs righty Carlos Zambrano is not an ace. And yes, the Atlanta Braves chewed Big Z up and spit him out like a piece of Juicy Fruit that lost its flavor. The 28 year-old surrendered six hits, two walks and eight runs while retiring just four Braves on opening day. But that doesn’t mean that you should make him a scape(billy)goat, trading him for fifty cents on the dollar or outright releasing him.

Granted, there were reasons to expect Zambrano to regress in 2010 even prior to his grisly outing. There was a half-run difference between his 2009 ERA (3.77) and his expected FIP (4.27). His punch out rate climbed back to over eight batters per nine frames after a couple years of decline, but he issued 4.15 BB/9 and benefitted from a low 5.6 home run per fly ball rate (Zambrano’s career rate is 9.1 percent, and the average for pitchers is around 10-12 percent). With more fly balls finding the seats, Zambrano looks like a low-four’s ERA pitcher.

But, owners might be making knee-jerk reactions in giving Z the boot. According to his ESPN player page, Zambrano is owned in 69 percent of fantasy leagues. Following Z’s F-caliber performance against Atlanta, 8.9 percent of his owners let him loose.

Coming into the season, Zambrano was projected for 4.08 FIP by CHONE. Using the CHONE projections available here on the site, I calculated the FIP of all starters to see who matched up with Zambrano. Here are some starters projected for similar FIPs, as well as their ownership percentage in fantasy leagues (from ESPN):

As you can see, six of these starters are owned in all leagues, and Lilly and Blanton (both on the DL) are owned in the vast majority of leagues. When they return to action, their ownership percentages will likely creep up a bit. In “real life” baseball, Big Z is a burden on Chicago’s payroll. Compared to his peers in fantasy, however, Zambrano actually seems undervalued.

If Carlos Zambrano is the best starter on your team in a shallow league, you’re in trouble. But he’s still plenty useful in all formats. One start, no matter how ugly, shouldn’t weigh too heavily in the minds of fantasy owners. There’s a tendency to over-analyze this time of year, trying to infer too much from too small a sample size. Getting caught up in the hyperbole and making a snap decision is a good way to hurt your team in the long run.