Deconstructing: Carlos Zambrano - Sports Illustrated

Deconstructing: Carlos Zambrano

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You don't need a Will Hunting-like understanding of mathematics to use it to your advantage. Trust me: my math scores on my ACT test, which shall never be revealed, support my decision to become a writer.

Inevitably, though, any person who decides to play fantasy baseball will come into contact with math. Such is life when dealing with this stats-obsessed pastime. I suppose the computationally challenged can think of it as a necessary evil, but it can become downright endearing once your team begins climbing to the top of your league.

This column will introduce baseball statistics which can be used to accurately evaluate players. The purpose is to profile an enigmatic player each week and deconstruct him with his past and current underlying stats. You won't really need to necessarily learn math, but it always helps to know how to calculate certain stats. For instance, you easily calculate K/9 rate by dividing total strikeouts by innings pitched, then multiplying that number by nine.

Ultimately, you should come out of each column with a clearer understanding of whether you want to pursue the player covered, or if you want to discard him (if he's on your team) or cut him off your desired list, based on a mix of well-known and misinterpreted stats. We'll start our first edition of Deconstructing at the back of the alphabet, with "Big Z."

2008 stats: 14-6, 3.91 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, 130 strikeouts in 188 2/3 innings

Fantasy owners have been viewing Zambrano as the pitcher they expect to fail. Even though his bulldog persona has been emblematic of his workload throughout his seven-year career, it's been widely assumed that all those years of 200-plus innings would wear down the pitcher prematurely before his 30th birthday. Believe it or not, Zambrano is just 27, and he doesn't turn the big 2-8 until June 1.

The belief that his body will rapidly break down was reinforced last season, when he experienced just the second disabled list trip of his career. Zambrano was placed on the 15-day DL with a minor strain in his right shoulder, the first time he had been sent DL-packing since the 2002 season. And the two turns in the rotation he subsequently missed helped him fall short of 200 innings for the first time in six seasons.

Now, if you pay close attention to fantasy baseball and you've read up on Zambrano, it's likely you've read or heard experts point to "Big Z's" divergent first- and second-half ERAs last season: 2.84 before the All-Star break, 5.80 after. While ERA might not be the most reliable way to measure the difference in his productivity, there is validity to this stat.

In 16 starts through the June 18 outing in which Z left with shoulder irritation, he held a 3.13 ERA, a 1.33 WHIP, and 68 strikeouts in 106 1/3 innings (5.77 K/9). All while his opponents were hitting .259 off him to go with a .693 OPS.

In the 14 starts after his return from the DL, Zambrano did post a 4.92 ERA. But he also produced a 1.25 WHIP, 62 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings (6.80 K/9) and an opponent's batting average of .218 and OPS of .677. However, his Sept. 14 10-strikeout no-hitter tends to skew the stats. If you replace his no-hitter with a normal 2008 Z outing (6 innings, 6 hits, 2 walks), then his post-July 4 WHIP skyrockets to 1.39.

Of course, we can't entirely dismiss his no-no. If we were to do that, then we'd have to do the same to the two second half outings in which he allowed at least eight earned runs. We'd also ignore the fact that his K/9 rate improved by over a full strikeout per game. A lot of both good and bad statistics for us to mull over, indeed.

In spite of the improved second-half K/9 rate, what should be understood about Zambrano is that several of his crucial stats have been facing a downward trend for a few years. His K/9 rate has deteriorated from a career-high 8.83 in 2006, to 7.36 in '07, to just 6.20 last season, even with the jump in his second half strikeout rate. Do you realize Zambrano fanned seven or more batters just three times in his 30 outings last year? It's probably no coincidence that he used his fastball one percent less and experienced one less mile per hour on that pitch than he did in '06. As a consequence, he used the much more manageable split-fingered fastball over two percent more last season than in '06.

Good news does come in the form of his ground/fly ball percentages. His ground ball percentage has actually increased (46.9 percent in '06 to 47.2 percent last season) and his fly ball percentage last year wasn't quite as high as it was the prior two seasons. This shows that he isn't any more susceptible to a homer than he has been the past few years, indicating those outings in which he allowed eight-plus earned runs last year could've been caused by a bigger rash of bad luck than he had experienced in the past.

It might seem like a lot of fun to attempt to prognosticate how many starts Zambrano might miss in the upcoming season, but there is obviously no reasonable way to predict injuries. Suspect "Big Z" fans might want to relish the fact that the hurler is still fairly young and perhaps just entering his pitching prime. The lowered strikeout rates are cause for concern to a point. Perhaps he's just learning that he needs to pace himself throughout games -- and a season, for that matter -- and Zambrano is savoring getting outs, no matter the form in which they come.

It doesn't appear likely that Zambrano will ever approach his 200-strikeout days again, but it's not unrealistic to expect a slight correction to his overall stats if he stays healthy. Judging by his promising spring training numbers (3.38 ERA, 0.88 WHIP, 15 strikeouts in 16 innings), it looks like owners' injury concerns about Zambrano should be shed for now. He's still a bulldog in many ways.

Kyle likes to deconstruct players, but he wants to know what you like as well. If you have any questions, comments or suggestion for future players to deconstruct, send him an email at

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