Wednesday, April 19, 2006

is it time to worry about zambrano?

last night's agonizing loss in chavez ravine will, in most places, get hung on lefty reliever will ohman, whose early season struggles have left him with a 21.60 era after seven short outings. ohman has pitched better than this, clearly, but seemed very much to this writer to pay inordinately for a walk of the kind ryan dempster has left scattered behind him like breadcrumbs for the better part of a year. credit must go to j.d. drew, who hit like the professional he is and won the game for the dodgers more than ohman lost it for the cubs.

what this page found more disturbing about the game is the fourth start of this young year from carlos zambrano. while allowing just one run and certainly keeping his team in the game, zambrano again threw erratically at best -- frequently missing spots, his late movement rendering his pitches all but unhittable but also all but uncontrollable. in six long innings, he compiled 112 pitches including just 65 strikes.

this now fits a pattern for zambrano in 2006. over his four starts, zambrano has yet to pitch in the seventh inning despite exceeding 100 pitches in all four. just 58% of his pitches have gone for strikes, which can be compared to 65% for greg maddux. zambrano has walked 17 in just 20.1 innings, including five last night.

this kind of efficiency, had it emerged from a usual suspect like glendon rusch or jerome williams, would not be disconcerting. but from the ostensible ace of the cubs staff, it is both surprising and disquieting. zambrano has never been an efficient pitcher, and his grip-it-and-rip-it style will probably preclude him from imitating maddux anytime soon. but neither has he before had to work so hard to get through six innings.

the inability to work deep into games from the one pitcher in the rotation that could be expected to give the cub bullpen a regular break may have sour effects running into the second half of this season.

the cub bullpen is currently on pace to pitch 515 innings -- a total likely to vie for the league lead -- a and has thrown the second-most innings of any nl pullpen behind only the triple-a marlins. individual projections of this early workload of the core bullpen are even more concerning:

  • dempster -- 99 g, 99 ip

  • howry -- 75 g, 84 ip

  • williamson -- 75 g, 79 ip

  • eyre -- 62 g, 96 ip

  • ohman -- 87 g, 41 ip

  • as this page has said before, pitches like rusch, williams and rookie sean marshall cannot be expected to work deeply into games. eight-inning outings of the type turned in by greg maddux the day before last are sadly a rarity now that maddux virtually never exceeds 90 pitches. moreover, the likelihood of mark prior, kerry wood or wade miller working deep into games any time soon is remote at best -- none of these pitchers has been efficient in recent seasons, and have generally even when relatively healthy only worked late when compiling the eye-popping pitch counts that have likely contributed to their constant ailments. when recovering from injury, they are likely to be even more severely limited.

    all this boils down to a necessity to get zambrano deep into games on a regular basis in order to do what can be done with this pitching staff to preserve a bullpen that is in danger of running out of gas later this season. it also means getting marginal pitchers like roberto novoa, recently optioned michael wuertz and replacement callup david aardsma more innings to spread the workload around.

    but there is also now some small room for concern regarding zambrano's health. it is no secret that he's been one of the hardest worked pitchers in the majors over the last two seasons. last year saw the emergence of onset injuries -- complaints of elbow pain notoriously covered up by the cubs as "internet elbow" and summarily dismissed.

    in watching zambrano last night, this writer was also struck by a lack of velocity from zambrano. his fastball, normally thrown in the mid-90s, regularly registered 90 and 91 mph on the dodger stadium radar gun.

    needless to say to attentive fans, these symptoms are very much in line with what was observed last year from mark prior as he continually labored to manage just five and six innings with extraordinary effort. his velocity too had diminished, and his once-fine control evaporated in a spate of walks and three-ball counts.

    is zambrano now feeling the effects of being one of the hardest-ridden young pitchers of recent years, a possibility here anticipated with much chagrin? it is impossible to say, of course, and a few outings showcasing the zambrano of old would do much to quash such considerations. but this page would argue that there is room for concern here, and that zambrano's next outing should be eagerly anticipated with both hope of a reversal of fortune and dread of worst fears confirmed.

    UPDATE: in z's next start, he threw with velocity in the low-90s. david aardsma touched 98 mph, so the gun certainly wasn't slow.

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