Friday, June 08, 2007

aramis sunk, hill sailing, zambrano foundering

while legging out a ground ball in wednesday's 6-2 win in milwaukee, aramis ramirez tweaked his knee going over the first base bag. yesterday's mri came back with what lou piniella described on wgn radio as "severe patellar tendonitis"; he will be reduced to pinch-hitting duty for the near future. patellar tendonitis is a familiar injury for most any distance runner, and its sole prescription is generally plenty of rest.

Piniella said Ramirez had some discomfort in his left knee before Wednesday.... Ramirez had an MRI on Thursday in Chicago and the Cubs are hoping that rest will be the solution so Ramirez won't have to go on the disabled list.

says will carroll:

There didn't appear to be any lateral movement, hyperextension, or "give" in the knee. If it is indeed an aggravation of a previous problem, then Ramirez shouldn't miss much more time than it takes to calm down the inflammation; that should take a couple days. If it's something more, like a small meniscal tear, Ramirez won't miss more time, but it could be something that recurs.

in any case, ramirez has been, with a powerless but still substantial derrek lee, the engine of this club's offense as measured by win percentage added -- his loss will be felt, as might be foreshadowed by yesterday's 2-1 win in which only the brilliance of rich hill preserved victory.

hill has recently found it easy to hear his detractors, many of whom are secret holdovers from his initial career appearances in 2005 and early 2006 taking their chances when they come. this page has found it difficult to comprehend what the complaints might find for substance -- it would seem this three-game stretch was enough to trip the irrational mind and start the squeamish on regretting any and all past opportunities to trade hill. his rightful answer has been to follow those three outings with three consecutive brilliant starts -- 21 ip, 10 h, 4 bb, 20 k, 4 r, 0.86 era -- which puts paid the idiocy of such notions. one marvels that so many who spend so much time bereaving the cubs farm system can not, even when hit squarely upon the head with a leaden pipe of talent, recognize its fruit.

this is not to say that all will be clear sailing for hill. now at a 2.71 era and 0.98 whip over his first 12 starts, with just 53 hits allowed and 25 walks to go with 74 strikeouts in 79.2 innings, he has been -- as he was in last year's second half -- one of the very best pitchers in all of baseball. but he has carried to date a .214 babip which is almost inevitably going to regress toward the league mean of ~.290 over the course of the season remaining. as it does, his average runs allowed will rise. he further remains susceptible to the long ball, having allowed 11 hr thusfar.

but none of this is reason to harp on hill. even if we should happen to normalize his babip to .290, that would mean another 15 hits added to his total, which would then come to 68 in 79.2 innings and elevate his whip to 1.17. even that level of performance would still make him one of the best pitchers in the national league. this is simply a case of a good pitcher being both good and lucky, and thank god for it -- as carlos zambrano has demonstrated, there are no guarantees.

zambrano presents another and even more interesting case, but not one so happy. featuring a babip of .311 to date, one could charitably normalize that figure to remove five of his hits allowed as the product of luck -- but the frame brightens only marginally: 80.1 ip, 83 (modified) h, a near-league-leading 37 bb, just 60 k, 1.49 (modified) whip, and a startling league-leading 14 hr allowed. this last is particularly amazing, as zambrano has been one of the most difficult pitchers in baseball to take deep since coming into the league.

this is further contextualized by last year's struggles, whence a very good year by most measures hid some disturbing trends -- an increasing lack of control, a increase in flyballs-to-groundballs allowed and a corresponding increase in home runs allowed, and a mild but noticeable decline in consistent velocity. these trends have all continued in 2007 -- flyballs are running at a yet higher rate than last season as are home runs, walks have softened but remain elevated, velocity has started to attract attention even from zambrano himself. ominously new this season has been a falloff in strikeout rate down to league average.

such have been zambrano's struggles that close followers have speculated openly on whether or not zambrano is hiding an injury. will carroll of baseball prospectus has noted the mechanical analysis of carlos gomez at hardball times, which offers a very dour conclusion about zambrano's shoulder.

if zambrano is injured, it surely comes as no surprise here. perhaps too much has been said already on this page of this writer's expectation of zambrano to eventually collapse under the ridiculous abuse that was heaped upon him by one dusty baker, who has since been forensically incriminiated in the career death of mark prior. perhaps too often it has been noted that zambrano placed second in baseball in stress in 2006, placed second in 2005 as a 24-year-old, placed fifth in 2004 as a tender 23-year-old. as good research has shown -- credit rany jazayerli and keith woolner here, here and here -- consequences are to be expected and this page has expected them.

zambrano's breakdown has heretofore been seen by some as one of the great failed prognostications of this page, owing partly to the repetitive loudness of the statement itself as this writer hoped to draw attention to what it once was able to see as the careless, often pointless assassination of the club's most valuable on-field assets in prior and zambrano. now, it would seem, it is only the shortness of some attention spans that finds easy rebuke: some things in baseball take longer than a month or even a season to unfold, and one of them may indeed be the long-term effects of workload and pitcher abuse on a young zambrano.

many have been eager to forget the past on the heels of zambrano's most recent positive outing, hoping that two decent turns in three is enough to dismiss these concerns. this page too hopes so -- but regrettably does not expect so. likewise, it sincerely desires to be shown wrong by future events -- but does not expect to be.

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