Wednesday, September 19, 2007

dead heat

carlos zambrano's continuing struggles -- he has now notched an era in excess of 4.70 in four of the six months of this season -- helped the milwaukee brewers back into first place by a few percentage points.

i've made plenty of predictions of zambrano's untimely demise on this blog. he continues to be one of the highest-stress pitchers in the bigs. is he hurt? you're going to have trouble getting me to go there again -- it certainly wouldn't surprise me but i have no idea.

but there's another (well-worn?) possible aspect to zambrano's underperformance this year. examining his record on batted balls, it becomes clear that, in 2005 and 2006, zambrano significantly benefitted from the fate of balls in play -- .256 in 2005, .257 in 2006. and we might further break those years down to see that the outperforming streaks were unsurprisingly concentrated to only some months of the sample -- a three-month run from may to july 2006, and two month windows at the start and end of 2005.

excluding those years, zambrano has of course certainly been a good pitcher -- on a .284 babip over 743 innings, a 3.96 ra and 1.34 whip -- but not a great one. in fact, if one removes just the five luckiest babip months of those two years from his career sample, his runs allowed per game floats up to 4.11 and whip to 1.35 (on a .285 babip).

i can hear some good folks howling about data manipulation (eg, "how can you exclude his best months and include his worst?!?") but follow me just this far: what if zambrano has been as much lucky as good? what if that recent concentration of good months was aberrant?

some good observers of the arguments over dips have noted here that very good pitchers may in fact have the capacity to suppress babip, and that's not a point i'd argue against absolutely. but i'd also note that zambrano, at the .285 babip in the adjusted sample, would already be displaying a career babip less than that of greg maddux, who may be an even better example of a great pitcher who, with the help of some luck in a few years like 1994 and 1995, became transcendental. zambrano may be good enough to effect a lower-than-league-average babip; but what if that ability isn't quite so much as it currently appears?

the cubs have zambrano locked up for a long time now, so maybe it's a moot point. and certainly it's possible that the idea itself is flawed. time will tell. but i thought it might be worth mentioning the conjecture -- maybe zambrano isn't hurt at all, or even widely underperforming. maybe, in posting 4.43 ra/g and a 1.35 whip, he's just being something more like the normal carlos zambrano than the lucky guy cub fans have become accustomed to expecting... only at a higher pricetag.

all that aside, it's now a dead heat in the national league central with two weeks left. i'm not as pessimistic as some, but the brewers have built some momentum following a brutal august in which they were colossally unlucky. as i feared some time ago, they're riding yovani gallardo (3-0 with 0 ra in his last 21 ip) and ryan braun (293/339/672 in september, 306/355/620 in the second half), and prince fielder has done anything except cool off (386/462/772 in september, 301/403/606 post-asb). moreover, sean marshall is nowhere to be found and the aforementioned zambrano has been pointing his cannon at the deck -- even as aramis is thumping (313/413/641 in sept) and cliff floyd comes out of nowhere (290/421/742 in 38 september pa). that the majority of my qualifiers from june have failed to materialize and the cubs are still in it should hint at how very lucky they've been. but now they have a coin-flip chance at this thing, and it's in the hands of the gods.

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