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Carlos Zambrano, Ace Pinch Hitter? June 21, 2010

Posted by tomflesher in Baseball.
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Earlier this year, Chicago Cubs manager Lou Piniella experimented with moving starting pitcher and relatively big hitter Carlos Zambrano to the bullpen, briefly making him the Major Leagues’ best-paid setup man. Zambrano is back in the rotation as of the beginning of June. I’m curious what the effect of moving him to the bullpen was.

The thing is that not only is Zambrano an excellent pitcher (though he was slumping at the time), he’s also a regarded as a very good hitter for a pitcher. He’s a career .237 hitter, with a slump last year at “only” .217 in 72 plate appearances (17th most in the National League), which was 6th in the National League among pitchers with at least 50 plate appearances. He didn’t walk enough (his OBP was 13th on the same list), but he was 9th of the 51 pitchers on the list in terms of Base-Out Runs Added (RE24) with about 5.117 runs below a replacement-level batter. Ubaldo Jimenez was also up there with a respectable .220 BA, .292 OBP, but -8.950 RE24.

It should be pointed out that pitcher RE24 is almost always negative for starters – the best RE24 on that list is Micah Owings with -2.069. Zambrano’s run contribution was negative, sure, but it was a lot less negative than most starters. Zambrano also lost a bit of flexibility as an emergency pinch hitter (something that Owings is going through right now due to his recent move to the bullpen) – he’s more valuable as a reliever, so they won’t use him to pinch hit. As a result, he loses at-bats, and that not only keeps him from amassing hits. It also allows him to get rusty.

It’s hard to precisely value the loss of Zambrano’s contribution, although he’s already on pace for -6.1 batting RE24. It’s likely, in my opinion, that his RE24 will rise as he continues hitting over the course of the year. His pitching value is also negative, however, which is unusual. He’s always been very respectable among Cubs starters. It’s possible that although he was pitching very well in relief, the fact that he has the ability to go long means that it’s inefficient to use him as a reliever. This is the opposite of, say, Joba Chamberlain, who is overpowering in relief but struggles as a starter.

As a starter, Zambrano has never been a net loss of runs. He needs to stay out of the bullpen, and Joba needs to stay there.