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April 23, 2010

Changing Speeds

A Town Called Panic

by Ken Funck

Last weekend I was lucky enough to see Panique au Village (loosely translated as A Town Called Panic), a wonderfully manic Belgian claymation featuring characters similar to plastic children’s toys. Early in the film, Cowboy and Indian accidentally order 10 million bricks from an online brick retailer, and in a frenzied, ill-conceived attempt to conceal their mistake, stack them on top of their home. Unsurprisingly, this results in a spectacular collapse, setting off a series of hilariously silly and enjoyable events. Walking out of the theater, I said to my wife "How could anything so pointless and illogical not be fun?"

This week, Lou Piniella put the lie to that statement by making Carlos Zambrano the highest-paid middle reliever in baseball history. Pointless and illogical? Check. Fun? To a Cubs' fan, not so much.

Admittedly, the Cubs bullpen has so far been in shambles, with a 1-6 record and four blown saves. The club hasn’t found a suitable replacement for injured set-up man Angel Guzman, with veteran lefty John Grabow and sunk cost icon Jeff Samardzija the most notable names to have contributed to a string of epic late-inning failures. The imminent return of starter Ted Lilly meant that someone was going to be bumped from the rotation, but Piniella’s choice of Zambrano to bridge the starter/closer gap only makes sense in two situations:

Zambrano is the worst of the Cubs’ six starters. Whichever starter moves to the bullpen is likely to pitch perhaps 120 fewer innings on the year. While it’s true that outs recorded in the seventh and eighth innings often have a higher win expectancy swing than those recorded earlier on, that difference in leverage doesn’t remotely outweigh the sheer number of additional innings a starter will work during a season. Teams need to have their best, most durable pitchers work as many innings as they can without incurring injury. Therefore, it’s a no-brainer that the least effective starter should be tabbed to work fewer innings. If that’s Zambrano, then Piniella’s decision makes sense. But does anyone truly believe that to be true, when Zambrano is in the same rotation as Carlos Silva? Admittedly, Big Z spent Opening Day playing Zippo lighter to Jason Heyward’s fuse, but his last three starts have been solid, and PECOTA projects him to put up a 4.09 EqERA. Meanwhile, Carlos Silva’s projected 5.11 EqERA screams out that his torrid start is most akin to love at first sight: wonderful, unexpected, and unlikely to last. Handing 120 extra innings to the wrong Carlos based on their first four starts is quite likely to cost the Cubs a few wins over the course of the season.

Zambrano is unlikely to hold up this year under a starter’s workload. If the Cubs feel that Big Z is going to break down, then moving him to the pen and keeping him healthy would make sense—better to leverage the 80 innings he can be trusted to provide in as critical a role as possible. However, there doesn’t seem to be any indication that they made this move to protect Zambrano’s health. His innings count has been declining the last two seasons, but the time he missed last year was due to back spasms and a hamstring injury, not arm problems, and the club’s PR machine spent much of spring training crowing about Zambrano’s newfound commitment to conditioning. If the Cubs were to move a starter to the bullpen to protect his arm, the best choice would be Randy Wells, who starts his first full season in a big-league rotation sitting squarely in the Verducci Effect’s bullseye after last season’s 60-plus jump in innings pitched.

Absent either of those criteria, or a commitment to use Zambrano as a modern-day Mike Marshall working 180 innings out of the Cubs' pen, there’s little to like about this move, and even less to like about the explanations provided in support of it, both by the club and in some quarters of the media. One school of thought is that Zambrano’s stuff plays better in the late innings than that of his rotation mates—but wouldn’t Ryan Dempster’s experience as a closer make him a better fit? Another argument is that Piniella is using this move as a signal to general manager Jim Hendry that he needs to amp up his search for bullpen help—but since anyone with a TV, a radio, a browser, or a pulse knows the Cubs need late-inning assistance, doesn’t Hendry already know this without the need for Piniella to willfully construct his club in a way that’s likely to cost it wins?

Clearly the Cubs bullpen will need to improve if they want to contend, but there are other options available to them, e.g., trade for a middle reliever, pick one up out of the free-talent pool, call up Andrew Cashner or Jay Jackson or John Gaub, or teach Samardzija a cutter or a shineball or anything that gives his fastball some shred of movement. Relievers are fungible, and bullpens can be tinkered with and improved without the need to move your Opening Day starter into middle relief.

It’s human nature to overreact to the type of losses the Cubs have endured so far this season. Not to tread on Russell Carleton’s toes, but when a team has a late-inning lead it’s natural to feel that you already "own" that game, and people attribute far more value to things they already own than to things they hope to acquire. In one recent study, a group of Chinese workers were told they’d receive a monetary bonus if they reached a production target, while another group were told they had already provisionally received the bonus, but would lose it if they didn’t reach the production target. That’s two ways of saying the same thing, but the second group consistently outperformed the first because they felt the bonus was already "theirs." This might explain why those supporting the move of Zambrano to the pen can rationalize that 80 late innings pitched will be more valuable than 180 early ones.

While human nature is an explanation, it’s not an excuse. Zambrano pitching in the seventh and eighth innings may preserve a few more games that the Cubs feel they already own, but it’s unlikely that will outweigh the number of games they’ll lose in the early innings because Silva is starting instead. The decision to move the wrong Carlos into a set-up role smells like panic, a frenzied, ill-conceived attempt to conceal the organization’s bullpen misfortunes, and it’s a decision that might just collapse on the Cubs like a ton of bricks.

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

Related Content:  Carlos Zambrano

15 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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mwright

Let's also not forget the difference in Zambrano's value as a hitter (.630 lifetime OPS) vs Silva (.350).

Apr 23, 2010 11:08 AM
rating: 2
 
mqperkins

Ken - Unless I'm interpreting the stats in my 2010 BP incorrectly, Zambrano's projected win expectancy is only 2.2 wins greater than Silva's. Seeing as how a good 8th inning guy is worth about that much, how is this such a dumb move?

Apr 23, 2010 13:00 PM
rating: 0
 
mqperkins

And to reply to my own comment, I'm assuming that the guys Zambrano's replacing are replacement level players, which may actually be a bit kind to them.

Apr 23, 2010 13:03 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Actually, the guy that's replacing the sub-replacement reliever is Ted Lilly, right? With Lilly coming back, one of the sub-replacement relievers is going to be swapped out--and that will be good for the Cubs in aggregate. The question then becomes whether you want 180 more innings from Zambrano and 80 innings from Silva, or vice versa. If Zambrano's the better pitcher, you ought to want more innings from Zambrano--if not, you're giving back some of what you gain from getting Lilly back in the first place.

Apr 23, 2010 14:25 PM
 
mqperkins

OK. So when I look at the numbers a little more closely, Zambrano’s PECOTA 2.9 win projection is figured over 173 innings, and Silva’s .7 win projection is figured over 80 innings. So given that:
180 innings of Z = 3.0 wins
180 innings of Silva = 1.6 wins
80 innings of Z = 1.3 wins
80 innings of Silva = .7 wins
Piniella’s scenario (180 innings of Silva, 80 of Zambrano) = 2.9 wins
Your scenario (180 innings of Zambrano, 80 of Silva) = 3.7 wins
…a difference of only .8 wins.
I know Silva’s projection is over 80 innings due to injury concerns, which is a strike against Piniella’s scenario (although Zambrano’s a risk as well). If you assume that .7 wins is all you can hope to get out of Silva, and 80 innings of him is only worth around .3 wins, it’s a difference of 1.3 wins.
You make a good point about Wells and Verducci Effect, and he’d probably be a better choice. I’m not saying that the move isn’t a net loss. I just don’t think the difference between Zambrano and Silva is as drastic as it’s made out to be here and elsewhere, and it’s not like Piniella is stumbling around with a red ball in his mouth. Zambrano was the 4th best starter on the team last year by SNLVAR (and the eye test), and PECOTA projects him to be the 3rd best starter this year. And in an admittedly almost meaningless sample size, he’s been the team’s worst starter thus far. My own observations and BP’s metrics tell me that it’s not going to cost the Cubs “several” wins.
In addition to the other possible scenarios mentioned for this move, don’t forget the cramping issues Zambrano had on and off last year and in his last start. You probably don’t really need to stay hydrated in the bullpen.

Apr 24, 2010 08:26 AM
rating: 0
 
Andrew
(38)

Thanks for the reference - I've added Panique au Village to my Netflix queue.

Apr 23, 2010 13:28 PM
rating: 1
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

Might be a while until you get it -- I don't think it's on DVD yet, since it's still in theaters. Check their website to see if it's playing near you. Hope you enjoy it, and keep in mind what it says at the end of the review in The Onion AV Club: "Just know this: A Town Called Panic is the kind of movie in which you will see a horse in a Santa Claus suit, riding on a manta ray in order to dupe a race of wall-stealing fish people. Adjust expectations accordingly."

Apr 23, 2010 16:31 PM
 
blw777

Could this also be about sending a message to Zambrano? One would hope that a quality manager would be able to send the message in what might be described as a more subtle fashion, but sometimes receipt is not guaranteed in any other way...

And if that were the case, it would likely not be directly admitted by Pinella, at least not now.

Of course, I have no idea if this hypothesis has any validity, but it's at least a notion that is not in conflict with the analyses...

Apr 23, 2010 14:52 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

... and it's one that I've also heard others mention. Plausible, certainly, though I'm not sure what the message would be at this point.

Another possibility I've heard expressed is that Piniella is tired of managing, but isn't tired of earning money, so he's deliberately trying to get himself fired. Doubtful, but interesting.

Apr 23, 2010 16:35 PM
 
Peter7899

I think people are overreacting to the move. If Zambrano is in the bullpen for more than 2 weeks, I'd be surprised. This is a temporary move to help stabilize the bullpen till Caridad returns and some of the younger relievers settle down. Count me as one of the crazy ones, but I don't see anything in Silva's pitching that indicates he can't keep pitching respectably. His sinker sinks, he's changing speeds, and most importantly he's throwing strikes. He's been a joy to watch pitch so far, and the Cubs need to get as much bang for their buck as they can out of him while he's still pitching well.

Apr 23, 2010 14:55 PM
rating: 0
 
BP staff member Ken Funck
BP staff

You may be right, and leveraging his current effectiveness while it lasts has its merits. I'm just in the camp that doesn't expect it to last much longer (though I hope I'm wrong).

Apr 23, 2010 16:40 PM
 
laynef

Free Kiko Calero? The Mets inexplicably have him stashed in a shoebox somewhere and the Cubs could probably get him for next-to-nothing.

Apr 23, 2010 15:40 PM
rating: 0
 
esko104

As long as the move to the bullpen is short-term, then I don't see a problem. Zambrano has the best "stuff" out of the rest of the starters, so I think he'll have the highest chance of success. This just buys Hendry some more time to make a deal. Besides, the Cubs starters have performed admirably, and this without Lilly, who has statistically been the best Cubs starter the last 3 years.

Apr 23, 2010 22:58 PM
rating: 0
 
ferret

An article about the Cubs, based solely on BP recommendations for this year and a couple years into the future would be interesting I think. Not only from the performance viewpoint, but player health and economics. In effect if BP were the new GM.

Thanks

Apr 24, 2010 10:17 AM
rating: 0
 
Richard Bergstrom

Keep in mind that Silva was seen as a sunk cost and a bad contract. He's throwing well as a starter right now, so it makes sense to keep him in the rotation and avoid rocking his boat so that he can build some additional value. Then, if the Cubs are out of contention by mid year, Silva could be flipped for something more useful.

With the length and value of Zambrano's contract, not to mention Z's history with the Cubs, that wouldn't work as easily.

Apr 24, 2010 11:54 AM
rating: 0
 
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