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?"
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.