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Has Big Z Diminished By Throwing Too Many Pitches In Too Few Innings?

So this is what Carlos Zambrano's career has come down to. We make a big deal over one start - his return to the rotation tonight in PNC Park in Pittsburgh.

By now, at 29, Big Z should be in the prime of his career, winning 18 to 20 games each season, dominating with his hard, sinking fastball and outsized persona.

And we may indeed see this kind of Zambrano in any given start, including the hyped-return in the Steel City that has resulted in a big domino effect on the rest of the Cubs staff. But instead we'll most often witness a Plan B or C -- an often-struggling Big Z whose arm is probably old before its time.

We're not assigning blame here. It's not Jim Hendry's fault. Or Lou Piniella's. Or Dusty Baker's. Or Larry Rothschild's. It's just the way Zambrano is. He has thrown too many pitches in too few innings, and something had to give. That is the crisp velocity in an arm that once commonly could hump it up into the upper-90 mph range.

Piniella left a lot out when he explained how he and Hendry estimated Zambrano could regain his velocity when he was shifted to the ill-fated eighth-inning experiment. Why would he need to regain speed? Why had he lost it in the first place?

On April 15, Zambrano outdid himself, tossing 121 pitches in just five innings in a no-decision against the Milwaukee Brewers at Wrigley Field. Afterward, he suggested the Brewers fouled off a ton of pitches, hiking his count. But Big Z has simply fallen in with the misdirection and omission that is common when his bosses discuss his status.

Remembering the Brewers start and his track record, I asked both Piniella and Hendry if concern about his humongous pitch counts had factored in to their decision to shift him to the 'pen. Both denied that suppostion. And Piniella said Big Z was a "big, strong guy" who could handle the extra load of pitches. Perhaps strong and strapping after getting his body in shape, but the arm is a different story.

Hendry experienced Zambrano's high pitch counts first-hand. After all, his ascension to general manager coincided with Big Z's entrance into the starting rotation in mid-summer 2002. But Piniella likely is not aware of a lot of these numbers. Sweet Lou does not have a strong interest in what transpired in the Cubs Universe prior to his arrival in the fall of 2006, even though it affects his job in the present. In this case, he ought to know and would be negligent if he did not perform his due diligence.

Here are some of the raw numbers.

Zambrano ran up more pitches faster than the then-better-known Kerry Wood and Mark Prior in 2003-04. He had 12 games in which he threw 110 or more pitches in a five- to eight-inning outing in 2003, then 19 more in 2004. On June 26, 2004, Zambrano threw 128 pitches against the White Sox in six innings. He also threw 122 pitches against the Athletics in 6 2/3 innings on June 20, 123 against the White Sox in 6 1/3 innings on July 2, 125 against the Astros in 5 2/3 innings on August 28 and 124 against the Reds in 6 1/3 innings on September 27. Over the next few years Zambrano continued this pattern, to an extreme that in one 2006 game, he had a no-hitter going into the seventh. But if Jacque Jones had not lost a fly ball in the sun, scored a double, in the seventh, Baker would have had to pull him with the no-no intact. He could not have let him go into the eighth passing the 135-pitch mark. 

But the only negative comment from Zambrano came after a May 8, 2005 start against the Phillies. Baker let Zambrano throw a complete-game with 136 pitches. Before his next start, Zambrano said his arm felt like "concrete." But he was not injured and made all his starts the rest of the season. The top pitch count during that era was Wood’s whopping 141 pitches – but in only seven innings, against the Cardinals on May 10, 2003.

I'll let Baker off the hook. Zambrano, Wood and Prior, strikeout pitchers all, amassed their huge pitch counts in a compressed form, in far less than nine innings. If Baker was to protect the threesome in the manner that fans and pundits desired, pulling them after just five innings and, say, 110 pitches, he'd have needed a 15-man pitching staff.  It was Baker's curse that he had three pitchers, four if you include Matt Clement in 2002-04, that were of the same style -- throw a lot of pitches to each hitter, striking a lot of them out and not inducing them to put the ball in play on the first or second pitch a la Greg Maddux.

Zambrano became the unquestioned ace by 2006 as Wood and Prior broke down, and after Clement's departure. But he continued to put mileage on his arm. Zambrano led the NL in walks with 115 in 214 innings in 2006 and 101 in 216 1/3 innings in 2007. In 2009, Zambrano walked 78 in 169 1/3 innings.

The 2007 season is when the downhill curve began. Zambrano's velocity dropped and so did his strikeout totals. And when asked about the dip in speed, he vowed to boost the radar gun to 98 mph in his next start. He did just that, but it took two starts. Then, in August 2007, just as he signed his megabucks contract, Zambrano began dropping his arm slot consistently. He was almost pitching sidearm. Pitchers drop down when the life diminishes on their fastball and try to get more movement on it with a lower arm angle. Again, the Cubs brass led by Piniella largely clammed up on the issue.

In an August 14, 2007 start against the Reds at Wrigley Field, Zambrano gave up five runs in the first six innings and trailed 5-3. But Piniella let him go back out for the seventh. Big Z gave up a sixth run. In the seven-inning stint, he gave up 13 hits and struck out none, yes, nada, zero. Four days later I got Piniella aside in the dugout and asked why he let Zambrano go so long in that game when he obviously did not have it. Sweet Lou replied that Zambrano could only smooth out a mechanical problem -- obviously the low arm slot -- in game action, not the bullpen between starts.'

The dog days of '07 marked the start of wild fluctuations first in Big Z's performance, then his health. He'd have one good month, then pitch lousy for a few weeks. For the first time in his career, he had two stints on the disabled list with back and shoulder woes in 2008. He had his infamous cramping episodes in his arm, attributed later to low potassium levels and laughed off when it was suggested he hike his banana intake. Zambrano failed to win 10 games in 2009 for the first time as a full-season starter in 2009. The performance was all on him. After all, in 2006, he was 16-7 for a last-place team.

The stark fact is whatever good seasons the Cubs get out of Zambrano from here on out will be a bonus.  What's done is done. He never learned to use that hard sinker to pitch to contact. None of his handlers is at fault, but they should not run from the fact Big Z is not the pitcher he once was or pretend he can re-capture past glory.