Stauffer and Zambrano Duel to a Draw in Cold, Windy, Chicago


Last night, as is the case with many early season games, wasn’t the type of night well fit for a baseball game in Chicago. But that didn’t stop the Cubs and San Diego Padres from taking to the field with a 34 degree temperature and 12 mph winds blowing in from center field. The pitching matchup saw a couple of groundballers go at with the Padres sending up Tim Stauffer to face the one and only, Carlos Zambrano. Both pitchers shutdown the opposing team’s lineup as neither allowed a run and the Cubs wound up winning it in the tenth when they pushed across the games only run.

Zambrano had a commanding performance lasting eight innings, one more than Stauffer, and allowed just three hits and a walk. None of his sixteen balls in play allowed were line drives and eleven of them were grounders. He had both his highest number of groundballs in play on the season and his lowest amount of line drives and flyballs allowed to this point in 2011. Zambrano also struckout ten, his highest total since September 14, 2008 against Houston.

Six of those ten strikeouts ended with swings and misses and overall Zambrano had eleven whiffs out of 110 total pitches thrown. According to Brooks Baseball, Zambrano threw six different pitch types last night with his fastballs being classified mostly as cutters(32 thrown) and sinkers(37 thrown). In total he threw 81 on-speed pitches(or fastballs, if you will) with 53 of them, 65 percent, going for strikes. His off-speed stuff accounted for the other 29 pitches and 16 of those were strikes, three of the swing and miss variety.

Zambrano likely doesn’t throw three types of fastballs, looking at his pitches purely in terms of their movement you’ll see in the chart that pitches called straight fastballs by Brooks are sandwiched by pitches it calls cutters and sinkers. The average velocity of his sinker and cutter are both right around 88-89 mph and their vertical movements can be similar as well. On average, naturally given the name, the sinker dives down more than the cutter but the chart from last night shows several dots of similar vertical movement from the two pitches.

The big difference comes from the left to right movement, there’s no overlap between the two pitch types, horizontally. With similar velocities and occasional similar downward movement and opposite left to right movement between the sinker and cutter last night, it’s no wonder the Padres hitters were unable to make any solid contact against Zambrano.

Zambrano has never had a home runs per nine innings rate over one in any season of his career. But last night was his first start of the season in which he didn’t allow a homer as he’d allowed one in each of his first three starts. The eleven groundballs were another good sign for Big Z. Even with last night’s start he still has groundball rate of just 40.6 percent this season and is coming off his worst career mark last season with a 43.6 percent rate of groundballs among his balls in play.

Zambrano and the Cubs were opposed by the much less well known groundballer, Tim Stauffer. He also turned in his best start of the season last night, working a season high seven innings and allowing no runs for the first time this season. He also matched his season high of four strikeouts and season lows of one walk and four hits allowed. Unlike Zambrano, Stauffer has had the groundball working for him all season getting at least nine groundballs in each start amongst his balls in play, including the ten he got last night. Stauffer did benefit from the wind blowing in on at least three occasions, including a pair of well hit balls by Carlos Pena that got held up in the wind.

Stauffer got eleven swings and misses of his own against the Cubs lineup, matching Zambrano’s total but they were amongst only 95 pitches thrown not 110. Despite that, he only struckout four batters. Stauffer worked with four pitches, according to Brooks, last night throwing 56 fastballs, 10 change-ups, 21 sliders and eight curveballs. The slider was responsible for six of the eleven whiffs from the Cubs hitters on the night, where as his fastball picked up just two swings and misses. Stauffer didn’t get his first strikeout until the fifth inning when he got Alfonso Soriano to strikeout swinging to open the inning. He then gave up a single to Kosuke Fukodome before getting Geovony Soto and Zambrano to strikeout looking.

His only other strikeout came in the seventh when he got Soriano again on a whiffed third strike. In general, and not just to Soriano, Stauffer pounded righties away with all his pitches last night. Just one of his sliders wound up on the inner half against righties and most were down, away and out of the zone. He only threw one pitch against righties that came inside and missed the strike zone.

He didn’t seem to have as pronounced an approach to lefties in the outing and left a fair amount of pitches in the middle of the strikezone. But there’s still evidence of a concerted effort to keep the ball down against opposite handed hitters. Here are his pitch charts from Brooks, first chart is against righties, second chart to lefties.

After last night it looks like Stauffer has picked up right where he left off last season. Well almost, his walk rate this season so far is 2.45 walks per nine innings, just as impressive as 2010’s 2.61 and his groundball rate this year is 54.1 percent almost exactly matching last year’s 54.5 percent rate. What’s slipped though is the strikeouts per nine innings, last season he picked up 6.64 Ks per nine innings but has just a 4.50 rate in 2011. His ERA has jumped from 2010’s impressive 1.85 to 3.27 this year but he really hasn’t slipped that much as his 3.47 FIP this year isn’t much higher than 2010’s 3.02.

Last season also saw Stauffer spend time with the Padres as both a reliever and a starter and he had a stint in triple-A in the middle of the season too. A slight drop in strikeouts should be expected going from relief to starting but Stauffer could help himself out a little more by getting some more strikeouts. And as his eleven whiffs from last night would imply, he’s still missing some bats. Last season 7.1 percent of his strikes where swing and misses and this season 7.3 percent of his strikes have been on whiffs, leaning one to think the drop in Ks will be short lived.

Last night was a game to forget for all the hitters involved, except the Cubs hero for the night, Tyler Colvin, but it was a wonderful, wind aided, pitching duel in Wrigley that probably introduced some fans of the game to Stauffer and reminded us what makes Zambrano the well known pitcher that he is, for the right reasons this time.

All pitch data and charts, graciously provided by Brooks Baseball for which I’m eternally grateful for it’s continued existence.