Big blowup led to big turnaround for Big Z
Cubs' Zambrano has learned lesson of accountability
The Cubs' Carlos Zambrano appears to be a completely different guy since his dugout blowup last summer at Wrigley Field. What could possibly be the reason for the drastic turnaround?
Being a very high-strung pitcher myself when I played, I completely understand his emotion when he fails. There are two things you can do when you are struggling: You can look for a reason for why you are failing, or you can do what no one truly wants to do -- look in the mirror and realize that no matter what happens on the field, you are the one who ultimately controls what you do.
When I was a 21-year-old rookie with the Rangers, they sent me to a hypnotist to control my emotions on the mound. It worked; I could give up a home run and say "Oh well." At that point, I told the Rangers that I pitched on emotion, and I would not do the therapy any longer. What I learned was to take that anger and turn it toward the hitter.
When Carlos blew up that day at Wrigley, he was looking for someone to blame for his failure -- accusing the defense of not making plays when he had given up a home run in the same inning. That, to me, tells it all; he was looking for answers everywhere except where they were -- in the mirror.
In his 16 starts before the blowup, Zambrano was 6-7 with a 4.93 ERA. The team was 7-9, and opposing hitters were batting .272 against him. And he was averaging 5 1/3 innings per start.
Since that blowup, he has attended anger management courses. And in his past 16 starts, he is 10-1 with a 2.58 ERA. Opposing hitters are batting .210 against him, and the Cubs are 12-4 in those starts. Zambrano is averaging 6 1/3 innings per start.
So the big question is: why the big turnaround? I think it is simple. That blowup was rock bottom for Zambrano. When he saw what the world and, more importantly, his family saw, it no doubt was humiliating to him.
When you are a pitcher, you have control over one thing: Making the pitch that you want to make. You can't control whether the fielders behind you catch it. I always have been a believer that the pitcher holds the ball, and if he wins or he loses, it's in his control. Did he make a bad pitch? Did he make a good pitch? Did his team make an error? The only thing that matters is did you do what you had to do to win?
I lost a World Series and received all kinds of praise for standing in front of my locker and answering every question. To me, such praise was ridiculous. If we had won, I would have stood there and answered questions about how great I was. It all comes down to accountability. I learned this lesson early in life, as a wrestler. When you walk out on the mat and get your butt kicked, it's tough to blame your teammates, your coach or anyone but yourself.
I think Carlos has reached a point where he now doesn't look for reasons to blame other people for his bad days. And guess what that does? It means you don't have to look for anyone to give credit to when you have a good day. Granted, there are days in baseball when your teammates play great defense behind you. That is their job. Your job as a pitcher is to make the best pitch you can based on the situation.
I have never been impressed by a pitcher who has a low ERA but has allowed 20 unearned runs. The pitchers who impress me are the ones who give up very few unearned runs. That means they made the pitches they needed to ensure that an error didn't cost the team a run.
As I try to figure out the big turnaround for Big Z, I think it all boils down to him looking in the mirror and figuring out the problem begins and ends with him. Trust me when I say this: Over the course of a baseball game, pitchers make far more errors than position players do. We just get away with them. Carlos Zambrano is now holding himself accountable for what happens on the field.
I never want to see him lose the emotion he plays with. That means he really cares. But that emotion should always be turned inward, and the anger directed at the hitter. As long as he continues to be accountable for his bad days, his good days will be that much better.
Mitch Williams is a studio analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.