I was perusing Bruce Levine’s weekly chat, wading through the usual crazy trade suggestions by readers and deft non-answers by Levine, when, out of nowhere, Levine drops this bombshell in response to a question about Carlos Zambrano’s declining performance and dropping velocity:
It’s basically attrition. Cumulative wear and tear over a 14-year pitching career. Although [Zambrano] is listed as age 30, baseball people think he is at least a couple of years older.
I’m an active reader about the Chicago Cubs, regularly taking in more wild theories and rumors than I care to describe, but this is the first time I’ve heard someone explicitly suggest that Carlos Zambrano, who was signed as a teenager under the Jim Hendry scouting regime out of Venezuela, is older than his listed age.
For Levine to cavalierly suggest that “baseball people think” Zambrano – and maybe even the Cubs – have been lying about Zambrano’s age for years is a pretty bold assertion. It certainly merits more than an off-hand remark at the bottom of a weekly chat. If you’re going to say it, man, say it.
Zambrano’s career performance arc has always been on the early side. In other words, he generally seemed to perform better at a younger age than the average pitcher. Zambrano was already one of the best pitchers in the league when he was just 22 and 23. And, while the typical good starting pitcher peaks in his late 20s or early 30s (it’s much younger for positional players, by the way), Z seemed to hit his ceiling in his mid-20s.
Nobody really batted an eye, though. There are bound to be fluctuations among a population of players, and maybe Z was just an early bloomer and decliner. Moreover, the fact that Zambrano had started his professional career so young, and had thrown so many professional innings in his early 20s (Zambrano threw well over 200 innings three straight years before his 25th birthday – thanks, Dusty), everyone just assumed that the performance decline was because of the wear and tear on his arm.
Could it be that, in fact, the decline was just the appropriate reflection of his age? We believe Zambrano to be 30 years old, but what if, as Levine suggests, Z is actually more like 32? Or 33? That could certainly take a couple MPH off of your fastball.
I’m not sure what Levine meant by “baseball people think,” but, given that the Cubs are currently desperate to unload Z at all costs, I’d think finding out his true age – if there is even a question at all – would be of paramount importance to the Cubs and those who report on them.