Last season, the Cubs reportedly offered Jeff Samardzija a contract extension worth 5 years, $85 million to lock him up long term. It was thought then, by many, that Samardzija was on the verge of becoming an ace and that the Cubs couldn’t let go of the opportunity to get their homegrown guy locked up. But, in a move that suggested he was betting on himself, Samardzija rejected that offer and was traded to Oakland within a few weeks.
Many have speculated that the constant trade rumors rubbed him the wrong way and he soured on the Cubs, or that he didn’t want to be part of a rebuild anymore. The prevailing thought that makes the most sense, to me, is that Samardzija simply wanted more money. And why not? Homer Bailey had signed a 6 year, $105 million extension with the Reds and Samardzija had every right to believe he deserved the same kind of deal. And the Cubs had every right not to offer it to him more than a year away from free agency.
So now here we are. Samardzija finished out a strong season with the A’s and moved back to Chicago in the offseason as part of the White Sox attempt to transform a 73-win team into a contender. Things haven’t gone the way the Sox or Samardzija had hoped, and at this rate he’s probably praying that someone will offer as much this winter as the Cubs did last year.
Through 16 starts this season, Samardzija has a 4.54 ERA, 3.62 FIP, and a 4.26 DRA (which is designed to measure what a pitcher “deserves”). He’s thrown 108 2/3 innings and faced a league-high 464 batters, while allowing a league-high 123 hits. He’s walking a career-low 1.7 batters per nine innings while also striking out a career-low 7.3. Just looking at some of Samardzija’s peripheral numbers makes it hard to put your finger on what’s turned him from “potential ace” to “fringe fourth starter.”
Fortunately, I have resources such as what Sahadev Sharma wrote for the Baseball Prospectus back in May. Sahadev correctly points out a dramatic rise in the usage of the cutter for Samardzija this year, and the effect that it’s had on the results:
Early on this year, Samardzija has relied on his cutter more than ever before. Results-wise, it’s been one of his better pitches, as it’s the only offering that opponents don’t have an ISO above .200 against (.063) and it’s his best groundball-inducing pitch at 42.1 percent of balls in play.
All of this was true at the time that it was written, but a few things have changed and it’s important to note that. While the cutter has been a successful pitch for him this season, the rest of his numbers have stabilized a bit. Here is a breakdown of the results on Samardzija’s pitches in 2015.
I thought it was odd that his cutter has been an effective pitch for him now, after a full career of being primarily a fastball/sinker/slider pitcher. To me, his fastball and splitter (despite it not being used as heavily) have been consistently his best pitches this season, allowing the lowest batting averages, slugging, and BABIP’s while posting the best K rates.
That’s not to say that the cutter hasn’t been a quality pitch for Samardzija, especially during the month of May. Here are the results on his pitches when narrowed down to just May.
Here we see a lowered slugging percentage and a minuscule ISO on the cutter. The splitter has the best stats attached to it, but it’s hardly used at all during this span of five starts. To place this in better context, we need to be able to see the frequency with which he was throwing his pitches during this time.
While the sinker, slider, and splitter follow somewhat normal patterns, the fastball and the cutter essentially flip in the middle. The cutter usage shoots straight upward before sloping back down to almost the same level a month later. The fastball is almost non-existent in May, but is back to being used almost as frequently as the cutter by June.
So what does it all mean, man? I think the problem for Samardzija is that he pitches for the White Sox. Statistically, his fastball has brought a higher K rate (23 percent) than his cutter (20.7 percent). His BABIP is much higher on his cutter (.342) than his fastball (.256), as well. That means he’s relying on the team behind him to make plays much more often.
Again, something important from Sahadev’s piece stands out to me:
Part of what contributed to Samardzija’s strong season last year was his ability to induce weak contact early in the game, allowing him to lower his pitch count and go deeper into games. Then, Samardzija would rack up the strikeouts later in the game if and when they were needed—his 37.5 percent strikeout rate in the seventh inning last season was easily his highest by inning.
In defensive metrics, such as defensive efficiency and park-adjusted defensive efficiency, the Sox are dead last in baseball. In the case of PADE, they’re significantly lower (-5.29) than the next lowest team (-3.30). Outside of Gordon Beckham, who only plays part-time, and Adam LaRoche, who has spent most of his time as the designated hitter to appease Jose Abreu, there is nary a quality fielder in the lineup on a regular basis.
Consequently, Samardzija’s propensity for trying to induce contact early in the game to allow him to overpower batters later has worked against him this season. Let me explain this with some tables; first, look at the change in his K/9 as the game moves along.
|First through Third||5.4|
|Fourth through Sixth||8.6|
|Seventh through Ninth||9.2|
Based on what we know about Samardzija, this shouldn’t be surprising at all. But now look at a breakdown of his results by inning.
All of this, to me, says a lot about why Samardzija could be a serious dark-horse candidate for the Cubs to re-acquire. The Cubs are in the middle of the pack defensively, based on the same defensive metrics I used before, coming in at 16th in all of baseball.
Samardzija could also benefit from enhanced pitch framing, as both Miguel Montero and David Ross are in the top 10 in baseball in this category. Tyler Flowers actually ranks higher than both, but Geovany Soto has caught 15 of Samardzija’s 16 starts and ranks just 27th on the list.
Considering that Samardzija is on a last-place team with no hope for the playoffs and is just months away from free agency, the White Sox would be wise to see if they can get anything at all for him before the trade deadline. As far as available starting pitchers, Samardzija might be one of the cheapest rentals. This move has the Cubs front office written all over it, and could be mutually beneficial.
The Cubs get a quality starter that they’re familiar with, the Sox get a Dan Vogelbach or two, and Samardzija gets a chance to restore his market value.
Lead photo courtesy of Jesse Johnson-USA TODAY Sports