On Sunday night against the Washington Nationals, Jeff Samardzija pitched the game of his career. Not the game of his MLB career, but his professional baseball career. After coming to the Chicago Cubs in the fifth round of the 2006 draft, the former wide receiver prospect has never quite lived up to his substantial rookie contract (substantial for a rookie, that is).
But on Sunday night, in a season already treading down the expected and all-too-familiar road of disappointment, Samardzija gave Cubs fans an unfamiliar feeling of great hope. The long-locked, mustachioed twirler stymied hitters and did something few fans thought possible: He pitched 8.2 innings without walking a batter.
Is one start enough to know if a player has turned around his career? No. But there’s more evidence out there, and the signs are pointing up for Chicago’s 27-year-old bust.
The story starts with Samardzija’s pitch repertoire from Sunday night:
Let’s construct a brief breakdown of each pitch:
- • Four-Seam Fastball (FA), used 58% through career: Averages somewhere between 94 and 95 mph (and hit 97 more than once on Sunday), but is a bit too straight. It has a -0.90 wFA/C according to Pitch F/x. Samardzija began moving away from this pitch in 2011, and if his first start of the season is any indication of a new approach, then he’s almost replaced this pitch with better ones as he threw it only 37% of the time on Sunday night.
• Two-Seam Fastball (FT), used 4.2% according to Pitch F/x: The Pitch F/x algorithm has changed a bit over the preceding years to incorporate two-seamers into their classifications, so the 4.2% number is probably not accurate. We can say with some certainty that Samardzija went from throwing it occasionally in 2011 (6.9%) to consistently last night (17.3%).
The data at Brooks Baseball occasionally considers this pitch a sinker, and it is certainly on the edge between an FT and SI. It averages just about the same speed as his fastball, but moves a good 4 inches more. And remember, a regulation bat can only be 2.75 inches in diameter — four inches with no speed lost is therefore enormous. Not only can Samardzija make this pitch fly and flutter, he located it exceptionally on Sunday night (84% strike, according to Brooks, and I count 12 of 19 within a normalized strikezone using his present heatmap).
• Slider (SL), used 13.9%: On Sunday night, Samardzija twirled his slide-piece 20.9% of the time. Again, this appears to be tantamount to a new approach for Samardzija — less laser beam fastball, more wobbly stuff. His slider stays around the mid 80s speed-wise, and has historically, even when he was struggling, been his best pitch. Presumably, if he throws more of this and his two-seamers, his other pitches — the fastball and changeup — can become even better (a la Tim Wakefield‘s fastball). By forcing the good stuff on the hitters — and the FT and SL seem to be very good — his “feh” stuff becomes better.
• Changeup (CH) and Splitter (FS), used ~13%: I’m not entirely convinced these are two different pitches. His splitter and changeup travel at nearly the same speed and have nearly the same break. The Pitch F/x algorithm did not even detect a splitter until Sunday night, so I’m inclined to think it’s all just the changeup. And his changeup is good; rather, it’s good enough. It’s about as fast as his slider and has been moderately effective through his career. As a surprise pitch or a put-away pitch against lefties, it works admirably.
Now we can clearly see why the Chicago Cubs scouts have loved Samardzija for so long — he throws really hard and has some obliterating pitches (two obliterators, to be precise, one good-enough-er, and one uh-that’s-enougher). But we need to see some actual positive signs before we crown him a capable starter. Well, look no further than the past year.
In 2011, Samardzija (who is nicknamed “Spell Check,” so I’m going to just say “F7″ from here on out because Samardzija is literally like a thousand characters too long) pitched 75 innings in relief. If we break his 75 appearances into thirds, we see a very promising trend:
After plunking 3 unfortunate souls and walking nearly 1 out of every 6 batters he faced, F7 suddenly found new levels of control. He finished the season in style with a career best 22.9% K-rate and 3.85 SIERA to go with a strong 3.66 FIP.
“So he had 50 good innings in relief, you wanna fight about it?”
First of all: No, I don’t want to fight about it. I’ve only been in one fight with a troll — in the third grade — and I tattled the hell out of that kid and I’ll tattle on you too.
Secondly, I said the last year has some positive signs, not just his last season. A recent piece from Mike Podhorzer has many of us suddenly rethinking the validity of certain Spring Training stats, particularly for pitchers. It appears that K-rate and BB-rate may have more predictability (about 60%) than we previously had thought/presumed.
That does not mean good Spring Training numbers for F7 automatically make him a starter. But he didn’t have good ST numbers. He had phenomenal ST numbers. With 16 K and 1 BB, F7 led the MLB with a 16.0 K/BB ratio in his 20 innings.
In other words, F7 has improved his control and stayed improved for 70 innings now. Well, 70 innings plus 8.2 after Sunday. Samardzija has a growing body of impressive work and it is becoming more difficult to doubt he has both changed his approach and found success with the change.
At the same time, though, it would be far too zealous to assume a man who often sporting a 4.50+ FIP in the minor leagues can suddenly become a sub-3.00 FIP starter. And you will not find me suggesting that here. Instead, I will posit that this last year suggests, above all, that Samardzija can be a capable starter. Maybe never a No. 1 or No. 2 starter, but he could perceivably maintain an ERA-/FIP- in the 85 to 95 range (think: Shaun Marcum or Mark Buehrle). For a Cubs organization desperate for pitching depth, that is huge.
Whether he can be elite or not is too hard to divine just yet, but Jeff Samardzija as a starter, that my friends, is the real deal.