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Jeff Samardzija Is the Real Deal

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:

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:

2011 Stats

Games FIP K% BB%
First 25 4.41 24.5% 15.7%
Second 25 3.62 19.0% 12.1%
Third 25 2.98 24.8% 10.5%

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.