Jeff Samardzija’s Seesaw Season

Back in March, there were still questions about whether Jeff Samardzija could successfully transition into a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. The lanky right-hander served mostly as a long-duty reliever in 2011 and while he found a good deal of success in that role, his considerable talent wasn’t being fully utilized.

His 2012 Spring Training results were good, though not spectacular. He won three of his five appearances, but he also gave up ten earned runs over 20 innings pitched. Most importantly, however, Samardzija only walked one batter to 16 strikeouts. This progress, along with the sizable Spring eggs that both Alberto Cabrera and Travis Wood laid helped manager Dale Sveum and staff to give Samardzija the nod.

And Samardzija did his part to make them look pretty smart. April was a bit of a mixed bag with a couple of stinkers book-ended by a pair of gems, but in May he really settled in, holding batters to just a .218/.282/.380 line. Over his first ten starts, Samardzija had a 3.09 ERA, 9.14 K/9, a 2.67 BB/9 rate, and although he had only five wins, the Cubs had won seven of those ten starts. Samardzija had pitched seven innings or more in five of his ten starts and he was beginning to emerge as a legitimate pitcher to fear in the National League.

And then June happened. He made five starts in the month of the Sacred Heart (rather shameless nod to Notre Dame), throwing 23.1 innings, giving up 27 earned runs. His strikeouts were still there, but his ugly walk rate has returned, giving 15 free passes for a 5.84 BB/9 rate which started to closely resemble the guy who struggled with his command for the better part of his major league career.

His July 2 outing against Atlanta in which he threw seven innings, giving up four hits and one earned run while striking out 11 and walking only one batter went a long way towards leaving June in the proverbial rear view. But his June was bad enough to warrant a critical eye at where Samardzija has demonstrated some issues in an otherwise promising first half.

The first place many would typically look when there’s several blowup starts strung together is velocity. And for a converted reliever, it could be expected that Samardzija might be losing some zip on the fastball as the season wears on. But that’s not the case here. From April through May, his average fastball was 95 mph and from June through his last start on July 2, his average fastball was 95.2 mph. So we can check that box.

In April and May, Samardzija held opponents to a pretty league average-ish .301 BABIP (alright, technically it’s .299 in the National League right now) but in June, that ballooned to .377. It’s not just the lucky hops that haunted him, it was kind of a group hug of misfortunes. His fly ball rate was fairly normal by his standards, but his HR/FB rate jumped to 16%. His walk rate was a brutal 12.9%, he was stranding runners at less than a 50% clip, and his strikeout rate resembled a more mortal 17% (versus 24% on the season).

Where others may have survived the strand rate and the batted ball issue, this trend only exacerbated a couple of issues that have dogged Samardzija in his transition to the rotation. While he has dominated with the bases empty, holding opponents to a .216/.281/.315 line (.251/.309/.399 is NL league average), he has struggled with men on, and specifically with men in scoring position:

Obviously, it’s difficult to put yourself in a position to succeed if you’re struggling pitching out of the stretch while suffering through a seeing-eye-single phase and issuing more bases on balls. The difference in OPS is obscured a bit by scale – but surrendering a near 1.000 OPS with men in scoring position is pretty significant.

What’s more, Samardzija has shown a precipitous drop in his strikeouts after the first time through the order. Allowing more batters to reach early in the game exposed this, and often lead to an early exit in his June starts. In fact, on the season, when facing a batter for the third time, hitters are generating a .352/.431/.500 line versus Samardzija. His strikeout to walk ratio in each subsequent at bat follows:

Intertwined with this is his performance by pitch count. Using the 25 pitch intervals, comparing Samardzija against the NL average in K/BB rate shows just how quickly he becomes average, and then below average:

His last start is particularly interesting for a couple of reasons, however – repertoire and velocity. On the season, Samardzija has thrown about 50% fastballs, and then an even distribution of sliders, cutters, and split-fingered fastballs. His slider and split-finger fastball are far and away his most effective pitches, both being valued at about a run and a half above average per 100 pitches.

In his June 27 start in which he took a beating, he threw exactly one slider and one splitter. This might be explained away by some pitch classification shenanigans as Jeff Zimmerman recently pointed out — that is, that he was simply throwing a much, much slower slider and it was getting classified as a curve. But still, his slider at roughly 87 mph was an effective pitch and his slider at 76 mph was not. In his subsequent start on July 2, he threw 11% sliders (not the slurve variety either) and 21% splitters. His splitter in particular was nasty – generating a 34% whiff rate. It’s hard to know if the change in repertoire was deliberate, but obviously the results were much improved.

The last thing about his July 2 start touches on something manager Dale Sveum commented on recently. He noted that somewhere around 80 pitches, he was noticing a change in Samardzija. Looking at the chart above, you would think somewhere around 60-70 pitches, there would have been a noticeable difference in results, but looking at his velocity in this last start is rather telling:

Right around 80 pitches or so, Samardzija was having trouble dialing his fastball back up into the mid-90′s. While being able to hit 93 mph in the 6th or 7th is nothing to scoff at, it does look like he was tiring as he approached 100 pitches.

2012 is unfortunately a lost cause for the Cubs faithful, but you would have to believe that Jeff Samardzija is part of their future success. The club is likely going to face a decision on how much they plan to use Samardzija for the remainder of the year, perhaps placing some kind of soft target on a season pitch total. Seeing Samardzija wear down throughout each outing should expedite those conversations as they make plans for 2013 and beyond.

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Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.

13 Responses to “Jeff Samardzija’s Seesaw Season”

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  1. Grand Admiral Braun says:

    Remember, remember the fifth of November….

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  2. Scott says:

    Or he was throwing a curve and ditched it:

    “Samardzija said he added the curveball in his June 16 outing against the Boston Red Sox with the intention of not only having another out-pitch at his disposal, but to also give opposing hitters one more thing to think about.

    The only person who seemed to be struggling with the added pitch, though, was Samardzija. In the three outings he used the curveball, he gave up 17 earned runs, including nine in 4 1/3 innings of his last outing last week against the New York Mets. ”

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    • cwhitman says:

      I looked at the pitch f/x, the sliders slowed down and curves showed up in his awful outings, then last night, there wasn’t one curve.

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  3. Hank says:

    The issues Samardzija has been having lately were pretty close to what I would have expected to see. Fatigue in later innings and a dip in numbers when the weather started to heat up aren’t at all uncharacteristic of a pitcher transitioning to a starting role after being used predominantly out of the bullpen. Going forward, I could very easily see Samardzija build up a higher level of endurance and become more consistent with his mechanics, hopefully resulting in fewer slumps as seen this June.

    But that’s just my opinion, and being a Cubs fan, it’s entirely possible I’m only seeing what I want to.

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  4. doogolas says:

    The velocity thing I think was more yesterday than anything else. Because in other starts where he went deep into games he was still chilling in the mid-90′s late in games.

    He could be wearing down cause of the season and innings piling up though. He’s super fun to watch pitch though, I’ll say that. And his splitter is filthy.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      in many of his outings, there was a gradual decrease as the pitch count rose. The most pronounced was yesterday, which isn’t damning but if that continues for a few more starts, they might have a problem.

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  5. Great analysis. Seriously. My only question is…Alberto Cabrera? Where are you getting that he was ever in contention for any role with the big league team? If I recall correctly, the last rotation spot in spring training this year for the Cubs was between Samardzija, Randy Wells, Rodrigo Lopez and maybe Casey Coleman.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      Personal whiff there. For some reason, I thought he was in contention for a rotation slot, but I see now that he didn’t get a single spring start. Lopez, Volstad, Jackson would have been a better reference. At least Cabrera did stink in the spring anyway. Thanks for keeping me honest.

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  6. DowntownChico says:

    Excellent analysis Michael.

    I’m sure it’s to the dismay of Cub’s fans, but Sam’s numbers suggest he is best suited for a long middle relief type of role. He’s only getting hitters to swing and miss their first time seeing him. Accompany that with lack of pitching endurance, and your looking at a guy who can pitch one time through the order, to both righties and lefties. There is definite value in a guy who can control the game from the 5th-8th innings. It’s just not the value you would get from a 3rd spot in the rotation kind of guy.

    However, maybe he just isn’t meant to have a curveball in his repertoire, and he can continue to perform if he leaves it that way. With the situation the Cubs are in, they might as well see what he can provide from the SP position. Either way, it would be best to keep his outings short for the remainder of the year.

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    • Michael Barr says:

      yeah, I think the curveball is dead and gone. I think he can start, but they might just need to come up with a varied approach the 2nd/3rd time through.

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  7. Antonio Bananas says:

    So, is he good enough to be “off limits”?

    I’d like to see him more as a shutdown reliever and these numbers don’t lie.

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    • jr5 says:

      I don’t know, a guy who has shown the ability to retain mid-90′s heat into the late innings, to go along with two swing and miss pitches, sounds like a starter to me.

      Obviously if he’s wearing down that’s an issue, but he’s never been a starter for a full season at the major league level. Messing around with the curve should (and seemed to) end. I guess what I’m saying is if a guy shows the potential of being a really good #3/borderline #2 type pitcher, you have to see that potential through. Those pitchers are rare, especially in the Cubs system.

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  8. Average_Casey says:

    I would just let him continue to start with a plan that once he reaches a certain pitch count, I would get a reliever up in the pen to start warming up. He gets tired and needs to build up his stamina and you do that by pitching. Just make a plan to have someone ready for when he has been getting tired and pull him. He won’t tell you he’s gassed when he is because competitors won’t do that. All they need to do is monitor the radar gun readings and when they slip noticeably or his control goes, yank him for the day. Also, skip a start or two every once in a while and he will get better. It’s not a big deal, he’s learning how to be a starter.

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