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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 Baseball-Reference.com 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.