Is Samardzija Really an Ace?

Jeff Samardzija will be a free agent this winter after turning down an offer from the Cubs in the range of 5 years/$85m, and being subsequently dealt to the Oakland A’s. One may reasonably assume he is looking for a payday more in the 7/100 range, and one may reasonably assume he’ll get pretty close to that. That’s ace money, but is he worth it?

To assess this question we need to have a good working definition of ace. My definition, unrigorously explored here, is that an ace is pitcher who has a reasonable chance of achieving an ace-caliber season. I didn’t define the latter in my previous post, but one way to look at it is to say that ace-caliber season is one in which the pitcher finishes in the top ten in pitcher WAR. Ten is a bit random — if most humans had six fingers and a thumb I’d probably be talking top 14 – but it at least roughly quantifies the point that ace seasons are something of a rarity.

Under the Baseball Reference  WAR system, a 5.0+ WAR season means an All-Star performance. Unsatisfied with this seemingly arbitrary number, I took the average WAR for the 10th-best pitcher in the majors over the last 10 complete seasons, and after the determined application of math and stuff, came up with … 5.0. So for the purposes of this post, that will be my definition of an ace-caliber season for a starter: a WAR of 5.0 or better.

Samardzija hasn’t come close to that in his career. This year will be his best — he’s at 2.7 right now and presumably will finish somewhere around 3.0. Indeed, Samardzija’s career WAR total is just 5.8. In contrast,  here are the number of 5+ seasons the Shark’s principal trade and/or free-agent competitors have amassed:

Jon Lester: 3

Cole Hamels: 2 (and on his way to a 3rd this year)

Max Scherzer: 2 (including this year)

But things get a bit more complicated when we remember that there is more than one type of WAR, and no, I’m not talking about wars of necessity vs. wars of choice. Rather, I’m referring to the differences between Baseball Reference’s WAR calculation and FanGraphs’, which has its own methodology for calculating WAR. This explains the differences between the two stats; my purpose here is not to laud or condemn either approach, but to use both to get a sense of how ace-like Samardzija might be. To do this, I compared Shark’s three seasons as a starter with the first three seasons of the guys mentioned above. I also devised a remarkably creative name for this stat: WAR(3).

Pitcher                            rWAR(3)            fWAR(3)

Shark                                   5.0                      8.1

Lester                                 14.8                    13.0

Hamels                              10.7                    10.4

Scherzer                              5.9                      9.4

Samardzija is the least impressive of the three, but he is not far off Max Scherzer’s numbers, regardless of which WAR you choose. (Note: I left out Scherzer’s first seven starts, which he made in Arizona in 2008 when he also served as a reliever.) While Shark and Scherzer are about the same age, Shark got his starting career under way three full years after Scherzer. The latter is has turned into an outstanding pitcher during the years you would expect a player to blossom (ages 27-29). The good news is that Shark has less mileage on his arm than Scherzer. The bad news is that Shark has already passed through the years when careers often take off. So this admittedly microscopic sample suggests that the Shark does have a platform, but a shaky one, from which he could launch an ace season or two.

Maybe there are other comps for Samardzija that could shed some light on this issue. A look at pitchers with high similarity scores to Samardzija through age 28 on Baseball Reference reveals a fairly grim list:

Juan Cruz
Calvin Schiraldi
Kevin Correia
Carlos Villanueva
Bill Swift
Dave Stewart
Mark Grant
Ron Schueler
Renie Martin
Willie Fraser

This group amassed a total of 100 pitching seasons, and managed just one ace-caliber season: Dave Stewart’s remarkable age-33 campaign with Oakland. If this list is predictive, it predicts that Shark will be hosting a regional cable network pre-game show within five years. But you may be saying to yourself, “Self, most of the people on that list don’t remind me of the Jeff Samardzija I’ve seen at all. And isn’t Renie Martin some kind of hard liquor?” All true. The majority of guys on this list lurked (or still do, in the case of Correia and Villanueva) at the edge of the rotation’s campfire, just beyond the flame’s light. Whatever one’s view of the Shark, no one would equate him with Calvin Schiraldi.

One problem with assessing Samardzija’s prospects is his highly unusual career trajectory. He bounced between starting and relieving in the minors, and early on in his major-league career was mostly a reliever. He didn’t become a full-time starter until 2012, at age 27. This partly accounts for his low career WAR, although he also put up 54 craptastic innings in 2009 and 2010 that might have killed a lesser man’s career. But that’s part of Shark’s story — so much physical talent that many in the Cubs’ organization were willing to put up with the setbacks, and keep tinkering with him until they found something that worked.

So it’s safe to say that Shark’s future is little harder to predict than most. His defenders may hope that, like Kevin Brown and Curt Shilling, he has a run of early-30s excellence in him, and he might. But Brown and Schilling were already good before age 30, and they had a lot more starts under their belts.  The one guy who does have a career trajectory somewhat similar to Shark’s is the one guy on the list above with an ace season: Dave Stewart.

Stewart walked a very hard road, overcoming a battalion of personal demons to become a rotation anchor in Oakland at age 30. (A good book could be written about the baseball souls Tony La Russa saved — Eck and Stewart would feature prominently, while McGwire would present a more complicated story.) Stewart’s career WAR to that point was an insignificant 6.1, slightly higher than Shark’s is today, but spread over more seasons. In the next four years Stewart would accumulate 17.8 WAR, including the dramatic 1990 World Series year, where he posted a career-best 2.56 ERA in 267 league-leading innings. Stewart would soldier on for four more years, losing effectiveness as the strike zone increasingly eluded him. But flags fly forever, and Stewart’s late-career surge may offer hope for Samardzija. Like Shark, Stewart threw hard and was very durable. Shark gets more strikeouts that Stewart did, but everyone is striking guys out in today’s modern game. It’s like, you know, a thing. Samardzija has not had anywhere near the off-field trouble that Stewart had early in his career, but both are similar in that chance and circumstances conspired to keep them out of the rotation until relatively late along the age curve.

Samardzija does have velo. He is seventh in 4-seam speed for starters, at 94.5 mph. But speed doesn’t guarantee dominance: only two of the top ten WAR pitchers this year are also in the top 10 in velocity (King Felix and Garrett Richards). Two more have very modest velocities in the 90 mph range (Adam Wainwright and Rick Porcello). I’d rather have velocity than not, but past radar gun performance is no guarantee of future ace success. It’s a close call, but I think Samardzija probably isn’t an ace, even though some team is going to pay him like one. You should probably hope it isn’t your team, although there are worse mistakes your team could, and probably will, make this winter.

And if your team does ink the Shark, remember to leave a light on for Dave Stewart.

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2 years 27 days ago

I never quite understood the Samardzija craze in the baseball world recently. As a Cardinals fan, I stumbled upon a great comp for him: Lance Lynn. The only difference? Lynn is 27, not 29 and is under more years of control. I predicted to my fantasy league that Lynn was more likely to have a breakout season this year than Samardzija. At this point, they’re neck and neck, but Lynn’s fWAR(3) is 9.3 (and rising) and his bWAR(3) is 6.9, which makes him look a lot more like Scherzer than Shark does by your wonderfully made up metrics.

I couldn’t quite wrap my head around why this past off season Samardzija had a lot of rumors flying around about him while Lynn had none (even though the Cardinals needed a shortstop and seemed willing to deal from pitching depth). Maybe Mo saw Lynn’s promise and wouldn’t let him go, but either way, it confused me. Oh well!

2 years 27 days ago

Actually I don’t think Samardzija is a free agent this offseason.
B-R lists him as Arb Eligible in the 2015 offseason and eligible to be a Free Agent in the 2016 offseason.

2 years 27 days ago

Hamels is signed long term. Shark Will be a FA after 2015. Shields is the other FA pitcher along with Lester and Scherzer