Jeff Samardzija is the real deal. After winning a rotation spot with the Chicago Cubs this spring, Samardzija was seen as a very deep sleeper. His spring training stats were great, but he had never shown that type of dominance during the regular season. That’s all changed now. Through seven starts, Samardzija has been one of the best pitchers in baseball. Based on his the early numbers, Samardzija’s breakout looks real.
Nothing about Samardzija’s statistical profile screams fluke. This season, Samardzija is striking out 25.3% of batters, the highest rate of his career. Perhaps more impressively, he’s only walking 7.9% of all hitters. As his career 12.1% walk rate can attest, Samardzija has always struggled with his control. It’s still early, but Samardzija’s gains in this area remain promising.
Samardzija’s breakout hasn’t been aided by much luck, either. His .302 BABIP is pretty average, so he’s not getting lucky on balls hit in play. And his 73.2 LOB% indicates that he hasn’t been all that lucky with guys on base either. The one area where Samardzija has seem a pretty drastic improvement is his ground ball rate. This season, Samardzija has gotten grounders 49.6% of the time — a large increase over his 42.1% career rate.
The addition of a sinker or splitter (or both, depending on where you’re looking) could be behind Samardzija’s improved ground ball rate. According to the PITCHf/x data, Samardzija is throwing four different types of fastballs this year. He’s thrown a team-seamer nearly as much as his four-seam fastball, but he’s also mixing in cutters and a split-finger as well. Both the two and four-seam fastballs come in at around 94 mph. While his cutter isn’t that far off, Samardzija’s splitter really throws hitters off, coming in at just 85.6 mph.
For a pitcher who was drafted based on his ability to throw hard, it’s Samardzija’s breaking stuff that has led to his success this season. Both Samardzija’s four-seam and two-seam fastballs currently carry a negative pitch type this season. While his cutter has been useful (0.7), his other pitches have been his best.
Samardzija’s slider has already saved 5.9 runs this season, making it one of the most valuable sliders this season. Samardzija’s splitter has also been good, accumulating a 2.1 pitch value. And even though Samardzija hasn’t thrown all that many change-ups this season (6.3%), the pitch has been effective when used.
The combination of pitches seems to be working out for Samardzija. Each one of Samardzija’s swing rates are up, meaning he’s getting batters to swing at his pitches more often. But hitters haven’t had much luck, as Samardzija is also limited contact against him this season. That improvement can also be seen in his 12.9 SwStr% — which is the highest rate of his career.
Samardzija’s 2.89 ERA actually does a pretty good job telling us how well he’s pitched this season. Both his xFIP (2.92) and SIERA (3.07) indicate that he might be able to sustain this level of success. At the same time, this is Samardzija’s first time in the rotation. Fatigue could set in at some point and limit his overall numbers. He also could be under an innings limit, so it’s unclear how long the Cubs will allow him to pitch.
Until then, Samardzija looks like a solid option in all leagues. If he’s still out there, he deserves to be owned. And while Samardzija owners can be confident that he’ll continue to pitch well now, he might be the ideal trade candidate in July. There’s no telling when/if fatigue will set in, or when the Cubs will stop using him. But, for now, it looks like Samardzija’s breakout is real.