The Cubs’ move to plant Jeff Samardzija in their 2012 Opening Day rotation certainly raised a few eyebrows. Here was a formerly highly-touted prospect who had struggled immensely from 2008-2010 as he bounced back and forth between starter and reliever roles. In 2011, he seemingly found his niche in the middle-to-late innings; compiling an impressive 2.97 ERA while operating solely out of the Chicago bullpen. So it comes as no surprise that more than a few Cubs fans (as well as outside observers) were a bit skeptical that moving Samardzija to the rotation after a solid spring was in the team’s best interest long-term. His name may have cropped up in a few deep sleeper articles here and there, but for most drafters, there was no hype to be found; the Notre Dame project didn’t even crack ESPN’s top 200 drafted starting pitchers (by ADP). But owners who did manage to scoop him up were treated to a pleasant surprise, as he cost next to nothing, but ended up finishing 43rd in Zach Sanders’ end of season FVAR rankings; ahead of more ballyhooed names like Jeremy Hellickson, Ian Kennedy, and Matt Moore (among others).
So what changed in 2012 that turned Samardzija from a middle reliever with a mixed (at best) big league pedigree into an above-average starting pitcher? The improvement that stands out the most was his ability to almost halve his BB% from his 2011 numbers (down to 7.8% from 13.2%). This wasn’t just an odd instance of guys swinging at the same old bad pitches, either; Samardzija’s first pitch strike percentage jumped nearly 5% to 60.2% in 2012 and his Zone% climbed as well; bouncing back to 43.6% after dropping each of the last two seasons. His P/PA dropped from a subpar 4.03 in 2011 to a near league-average 3.82 in 2012 (MLB average was 3.81). This improved efficiency didn’t result in significantly decayed batted ball profiles (his LD% was up slightly over 2011, but he also replaced some fly balls with more preferable ground balls) and correspondinly allowed him to work deeper into games; he tossed 6.2 innings per start, over an inning longer than the average of his previous starts in the majors.
But it wasn’t all walks. One of the most frequently heard mantras in the pitching world is how “stuff plays up in the bullpen.” And it’s not really a myth, either, as pitchers have shown time-and-time again that their velocities are almost universally higher when throwing a few innings every couple of days as opposed to starting once a week. However, Samardzija may be one of the few pitchers who bucked that trend, actually improving upon leaving the ‘pen behind. His PitchF/X fastball velocity climbed from 94.8 to 95.1 mph (second among big league starters to only Justin Verlander), but perhaps more impressively than just a raw speed increase, many of his strikeout markers also jumped to career highs, including an impressive 12.1% SwStr%. To put that number in context, he ranked fifth in the majors behind Cole Hamels, Edwin Jackson, Max Scherzer, and R.A. Dickey; not bad company to be in. His straight offspeed stuff (changeup/splitter) was killer; with over 25% of his strikes on this pitches resulting from swings and misses. In fact, if you toss his slider in the mix, he was at least 1.7 runs above average (per 100 pitches) in pitch weights for each of the three; with his splitter being rated as the best among qualified major league starters in the PitchF/X realm.
So with all of these positives, why was Samardzija still only 43rd in the wrapup rankings? A lot of it has to do with workload. Many players making the transition to the rotation also end up being on a team-imposed innings limit to protect their arm from unnecessary fatigue late in the season. Samardzija was a bit of a special case, however, throwing a not-insignificant 88 innings in 2011 which therefore allowed him to bounce to 174.2; still accumulating only about 80% of the aggregate stats of a more workhorse pitcher, but a number that was almost certainly beyond what his owners expected in April and May. One of the more positive markers on this front was the fact that he was able to maintain his fastball velocity all season (even picking up a fraction of a mile per hour in August and September) versus guys like Chris Sale who saw a noticeable dropoff as the season wound down. As long as Samardzija didn’t suffer from any hidden injuries that weren’t disclosed down the stretch, the Cubbies should feel confident letting the leash out going forward and allowing him to roll all season unrestricted.
What does the above mean for 2013? Couple the fact that Samardzija didn’t put in 200+ innings in 2012 and will be playing in a hitter’s park on a team that’s not expected to contend and he’s unlikely to be high on many draft boards, even with some of the positives mentioned above. However, he appears to have taken a legitimate step forward this past year and you can even argue that room for improvement exists as evidenced by the fact that the 27 year-old’s xFIP (3.38) was nearly a half a run lower than his ERA (3.81) and a healthy season should provide a 20%ish boost in the raw counting stats as his innings climb. Assuming he can keep the walks under control, he’s a guy who should be available and targetable beyond the 100th pick, and has the potential to perform like a top 25 starting pitcher if he can sustain the gains he achieved in 2012.