It hasn’t been easy to be a Jeff Samardzija owner all season long. Coming into the year, he’d shown some strikeout promise (8.9 K/9, 22.% K% in 2011) and a lot of bad control (double-digit walk percentages most seasons). So he was on some benches, waiver wires and watch lists as a tweener. After a good first couple of months, his ownership crept upwards. Then June came and reminded everyone of the downside: 23.1 innings, 15 walks, an ERA over ten and a WHIP over two. Ever since, he’s been slowly earning back the trust of many owners. He’s still available in more than half of the Yahoo leagues out there — and he fanned 11 against three walks in his last start.
Maybe it’s time to give the 27-year-old Shark the benefit of the doubt — it is his week, after all, and his day here at FanGraphs. Ben Duronio will focus on his split finger alone, while I’ll talk about his control in particular.
Now that he has established his mid-nineties fastball and wicked splitter combo, the biggest question is that control. If he can continue to walk batters at an average rate, his strikeout and ground-ball percentages will do the rest of the work.
Thankfully, his peripherals suggest that he can maintain his walk rate this season. His first-strike, zone, outside-swing, and contact percentages are all above average. Since first-strike percentage has been shown to be the most important control-related peripheral, it’s nice to see that he’s doing above-average work in that category — for the first time in his career.
The interplay of stuff and walk rate is important to his improvement. Because a whiff on a pitch outside the zone results in a strike, ferocious stuff can lead to better walk rates. Before last season, Samardzija’s fastball was closer to 93 than 95. Now that he’s got a 95 mph heater, his cutter, slider, sinker, curve, and most importantly, split-change, are all seeing more whiffs. That sets the stage for the better control we’ve seen so far this year.
There is a tendency to think that having wicked stuff makes it hard to harness, and can lead to wildness and control issues. The Shark’s fastball has the fourth-most arm-side run in baseball, and that might make it hard to place in the zone. But whether you believe the average zone% for the fastball is 45% (BIS) or closer to 50% (PITCHf/x), he is getting his fastball in the zone at an above-average rate (58.8% this year, 47.9% last year). And if you look at the other pitchers with similar x-movement on their fastball, there’s not one with a control problem: Max Scherzer, Lance Lynn, Rick Porcello and Luke Hochevar sandwich the Shark, and they’re all average or better when it comes to walk rate.
Now, his second-most used pitch is the split finger, and that’s a notoriously difficult pitch to place in the zone. Because PITCHf/x labels his splitters as both splitters and changeups, you have to look at both numbers to get the full picture, but it’s clear that he gets the ball over in the zone less than 40% of the time, no matter what. He’s rewarded for the pitch in whiffs (swinging strike rates over 25%, making it his best pitch there) and ground balls (ground ball rate over 56%, best again), but it’s a finisher, not a pitch he uses to get ahead. Once again, though, the company he keeps in the split-finger department does not suggest the pitch should create a control problem by itself: Hiroki Kuroda, Tim Hudson, Dan Haren and Ryan Dempster all manage average or better walk rates most seasons.
There might be nothing harder than finding pitcher comps based on stuff. If you set the ‘n’ for splitfingers high enough, many of these pitchers fall away — including, for example, Ubaldo. Does that mean that Samardzija’s control is believable from here on out? Hard to say, especially when it comes to future seasons. After all, pitchers lose velocity from day one, pretty much, and a tick off his fastball might bring back some of his previous issues if the pitch becomes more hittable.
But when it comes to the rest of this season, it certainly looks like we can believe in Jeff Samardzija and his newfound control.