Beware the Shark!

After spending the first four years of his career primarily in the bullpen, Jeff Samardzija became a full-time starting pitcher in 2012. In his first two years as a starting pitcher, Samardzija was worth 2.8 and 2.6 WAR, but he bumped that up to 4.1 WAR last year in the best season of his career.

Jeff Samardzija, first two years as a starter (combined)

Season Team IP ERA FIP xFIP WHIP K% BB% HR/FB BABIP GB% LOB%
12 – ’13 Cubs 388.3 4.10 3.67 3.42 1.29 24.1% 8.2% 13.1% 0.306 46.6% 72.2%

 

Jeff Samardzija, 2014 season

Season Team IP ERA FIP xFIP WHIP K% BB% HR/FB BABIP GB% LOB%
14 2 Teams 219.7 2.99 3.20 3.07 1.07 23.0% 4.9% 10.6% 0.283 50.2% 73.2%

 

Considering just the years he’s spent as a starting pitcher, in 2014 Samardzija set career bests in innings pitched, ERA, FIP, xFIP, WHIP, BB%, HR/FB%, BABIP, and GB%. When a player takes a step forward like this, there’s always the question of how sustainable this step forward is.

With Samardzija, it’s important to break down his 2014 season between the time he spent with the Chicago Cubs and the time he spent with the Oakland A’s.

Season Team IP ERA FIP xFIP WHIP K% BB% HR/FB BABIP GB% LOB%
2014 Cubs 108.0 2.83 3.10 3.19 1.20 22.9% 6.9% 8.5% 0.305 52.5% 72.9%
2014 Athletics 111.7 3.14 3.30 2.96 0.93 23.0% 2.8% 12.3% 0.262 47.9% 73.5%

 

The two statistics that stand out most are Samardzija’s BB% and BABIP in his time with the A’s. Samardzija made his last start with the Cubs on June 28th, 2014. At that point, he had a 6.9% BB% and .305 BABIP. His BB% was a career best and his BABIP was almost a perfect match for the BABIP allowed by the Cub’s team during the entire 2014 season (.304).

After the trade to Oakland, Samardzija’s BB% plummeted from 6.9% with the Cubs to 2.8% with the A’s and his BABIP also dropped significantly, from .305 to .262. Samardzija’s BABIP with Oakland was even better than Oakland’s team BABIP during the 2014 season (.272).

So, is this much-improved walk rate over a half-season of starts sustainable? Considering that before coming to Oakland, Samardzija had pitched 496 1/3 innings as a starter over the previous two-and-a-half years with a walk rate of 7.9%, I would say it’s not. He had a good stretch of 16 starts with a much lower walk rate than his career average, but it’s unlikely that he can sustain that low walk rate going into 2015.

Then there’s the issue of his superlative BABIP with the Oakland A’s. Again, through 496 1/3 innings pitched as a starter in the two-and-a-half-years before coming to Oakland, Samardzija had allowed a BABIP of .306. With Oakland, it dropped to .262. As mentioned above, Oakland’s team BABIP was .272 last year, so that drop for Samardzija is not surprising given that he was pitching in front of a better defense. Now that Samardzija is with the White Sox, he won’t have such a good defense behind him. The White Sox allowed a .306 BABIP last year and were in the bottom tier of all teams in baseball defensively. Since then, they’ve added Adam LaRoche, Melky Cabrera, and Emilio Bonifacio. LaRoche and Cabrera have not been good defenders over the last two years, while Bonifacio was good last year but not notably good in previous years. The bottom line is that it doesn’t look like the White Sox defense will do Samardzija any favors in 2015.

So, what should we expect from Samardzija in 2015?

Mike Podhorzer has written about the difference in ballparks as Samardzija moves from the O.co Coliseum in Oakland to US Cellular in Chicago. The takeaway is that the Cell could help Samardzija pick up a few more strikeouts at the expense of more walks and more homers allowed. Here are the strikeout, walk, and home run park factors for Wrigley, O.co, and US Cellular:

 

  K PF BB PF HR BF
Wrigley 101 102 101
O.co 99 101 92
US Cellular 102 107 111

 

In his three years as a starting pitcher in more pitcher-friendly ballparks, Samardzija has a strikeout rate of 23.7%, a walk rate of 7%, and a HR/FB% of 12.2%. To project Samardzija for 2015, we could slightly increase his strikeout rate, up his walk rate by a bit more, and his home run rate by even more, and factor in regression as Samardzija turns 30 years old. The following chart shows Samardzija’s numbers over the last three seasons, along with the average for those three seasons and what I would project for Samardzija in 2015.

 

Season Team IP K% BB% HR/FB BABIP
2012 Cubs 174.7 24.9% 7.8% 12.8% .296
2013 Cubs 213.7 23.4% 8.5% 13.3% .314
2014 2 Teams 219.7 23.0% 4.9% 10.6% .283
12-14 Average 202.7 23.7% 7.0% 12.2% .298
2015 My Projection 210.0 23.2% 7.3% 13.1% .305

 

To projection Samardzija’s stats for 2015, I used the formula for FIP and plugged in expected strikeouts walks and home runs, based on my projections above. This produced a FIP for Samardzija of 3.71. In his career as a starter, Samardzija’s FIP has been about 0.20 lower than his actual ERA. Last year, the White Sox team FIP was 0.20 lower than their team ERA. With this in mind, I bumped up my projection for Samardzija’s ERA to 3.80.

For WHIP, I used the walk rate I projected above and a .305 BABIP to come up with hits allowed and project a 1.26 WHIP for Samardzija in 2015. Here is a chart with my projection, along with projections from Steamer, ZiPS, and the FanGraphs Fans:

Source IP SO ERA WHIP K/9 BB/9 HR/9
My Projection 210 202 3.80 1.26 8.6 2.7 1.1
Steamer 192 178 3.93 1.24 8.3 2.6 1.0
ZiPS 194 197 3.90 1.23 9.1 2.4 1.1
FanGraphs Fans (15) 213 200 3.35 1.18 8.5 2.2 1.1

 

The Fans are more optimistic in their projection for Samardzija’s innings, ERA, and WHIP. I’m more optimistic than Steamer and the FanGraphs Fans that Samardzija will strike out a few more batters, but I also expect him to walk more and have a higher WHIP. Samardzija was the 22nd starting pitcher drafted in the recent FanGraphs Early Mock Draft, taken ahead of Masahiro Tanaka, Jake Arrieta, Hisashi Iwakuma, and Hyun-Jin Ryu, among others. I will definitely be moving Samardzija down my draft sheets a bit.



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Bobby Mueller has been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan as far back as the 1979 World Series Championship team ("We R Fam-A-Lee!"). He suffered through the 1980s, then got a reprieve in the early 1990s, only to be crushed by Francisco Cabrera in 1992. After a 20-year stretch of losing seasons, things are looking up for Bobby’s Pirates. His blog can be found at www.baseballonthebrain.com and he tweets at www.twitter.com/bballonthebrain.

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Aquaman Randy Savage
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Aquaman Randy Savage

I thought this was going to be about Roger “The Shark” Bernadina. Oh well, a man can dream. Fun read, regardless.