Jeff Samardzija: Hard luck pitcher

"You'll be a hard luck pitcher, baby, till you find your win." Man I hate that song. - Scott Cunningham

Is Jeff Samardzija the first post-modern pitcher, one defined by how he actually pitches as opposed to his win-loss record?

670 The Score in Chicago has a Sunday morning baseball show called "Hit and Run," hosted by Matt Abbatacola and Barry Rozner. Matt posed the following question -- what's the longest stretch any pitcher ever had starting the season with an ERA less than 2.00 and no wins? It's easily enough checked using the Baseball-Reference Play Index feature, and this first link shows the complete list of pitchers with at least 10 starts and no wins. It's a long list of futility, evidenced by the fact that of the 100 pitchers listed, most had an ERA in the stratosphere. Samardzija isn't even listed on the first page of results -- one has to go to the second page to see him and then notice not only is he the first pitcher (since 1914) to go 10 starts with no wins and an ERA below 2.00, it's hard to find pitchers that were even close to meeting this criteria.

Jeff Sarmardzija is introducing the baseball world to two concurrent notions, the meaningless of the win as well as the importance of evaluating pitchers by what they do as opposed to what their teams don't do to support them. That most-noted of sabermetric journals, Newsweek, even commented on Samardzija in an article last week. The tide is turning -- as new and better measures of performance are being developed and explained, people are slowly but surely paying attention.

Samardzija is tied for second amongst pitchers in Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement (rWAR) with 2.7, behind only Johnny Cueto and Mark Buehrle and tied for 18th using FanGraphs' WAR value (fWAR) at 1.5. Note the records of the pitchers surrounding Samardzija in either measure -- Buehrle has an 8-1 record and marginally better rWAR and fWAR values. The disparity between their records is not seen in their WAR values.

In my last post I discussed evaluating pitchers using Bill James' Game Score method. I was going to introduce several other Game Score methods developed by Tom Tango but was beaten to the punch by former Beyond the Box Score contributor Matt Hunter last year, so I won't repeat it. This chart shows the top pitchers in 2014 using the various Game Score methods ranks (minimum 9 starts, all data through Saturday, May 24th):

Pitcher Team Record GS  
GSc RA K/BB FIP LW
Johnny Cueto Reds 4-3 10 1 2 2 6 1
Adam Wainwright Cardinals 7-2 10 2 1 10 1 2
Masahiro Tanaka Yankees 6-1 9 3 8 1 5 ---
Julio Teheran Braves 3-3 10 4 6 --- --- 6
Yu Darvish Rangers 4-2 9 5 7 3 4 8
Jeff Samardzija Cubs 0-4 10 6 3 --- 9 5
Sonny Gray Athletics 5-1 10 7 4 --- --- 9
Max Scherzer Tigers 6-1 10 8 --- 6 ---
---
Tim Hudson Giants 4-2 9 9 5 --- --- 3
Dallas Keuchel Rays 6-2 10 10 --- 7 7 7
Mark Buehrle Blue Jays 8-1 10 --- 9 --- --- ---
Alfredo Simon Reds 6-2 9 --- 10 --- --- ---
Corey Kluber Indians 5-3 12 --- --- 4 3 ---
Felix Hernandez Mariners 6-1 11 --- --- 5 2 10
Michael Wacha Cardinals 3-3 10 --- --- 8 --- ---
Zack Greinke Dodgers 7-1 10 --- --- 9 --- ---
Garrett Richards Angels 4-2 10 --- --- --- 8 ---
Andrew Cashner Padres 2-5 9 --- --- --- 10 ---
Jason Hammel Cubs 5-2 9 --- --- --- --- 4

These are the different Game Score methodologies:

Method Equation
Bill James Game Score (GSc)
Read here
Tom Tango Runs Allowed (RA)
(6.4 * IP) – (10 * R) + 40
Tom Tango K/BB 0.4 * IP + 3 * (SO – BB) + 40
Tom Tango FIP 2.5 * IP + 2 * SO – 3 * BB – 13 * HR + 40
Tom Tango Linear Weights (LW)
8.4 * IP + 40 - (3*BB + 5*H + 8*HR)

You can read how Tom Tango derived his equations in this post. Calculating the weights for the individual inputs is complex, but the inputs themselves are basic predictors of pitching effectiveness, keeping hits, walks and runs allowed to a minimum. When looking at the season Samardzija has had so far, he ranks high in just about every methodology, the measure of an effective pitcher --he just doesn't have any wins to show for it.

Part of the Samardzija discussion centers on whether he'll be the first pitcher to start an All-Star Game with no wins. While this is highly unlikely and  nobody cares, it shows how far baseball knowledge has come that this is even a matter for discussion. People outside of Chicago recognize Samardzija is pitching well and is losing due to no fault of his own. He's made 16 starts without a win going back to last year, and yet no one is stating he's a failure who should be traded for whatever the Cubs can get in return. Likewise, Jason Hammel isn't being hailed as a building block of a Cubs team waiting for its minor league talent to emerge despite his 5-2 record.

I'm old enough to have lived through the 1970s -- bad hair, worse clothes and songs so reprehensible as to be chargeable as crimes against humanity in the International Court of Justice at The Hague. "Hard Luck Woman" by Kiss is one of those songs, and Jeff Samardzija is the hard luck pitcher of 2014. Every year features one:

Year Pitcher Team Record fWAR
2013 Chris Sale White Sox 11-14 5.1 (9)
2012 Cliff Lee Phillies 6-9 4.9 (5)
2011 Doug Fister 2 Teams 11-13 5.2 (9)
2010 Jered Weaver Angels 13-12 5.7 (7)
2009 Cliff Lee 2 Teams 14-13 6.5 (5)
2008 John Danks White Sox 12-9 5.0 (10)
2007 Joe Blanton Athletics 14-10 5.5 (5)
2006 CC Sabathia Indians 12-11 5.4 (8)

It's rare to be recognized as a good pitcher on a bad team. Felix Hernandez won the 2010 Cy Young with a 13-12 record, and Chris Sale finished fifth in last year's voting despite his record. The fact it can happen doesn't mean it's accepted throughout baseball fandom -- but it is getting better.

The Cubs and Samardzija are well apart in their contract discussions, and while the Cubs have him under team control through 2015, Samardzija has made no secret of his desire to test free agency. He'll be 31 when that happens, creating an interesting mix of factors. One thing is for certain -- if the Cubs don't pay Samardzija, chances are they'll pay someone like him.

Baseball front offices have known for years that pitching performance is more than wins and losses, but it's good to see reporting and commentary take notice as well. As the numbers of innings per start continues to decline, it makes sense to look at those items pitchers can actually control and not focus on things he can't -- we're all better-informed baseball fans as a result.

All data from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs. Any mistakes in compiling the data are the author's.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.

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