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Jeff Samardzija's $90M signing is not as ridiculous as it sounds

Despite producing a poor 4.96 ERA in his walk year, Samardzija's season in context makes it look better.

In 2015 Jeff Samardzija was near replacement level by rWAR and above-average by fWAR.
In 2015 Jeff Samardzija was near replacement level by rWAR and above-average by fWAR.
Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

On Wednesday afternoon, baseball Twitter was temporarily abuzz with a rumor passed along by ESPN.com's Jayson Stark.

Yes, the Jeff Samardzija to whom he refers is, in fact, the same one that spent the 2015 season being hit around to the tune of a 4.96 ERA, the third-worst rate among qualifying starters. The idea was met with general surprise and sarcastic comments, but is it really that crazy an offer?

The San Francisco Giants did not think so and signed him Saturday for $90 million over 5 years. For a pitcher who unquestionably had his worst season (since converting to starting in 2012), it seems like a shocking amount of money. However, there are three reasons why a long-term contract of this price range is a pretty reasonable investment for San Francsico.

The 2015 Season, In Context

The numbers aren't very pretty - 4.96 ERA, a league-leading 29 home runs against, 0.2 rWAR, and a decline in strikeouts (17.9 percent in 2015 versus 21.5 percent career). He was hit more frequently and generated fewer (only 39.0 percent) ground balls. By almost every results-based factor, Samardzija regressed in 2015.

Nicolas Stellini wrote a great piece describing Samardzija's struggles and concluded that they were related to poor command of his breaking pitches. Looking at PITCHf/x data from FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball, I would argue that the command problems extended to his sinker as well, and may have been caused by overthrowing.

2015 GB Career GB 2015 Strikes Career Strikes 2015 xMov Career xMov 2015 zMov Career zMov
FA 38.8% 41.4% 67.0% 64.5% -7.8 -7.2 7.2 7.3
SL 41.4% 42.1% 69.4% 68.1% 1.1 1.2 1.0 0.4
FC 27.7% 31.7% 70.6% 66.4% -3.7 -2.6 7.8 6.4
FS 47.7% 52.3% 57.8% 58.0% -6.6 -5.9 4.7 3.8
FT 54.3% 57.4% 68.4% 65.5% -10.3 -10.3 4.1 5.2

Samardzija threw several of his pitches (notably the sinker and cutter) over the strike zone more frequently in 2015. The pitches saw moderate dips in ground ball percentage and were hit harder than in the past (the sinker featured a quite bad 22.2 percent HR/FB rate).

The sinker jumped to a staggering 145 wRC+ against, compared to a more reasonable 120 wRC+ career rate (his slider went from a strong 89 wRC+ career to a below-average 123 wRC+). Additionally, while Samardzija did lose some velocity in 2015, his sinker saw less of a decline than his four-seam fastball (only 0.5 MPH lower on average versus 1.3 MPH for the four-seamer).

A hypothesis I'd put forward is that as a 30-year-old pitcher faced with a natural velocity decline, he may have overthrown the sinker, his better fastball. That would potentially explain the flatter pitch and sustained velocity while being left over the strike zone. As a result, batters may be more able to square up the pitch, resulting in all those home runs, without seeing an increase in walks.

I'd also argue that with the White Sox he wasn't placed in the best situation for success, as the team's league-worst defense likely hampered Samardzija's ability to get outs. The 30th-ranked Chicago fielders produced -41.5 runs below average of defensive value (FanGraphs' Def stat), 98.4 runs below their league-leading division rivals in Kansas City. Additionally, U.S. Cellular Field has a pretty consistent 111-113 home run park factor, which does no favors to a pitcher generating fewer ground balls.

ESPN's Home Run tracker lists 12 out of the 29 home runs hit against Samardzija as traveling "just enough" to make it over the fence (41.4 percent). The site lists 27 percent as the league average proportion of "just enough" home runs, so Samardzija appears to have been unlucky by this measure (note that the league average figure came from the 2006 season, so the current percentage may be different).

Additionally, despite his near-replacement-level evaluation with a 0.2 rWAR, he was conversely seen as an above average pitcher by FanGraphs (2.7 fWAR). That is due to a consistently low walk rate and a home run per fly ball rate that actually remained around career average despite the higher total (10.8 percent in 2015 versus 11.0 percent for his career).

Durability

In 2015, Jeff Samardzija completed his third-straight 200 inning season. He has the 6th-most innings pitched over that time period. His multi-sport history and relatively fresh arm (he was a reliever until the 2012 season) lead to optimism about his future durability. He's never hit the disabled list and never missed a start (he was shut down by the Cubs in September 2012 as he hit an innings limit).

When it comes to pitching, the best indicator of future injuries is prior injuries, and Samardzija doesn't have that to worry about. Injuries are always a concern with starting pitchers, but he possesses the least amount of risk a team can reasonably expect from a veteran free agent looking for a multi-year deal.

Velocity

Jeff Samardzija saw a bit of a velocity decline in 2015, but as a 30-year old pitcher, it's not unusual.

Samardzija Velocity

The fear is that he will continue to lose velocity and effectiveness. However, if the problems he's seen are presumed to be ones of overthrowing and command, his stuff isn't inherently more hittable. In fact, he still throws very hard. Even with that decline, his fastball still averaged 94.3 MPH in 2015, the 12th-highest velocity among starters. He even hit as high as 98.9 MPH with his sinker in July.

Projecting a moderate decline in stuff, a healthy Samardzija would still probably have very usable velocity. He is a fresh arm with electric pitches and doesn't walk a lot of batters. If he is actually overthrowing the sinker, being more comfortable with lower velocity may return most of the pitch's effectiveness and improve his results. Come next season, we might see that the Giants didn't make quite the outrageous signing some accuse them of.

. . .

Spencer Bingol is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @SpencerBingol.