I recently saw an article, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, that featured the word "resurrects" in the headline. This, of course, indicated that Jeff Samardzija's career had experienced some sort of resurrection, as if his career was dead and had Jon Snow'd itself back into relevance. But it's difficult to look at someone who took home a five-year, $90 million deal this winter and say that his career even needed a resurrection.
There's no denying that Samardzija's time on the South Side of Chicago wasn't anywhere near as pleasant as his stay on the North Side, when he broke out with the Chicago Cubs. The 2015 season saw him post an ERA near five, a FIP of 4.23, a decrease in strikeouts (6.86 per nine from 8.28 the previous year), an increase in walks (2.06/9 up from 1.76 in 2014), and an inability to keep runners on base, as his 67.2 strand percent was the lowest of his career as a starter. It was more of the same for a White Sox club that was a disaster last season. As such, it obviously wasn't the best of situations for Samardzija.
There were a couple of different avenues for him to explore over the winter. He could take a shorter term deal, maybe a year or two, and re-establish his value in a thinning free agent class. Or he could take the security of a four or five-year pact, albeit at a much lower rate than he would've thought possible prior to the 2015 season getting underway. Quickly into the winter, though, we learned that pitching would be at a higher premium than usual, and Shark subsequently ended up receiving his massive $90 million deal from the San Francisco Giants.
Barely two months into his career with the Giants, we're seeing marked improvement for the veteran hurler. The Giants have allowed him to get back to what made him successful with the Chicago Cubs, to the point where he was able to land them Addison Russell from the Oakland Athletics. He's really improved across the board, not only statistically, but pertaining to his usage and tendencies as well.
Part of what made Samardzija so successful in previous years was his ability to get opposing hitters to put the ball on the ground. He routinely posted groundball rates up near 50 percent, including a 50.2 percent mark in 2014. His 39.0 percent GB rate in 2015 was the lowest of his career outside of a 19.1 innings pitched season back in 2010. His usage is back to reflecting a pitcher that should be able to generate groundballs:
That cutter and sinker are back up to where they need to be to induce more grounders. The sinker, in particular, returning back to where it was in previous years represents an encouraging trend. And as such, his groundballs per ball in play are back to looking like exactly what they should look like:
It's no coincidence that as his sinker and cutter usage declines in usage in 2015, so do his groundball numbers. It didn't help that Samardzija was playing in front of perhaps the worst defensive team in baseball in 2015, so his willingness to throw pitches that resulted in groundballs could have teetered more on reluctance than anything else, but with the usage in those pitches going back up, and a much better defensive club (Giants as a team have a 6.5 DEF rating, good for ninth in all of baseball), we're seeing a return to form.
For Jeff Samardzija, this resurgence isn't helped by a change in velocity or any real change in increased movement. While there has been change in each respect, it isn't significant enough to point to and declare it a reason for his success. Rather, he's been able to get back to what he did best prior to his time on the South Side: getting the ball on the ground, utilizing his arsenal as he wants to utilize it, and having the right type of defense behind him to support him.
As a result of his change in usage (or return to usage, if you will), Shark has the GB% back up to 48.6 percent. He's making the right pitches at the right time, as hitters are putting the ball on the ground over half the time when runners are on base or in scoring position. This is what that looks like for Samardzija, with each of these numbers being represented with runners on base:
Randy Holt is a staff writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandallPnkFloyd.