The beginning of the season is bathed in frivolities and attempts to string together what little information we have to find some sort of meaning going forward. Jeff Samardzija’s start to the season may be a frivolity up to this point. But, as we near the point where rates start to stabilize, his peripherals may be worth watching.
Samardzija started off in the big leagues in a bit of an odd state. The former fifth round pick and Notre Dame wide receiver flew through the Cubs minor league system after foregoing a potentially lucrative football career. Just two years after he was drafted, in which he also missed time for football commitments, he made his major league debut out of the pen. Despite being a bit wild, Samardzija was very effective. He finished his 27 and 2⁄3 inning cup of coffee with the Cubs with a 2.28 ERA, a FIP of 3.03, and a DRA of 3.93. The next two seasons were an incredible struggle for Samardzija. His subpar performance at the major league level set him bouncing up and down from the minor leagues. After two years of questions about whether or not he was even major league caliber. Samardzija returned to the bullpen in 2011 and was once again effectively wild. After that season, Samardzija placed himself in the contention for a rotation spot and he went on to earn it in spring training of 2012. His career was then on in the rotation.
His career as a starter has been fairly consistent. Over Samardzija’s five complete seasons in the rotation, he’s failed to reach 200 innings only once. His durability has been a major factor in his success thus far. On top of that, Samardzija has generall been an above average or better pitcher. His fWAR sat at either 2.6 or 2.7 for all but one of his seasons in the rotation when it jumped to 4.1 in 2014. His pWARP numbers have a little bit more wiggle in them as he ranged from 2.8 to 3.8 in every year but 2014 and his down year in 2015. On top of that, from 2012 through 2014 Samardzija strikeout rate ranged from about 23 to 24.9 each year, but has dipped a bit in each of the subsequent years. Overall, Samardzija has been a quality arm in the middle of the rotation for some time.
His first start in Arizona, which was the worst of the bunch, was a strikeout happy, home run hitting festival. Samardzija struck out nine over 5 and 1⁄3 innings while walking two and giving up six runs with three dingers. His next start against the Diamondbacks at home was a little more settled. He still gave up three runs over 6 and 2⁄3 , but kept the ball in the ballpark and struck out seven. However, he walked four of the batters he faced. In his third start at home against the Rockies, Samardzija was more in the middle. He did surrender four runs and a home run, but did not surrender a walk and struck out eight. In each start, Samardzija posted a strikeout rate larger than his career average — most times it was much larger.
In whole, Samardzija is operating on the extremes. Over those three starts, Samardzija’s strikeout rate sits north of 28 percent, which is good for 15th among current starters. Along with that comes a low 2.24 DRA that sits 26th among starters with 18 innings pitched or more. However, he also has one of the worst HR rates and an ERA north of six. Much of this is fleeting; however, we’re getting to the point where the strikeout rate is becoming reliable.
When looking at the pitch data, Samardzija seems to be dialing back the use of a couple of pitches, particularly his cutter. Early on in his career, Samardzija relied on his splitter as his out pitch. He had gotten away from that in recent years in favor of a cutter, which is pushed pretty heavily in Don Cooper’s tutelage. Samardzija has not dropped his cutter entirely, but changed its usage. It’s more of an early count pitch now.
Samardzija Overall Pitch Frequency
Samardzija Pitch Frequency with Two Strikes
In two strike situations, Samardzija’s heavy usage of his split looks to be coming back. After pairing it with his slider in 2014 late in counts, he developed two solid out pitches that led him to his most successful season. Now, Samardzija seems to be dropping that cutter to pre-White Sox levels with two strikes. It’s fooling hitters for now. His whiff rates on the pitches are up drastically from his 2015 and 2016 numbers. Previously, his slider sat at 12.62 percent and his splitter was at 14.16 percent. Now, those are up to 21.69 percent and 29.41 percent respectively. This may just be throwing hitters off from their advanced scouting prep, or his new approach may be yielding some lasting results.
Jeff Samardzija has developed a niche for himself over his career. The generally consistent right hander, even after a down year, ended up with a pretty hefty payday last season because of it. The season is young, but maybe he’s added a bit of a wrinkle to just who Jeff Samardzija is.
Anthony Rescan is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @AnthonyRescan.