During a gruesome April for the Giants — the team went 9-17 in the month, its worst record to begin the season since 1984 — Jeff Samardzija’s performance was something of a bright spot. My colleague Anthony Rescan looked at the righty on April 21; at that point, he’d put up a 6.16 ERA in 19 innings, but his FIP (4.35) and xFIP (2.79) suggested a stronger performance could be coming.
In Samardzija’s final two games of April, he was a little shakier, allowing a 6.57 ERA, 4.82 FIP, and 4.52 xFIP over 12 1⁄3 frames. Still, for the month as a whole, the story remained the same — the Shark was a pitcher with very solid peripherals (a 25.9 percent strikeout rate and 7.4 percent walk rate) who just couldn’t prevent runs (6.32 ERA). It was reasonable to expect some positive regression, perhaps making him a reliable mid-rotation starter.
Then the calendar turned to May. This is how Samardzija’s outings this month have gone:
- 5/3 at Dodgers — eight innings, one run (zero earned), three hits, zero homers, zero walks, 11 strikeouts
- 5/9 at Mets — seven innings, six runs (six earned), 10 hits, one homer, zero walks, nine strikeouts
- 5/14 vs. Reds — 6 2⁄3 innings, three runs (three earned), nine hits, zero homers, zero walks, eight strikeouts
- 5/20 at Cardinals — eight innings, zero runs, five hits, zero homers, zero walks, eight strikeouts
- 5/25 at Cubs — seven innings, three runs (three earned), six hits, three homers, one walk, eight strikeouts
On first glance, it’s a pretty incredible month, adding up to a 2.95 ERA in 36 2⁄3 frames. But take a closer look at the latter two numbers in each column. Add them up. (Go ahead; I’ll wait.)
Through those 36 2⁄3 innings, Samardzija has fanned 44 batters. His 31.2 percent strikeout rate in that five-game span is one of the highest since he became a starter:
He had a stretch like this in the beginning of 2013, another one toward the end of 2014, and of course, the aforementioned strong April. Something’s different this month, though — Samardzija’s cut down dramatically on his free passes:
This new level of control — he has a 0.7 percent walk rate, for Christ’s sake — is pretty much unprecedented for Samardzija. Pair that with his high-strikeout streak, and you get this insane graph:
Forty-four walks to one strikeout. According to the Play Index, that’s the second-highest single-calendar month K/BB in MLB history — and this is some impressive company Samardzija is keeping:
Single-month K/BB leaders, all time
Is Samardzija really this great? Can he keep this up over the remaining four months of the year? Will he win the Cy Young unanimously?
The short answer is, well, no. The title of this article notwithstanding, Samardzija is not Clayton Kershaw — he doesn’t have Kershaw’s arsenal or command, which means this sort of hot streak is doomed to fade. With that said, Samardzija has done things differently over the past few weeks, and he could sustain some of this success.
Midway through the 2016 season, Samardzija started dabbling with a curveball. He’d used the pitch back in 2012 but abandoned it after having problems with his control. After relying less heavily on the pitch to begin the 2017 season, he’s reincorporated it this month:
And the curve hasn’t taken away from Samardzija’s slider, which he’s throwing as often as ever. Instead, Samardzija has started throwing fewer fastballs. He’s used heaters 49.3 percent of the time this month, a step down from where he’s been in the past:
Breaking balls, on the other hand, have accounted for 43.4 percent of his pitches in May, the highest mark for a calendar month since he moved into the rotation. While it’s not enough to satisfy Eno Sarris, this is pretty clearly a step in the right direction.
Samardzija’s curve and slider serve distinct purposes. The former, with its unusually straight movement, has dropped in for a called strike 27.8 percent of the time this year; out of 64 starters with at least 100 curves, that ranks seventh. The latter’s high velocity and armside break has helped him blow it past hitters; only 16 other starters have a higher slider whiff rate than Samardzija’s 20.1 percent this season. With two breaking balls to use, the Shark has been able to catch hitters looking and swinging.
While the slider and curve have helped with strikeouts, the improvement with walks has come from Samardzija’s hard stuff. He throws three fastballs — a four-seamer, a sinker, and a cutter — and this month, they’ve gone for a strike 74.3 percent of the time altogether. That’s because he’s pounded the zone with them in May:
Samardzija’s fastballs still get some called strikes and swinging strikes, but it’s clear their primary purpose is to work the count in his favor. Starting hitters off with the heat, then using the breaking ball to put them away, is a tried-and-true strategy, and it’s served Samardzija well this month.
It’s critical to note, too, that Samardzija’s still been really unlucky in May. Thanks to a sky-high BABIP (.319), his aforementioned 2.94 ERA can’t live up to his 2.21 FIP and 2.43 xFIP this month. Even if his K/BB gets worse — and at this point, it has nowhere to go but down — better fortune with balls in play could keep his ERA below three.
While the Giants have improved this month, winning 11 of their 23 games, they’re still not looking good. But Samardzija has had a historic May, and it bodes well for his performance the rest of this year, as well as the remaining three years on his $90 million contract. Looks like the Shark — and San Francisco — made the right choice.