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Jeff Samardzija’s Kershaw-esque May

This month, the Shark has an unfathomable strikeout-to-walk ratio, thanks to a new approach.

San Francisco Giants v St Louis Cardinals
Turns out breaking balls are better than fastballs. Who knew?
Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

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 13 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 Metsseven innings, six runs (six earned), 10 hits, one homer, zero walks, nine strikeouts
  • 5/14 vs. Reds6 23 innings, three runs (three earned), nine hits, zero homers, zero walks, eight strikeouts
  • 5/20 at Cardinalseight innings, zero runs, five hits, zero homers, zero walks, eight strikeouts
  • 5/25 at Cubsseven 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 23 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 23 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:

Image via FanGraphs

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:

Image via FanGraphs

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:

Image via FanGraphs

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

Rank Player Year Month IP K BB K/BB
Rank Player Year Month IP K BB K/BB
1 Cliff Lee 2013 Sept/Oct 39.0 54 1 54.0
2 Jeff Samardzija 2017 May 36.2 44 1 44.0
3 Hisashi Iwakuma 2014 July 42.2 39 1 39.0
4 Masahiro Tanaka 2016 August 39.0 38 1 38.0
5 Cliff Lee 2012 August 36.1 37 1 37.0
6 David Price 2013 July 48.1 35 1 35.0
7 Ray Sadecki 1971 July 39.0 34 1 34.0
8 Bret Saberhagen 1993 June 41.2 34 1 34.0
9 Phil Hughes 2014 Sept/Oct 37.0 34 1 34.0
10 Clayton Kershaw 2016 May 49.2 65 2 32.5
Ranking among pitchers with 30 IP in a single month. B-R groups March with April and September with October. Data via the Play Index

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:

Image via Brooks Baseball

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:

Image via Brooks Baseball

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:

Images via Brooks Baseball

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.


Ryan Romano is the co-managing editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles for Camden Depot, sometimes. Follow him on Twitter if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.