That headline is a true statement. It's also deceptive and easy to misconstrue. Most importantly, it's a very, very good trolling headline. Hello, welcome to McCovey Chronicles, a website about the San Francisco Giants. That's kind of what we do. It's all truth, lies, and trolling around here.
Jeff Samardzija most certainly did lead Major League Baseball in earned runs last year. You go to his page on Baseball-Reference.com, and blammo, it's right there in big, bold, black ink. He led baseball in hits and earned runs, and he led the American League in home runs, too. That seems bad. Like, maybe that's an $89 million pitcher, I don't know.
As someone who has talked himself into the Samardzija contract, though, allow me to reassure you that these numbers aren't as damning as it appears. Think of all the awful pitchers you've watched in your lifetime. Doesn't matter if they were on the Giants, or if you were giggling because they were on another team. There's no sense in shaming them by calling them out individually, but we all know a few. Rookies who never should have been called up in the first place. Veterans who hung around for three years too many. Veterans who were rookies that never should have been called up in the first place and still hung around for three years too many.
Those pitchers don't lead the league in earned runs. They don't get the chance to. They're yanked from the rotation, buried under a pile of soiled uniforms, and eventually disposed of by a clubbie. The worst pitchers in baseball doing get the chance to lead the league in anything.
It takes a talented pitcher to lead the league in earned runs, and I'm not cracking wise. Don't believe me? Let's look at a list of some pitchers who have led their league in earned runs over the last decade or two:
- Justin Verlander, 2014
- Edinson Volquez, 2013
- John Lackey, 2011
- James Shields, 2010
All of them eventually bounced back. Their managers, pitching coaches, and organizations all knew there was some talent still in there, and only Lackey needed the doctors to find it. Sometimes, the best thing a pitcher can do is keep pitching.
- Rodrigo Lopez, 2010
Uh, well, no, they aren't all success stories. Occasionally, you have bad teams with no other options.
- Dontrelle Willis, 2007
Or, right, pitchers who are irredeemably messed up for whatever reason.
- Rodrigo Lopez, 2006
Wait, how does that happen ...
- Tim Lincecum, 2012
Okay, you've made your point.
- Wayne Franklin/Brett Tomko, 2003 (tie)
YOU'VE MADE YOUR POINT. Maybe a better way to put it is that pitchers who lead the world in earned runs don't have to be broken. It's what the Giants are counting on.
There was a mini-scare about Samardzija's velocity at one point this spring, but everything seems to be normal now. He still has that baby-fresh arm, like that one executive creepily noted. Assume that he's fine, physically, and try to reverse-engineer what went wrong with him last year.
There are obvious answers to repeat. The White Sox had a miserable, league-worst defense. U.S. Cellular is an underrated bandbox, one of the worst places to pitch in baseball. Samardzija thinks he was tipping pitches, and saber-types have noted that he drastically increased the use of his cutter. Add them all together, and you couldn't find a better cure for those ailments. Instead of a bandbox, here's AT&T Park. Instead of a bunch of boot-handed nincompoops in the field, here's a top-10 defense. Maybe instead of tipping pitches, try not tipping them, and stop throwing that cutter.
It all checks out.
This spring, Samardzija has the second-lowest ERA among the Giants' projected starting pitchers. That's good! That ERA is 8.53. Which is less good. He's allowed five homers in 19 innings, and he's allowed 27 hits, too. It's spring training, et cetera, so don't sweat it. Until your eyes creep up to the top of this post again, that is. Jeff Samardzija led all of baseball in earned runs last year, you know.
So there are (roughly) three options, here.
1. Samardzija leads the NL in earned runs this year, or the AT&T Park equivalent
This would be a disaster, a stark realization that the following four years will be dark, cold years, at least when it comes to this contract. It wasn't the White Sox defense. It wasn't the park. It was the pitcher pitching pitches poorly. Poop.
2. Samardzija is the on-again/off-again pitcher the Cubs enjoyed
When the A's gave up Addison Russell for Samardzija and Jason Hammel, they were getting a pitcher having his best season. In the two seasons before that, though, Samardzija was Pretty Okay. He was worth two wins according to Baseball-Reference in his first season as a starter, and his ability to eat innings was worth a win in the following season, which was a bit of a disappointment.
The strikeouts were enough to make FanGraphs like him a little more, but he wasn't anything close to an ace or a #2. He was a very functional, helpful, unexciting pitcher, which was a curious contrast to his superlative, exciting arm.
3. Samardzija is the All-Star from 2014 again
Man, oh, man, if he were a free agent after '14, he would be a bazillionaire and probably on the Dodgers. He finally matched the stuff with results, and he finished with 219 innings of 125 ERA+ ball, which is roughly Matt Cain in his prime. It wasn't so much of a "surprise!" as a "FINALLY" around the league, which is why the A's had to give up their best prospect for him.
That stuff is still here. Just obscured. By a pile of earned runs from last year. Your job is to figure out which Samardzija you're expecting.
As you might expect from my nondescript career as a middling centrist, I'll take that second option. He'll be fine. But he won't be a revelation. He won't be 2012 Matt Cain, exactly. He'll be '12 Cain with '15 Peavy mixed in. He'll be, let's see, I'll take those names and mash them together and ...
Pain. He'll be Pain, personified.
No, that's not right.
Why did Rodrigo Lopez keep getting jobs? It's bugging me.
Here's what Samardzija might do in 2016:
Jeff Samardzija, 2016 projection
With the hitting the Giants hopefully have, that'll be enough to not curse him and hope for good things next year, too. That'll do.