Jeff Samardzija has always had one of the more unusual career paths in baseball. He could have been a first-rounder in football, and NFL teams were still calling his agent until 2013. He chose baseball, though, even though his college stats were completely unremarkable (4.33 ERA his junior year, with a 5.62 K/9). He was moved aggressively by the Cubs for no discernable reason, debuting in the majors the same season he walked 42 and struck out 44 in 76 Double-A innings. Once he made the majors, he was a reliever, then a starter, then a reliever, then a starter.
The whole time, people were wondering when he was going to break out. With that kind of fastball, with that frame and durability, he was surely going to become an ace, after all. It took about eight or nine seasons in the majors to realize that a Samardzija is a Samardzija is a Samardzija.
Except ... maybe he’s assumed a new form?
Beyond the Box Score did a deep dive into Samardzija’s most recent month, in which he struck out 44 batters and walked one, which is the second-best K/BB over a calendar month in baseball history. Here’s the headline of the article:
Jeff Samardzija’s Kershaw-esque May
Statistically, it’s not a bananas headline. There was a six-ER start mixed in there, so it might be a little hyperbolic, but he’s also mixed in two game scores of 80 or better. According to BTBS, it’s because of his classic (but new to him) approach.
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.
Last year, it was Samardzija’s curveball that was all the rage. This year, it’s his slider. In 2016, he threw the cutter 18 percent of the time and the slider 15 percent of the time. This year, he’s thrown the cutter six percent of the time and the slider 20 percent of the time, while throwing his curveball regularly. More breaking balls is the obvious difference.
And it’s been a heckuva difference, because when hitters swing at his breaking balls, they miss nearly a third of the time. Now that Samardzija has two different breaking balls — and can throw both of them for strikes — he’s making hitters swing and miss a whole lot more.
Samardzija faced 141 batters in May, and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s getting close to the point where we should start paying attention to these stats. It takes roughly 70 batters faced for strikeout rates to stabilize and 170 batters faced for walk rates. So, no, he’s probably not going to have a one-walk June, and I would guess that he’ll even mix a couple walks in over the next game or two. But this high-strikeout, low-walk version of him doesn’t have to go away. It doesn’t have to be a fluke.
Now there’s the other part of Samardzija’s game, which is that people tend to hit baseballs really far against him, including three in his last outing. I’m not sure how that’s affected by his breaking-ball-heavy approach, but it’s worth noting that batters generally crushed his cutter, with a slugging percentage against of over .400 in every season he’s used it. The SLG against is much lower against his breaking balls, and this season, hitters are slugging lower against his four-seam fastball than they have at any point in his career.
It’s possible that with more breaking balls comes a fastball that’s harder to hit, because it’s harder to expect.
I can dig that.
But, anyway, read the Beyond the Box Score article and ignore Samardzija’s ERA. Something is up with this guy, and even if the dingers don’t stop, I must say that he’s fun to watch again. I wasn’t sure if that was going to be the case when April was raining down on us.