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Jeff Samardzija had the third-best season of his career

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A virtual afterthought heading into Spring Training wound up being the most reliable player on the team.

MLB: Colorado Rockies at San Francisco Giants Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Stat line

32 GS, 181.1 IP, 140 K, 49 BB, 28 HR, 1.11 WHIP, 3.52 ERA, 4.59 FIP, 4.40 DRA, 119 ERA+

Without Jeff Samardzija, the Giants would’ve been much worse in 2019.

The first month of the season saw the team itself along with most of the personnel trying to figure things out. Madison Bumgarner hadn’t quite gotten his velocity back and he was still trying to regain command of his secondary pitches. Healthy, sure, but not the morale-boosting, mound-dominant force he’d grow back into starting in May. In the meantime, the Giants could really only rely on Jeff Samardzija to start a game and keep them in it.

In his first six starts of the year, he put up a 2.53 ERA in 32 IP with batters hitting just .209/.270/.330 off him. The Giants were 4-2 in his starts. By comparison, Bumgarner had a 4.30 ERA in 37.2 IP and hitters were batting .259/.293/.420. A small sample for comparison, sure, but it speaks to how effective Samardzija was this season.

He was a fantastic starter for half the season and the Jeff Samardzija we’ve feared the other half. Just by good ol’ ERA:

MAR/APR: 2.53
MAY: 5.55
JUNE: 5.93
JULY: 2.09
AUG: 1.84
SEPT: 4.25

He had 12 games with a Game Score of 60 or greater, a feat he hadn’t approached since 2016, when he had 15 such games in his first year with the Giants. This was just a year after it looked like Samardzija’s career was in jeopardy because of a nebulous shoulder injury.

Kenny wrote in last year’s season review:

Samardzija’s poor performance in 2018 can be blamed almost entirely on injuries which means there are two ways for his 2019 to go. Either his body will be fine, and he’ll be back to the Samardzija we saw in 2016 and 2017 (who was pretty good!). Or his body won’t be fine because he’ll be 34 years old and pitchers don’t have to come back from injury.

Not only did Samardzija come back healthy, he had — based on ERA+ — the third-best season of his career. If we ignore his 132 ERA+ from 2011 when he was strictly a reliever with the Cubs, then his 119 ERA+ equals his second best season as a starter (best was 2014 with a 125 ERA+ between the Cubs and A’s).

This comes in the same season that the home run rates skyrocketed yet again. It could’ve been a disaster for a guy with a career HR/9 of 1.1. Instead, of the 28 allowed, just seven came with runners on base. 21 solo home runs allowed (and a 1.4 HR/9 overall) are a lot, and the 28 total is the third-worst mark of his career, but Justin Verlander allowed 36, Shane Bieber allowed 41, Mike Minor, Madison Bumgarner, and Robbie Ray allowed 30, Gerrit Cole allowed 29, and Clayton Kershaw allowed 28, too. It was a year for allowing dingers.

So, despite allowing the 20th-most home runs among qualified starters, Samardzija still posted that 125 ERA+. Of this same qualified bunch, he allowed the 14th-fewest hits (152). He allowed hits at about the same rate (7.5 H/9) as Walker Buehler (7.6 H/9) in about the same number of innings (181.1 vs. Buehler’s 182.1).

When he wasn’t giving up hits in general and home runs specifically, he wasn’t walking batters, either. His 2.43 BB/9 was 26th in baseball and lower than his 2.7 career average. On the other hand, when he wasn’t giving up hits or walks, he wasn’t striking out many batters. His 6.9 K/9 was an improvement over his injury-shortened 2018, but lower than the 8.9 he posted in 2017. In fact, it was the 8th-worst among qualified starters.

You’d think that would be the death knell for a major league pitcher in 2019. The game has been reformatted on the pitching side to be all about the three true outcomes: walks, home runs, and strikeouts. And yet, among the top 10 worst K/9 pitchers in baseball are three — along with Samarezija — who might be considered quality starters: Mike Fiers (6.14), Dakota Hudson (7.01), and Miles Mikolas (7.04).

It’s possible to be effective without strikeout stuff if you have pitches with movement. The most interesting part of Samardzija’s season — from an analytics perspective — was his pitch spin rates. For example, his 91.6 mph average four-seam fastball velocity was just 450th in MLB (of pitchers to throw at least 250 pitches). But his 2,574 rpm spin rate? 16th! That’s 97th percentile.

More surprises:

Sinker: 2,480 rpm (13th)
Cutter: 2,603 rpm (21st)
Slider: 2,454 rpm (181st)
Curve: 2,498 rpm (200th)

Spin rate alone doesn’t make a pitch nasty. The pitch angle is important as is velocity. Samardzija’s spin rates have stayed constant even as his velocity has diminished, which means location will be important as the years go by. The value of spin where fastballs are concerned, though, is that pitchers are more likely to swing and miss and swing underneath the ball.

FanGraphs also breaks down the data to determine just how valuable each pitcher’s pitch is, with positive or negative run values assigned to each type. Samardzija’s high-spin, low velocity fastball was +7.1 runs above average, good for 25th-best in baseball among all starting pitchers. Here’s a list of pitchers Samardzija’s fastball was more valuable than in 2019:

Hyun-Jin Ryu (26th; +6.9)
Miles Mikolas (30th; +4.8)
Luis Castillo (33rd; +3.9)
Madison Bumgarner (35th; +3.4)
Sonny Gray (36th; +2.4)
Noah Syndergaard (38th; +1.5)
Patrick Corbin (40th; +1.2)
Dakota Hudson (44th; -0.7)

Samardzija’s slider was +9.8 runs, good for 14th in baseball. He had the third-most effective cutter, too, at +9.0 runs, behind only Yu Darvish (+20.7) and Martin Perez (+12.3).

Not bad for a pitcher whose career was perhaps in jeopardy only a year ago and whose spot in the rotation wasn’t assured before the start of Spring Training.

Role on the 2019 team

When the year began, the plan was to simply let Samardzija empty out the tank as quickly as possible and then pull him. The expectation was that he’d pitch 4-5 innings and then get pulled before facing a lineup a third time. Or if he was really bad in the early innings.

He was not better than his usual third time through the order split nor was he the best he’s ever been. But he was the best version of himself, and when you consider all the negative expectations placed upon him coming into the year, then all he did was disprove all the skeptics, fans and management alike.

The Giants signed him with the expectation that he’d be an effective innings eater. He didn’t quite eat up innings in the way they’d planned in 2016 (not 200+ innings), but he was effective, and he did eat up a good portion of rotation innings that if not for him would’ve been poorly pitched by any number of the bad pitchers the Giants employed in 2019.

He also served as a veteran agitator . . . though, probably not by design. He was one of the loudest to oppose the idea of the Giants using an opener and he might’ve been the anonymous player who said the clubhouse “would riot” if Bumgarner was traded, which is slightly ironic, given that Jeff Samardzija had a better season than Madison Bumgarner.

Role on the 2020 team

He entered last season with no trade value. He enters this year in the final year of a 5-year, $90 million deal. The Giants could easily absorb a good chunk of his $19.8 million salary to grab a player before the season or around the trade deadline, and his overall effectiveness and general utility should make him attractive to some teams.

If he does begin the season on the roster, there’s a nonzero chance he’s the Opening Day starter.

How Farhan was Jeff Samardzija?

Criticizing the front office is a huge demerit. Then again, Farhan was with the A’s when they traded for him in 2014. The analytics don’t hate him and it’s tough to imagine that Farhan hates him just because he’s paid a greater figure relative to his numbers (underlying or otherwise), but at the same time, a 35-year old pitcher with declining velocity, low strikeout rate, high home run rate, and top-20 worst hard hit rate is probably pitching on borrowed time.

On the other hand, Baseball doesn’t punish pitchers in their mid-thirties as much as it seems to punish hitters. Our esteemed colleague Roger Munter noted in our Slack channel:

I’m fascinated by the fact that 3 of 4 SP who faced Giants in 2012 WS are starting in postseason 7 years later and two of them are still elite level aces while basically everyone on a fairly young Giants roster is done or bad

The bulk of the Giants’ group disappeared shortly after turning 30. Maybe by virtue of not throwing all those extra postseason innings or not being as supremely talented in the early going Jeff Samardzija will stick around a couple more years. At least, if he’s lasted this long, it’s reasonable to pencil him in for next season.

I’m sure Zaidi was largely agnostic about the decrepit roster in 2019, so this rating is more about my guess for how the new front office sees Jeff Samardzija for the 2020 team.

This feels about right. He figures to be juuuuust about an average player at best in 2020 from an analytics standpoint, but the half Farhan comes into play because after his 2019 season, he’s become one of the few remaining trade chips on the team.