It’s important to remember that Jeff Samardzija has never been a sneaky candidate for The Next Justin Verlander or some such. He’s just always been paid and treated like a would-be ace. That’s not his fault. For the purposes of this website, it’s the Giants’ fault.
But mis-castings happen all the time. Think about when Sam Worthington was pushed as the next big action star. Oh, who’s Sam Worthington, you ask? Remember the lead in AVATAR and CLASH OF THE TITANS?
Now? Okay, well, in the early tens he was kind of a big deal. He was the lead in two successful franchises, even if he did not wind up being the most memorable part.
A mis-casting doesn’t mean that the talent doesn’t have talent, though, and as much as people want to look at Jeff Samardzija’s 2018 and think that best represents who he is as a pitcher, it’s just not the case. Even if you look at his career ERA+ of 97 (3 points below league average) in 1,464 innings, you might feel that urge to dump on him. Definitely don’t consider his salary ($39.6 million remaining between this season and next) when reading the rest of this, either. He has simply been miscast as a frontline starting pitcher.
He is, instead, a bulk outs getter — who the Rays call “the dude after the opener who gets the bulk of the outs.” He has been an effective major league pitcher in spurts and it’s entirely possible the Giants have finally figured out the best way to deploy his skill set.
Yes, he does have a skill set beyond giving up home runs. In the pre-game post from his last start I noted:
[...] there are some signs that [Samardzija’s] shaky start to the season isn’t a secret disaster waiting to be revealed. Yes, nine hits in 9.2 IP is bad. A 6:5 strikeouts to walk ratio is also really bad. Average exit velocity of 91.3 mph? Also not good. Expected slugging percentage based on contact? .546. Yikes. A 38.7% hard hit rate? What am I thinking — there’s a secret disaster waiting to be revealed.
Hmm, wait. Let’s explore this ridiculously small two-start sampling a bit more. That’s a misleading 2.79 ERA Samardzija’s sporting, but the FIP is an agreeable 3.42. This new Statcast leaderboard for pitch arsenals shows that all of his pitches put him at least at the major league average in terms of overall velocity.
If you sort if for spin rate, you find something more surprising: his four-same fastball has the fifth-best spin rate in baseball (2,603 rpm), behind Corbin Burnes, Mike Minor, Nate Jones, and Justin Verlander. His fastball has spun at a greater rpm than Max Scherzer’s (2,508). His sinker spin rate of 2,508 rpm is sixth-best in baseball, behind Gerrit Cole’s (2,554) and just ahead of Max Scherzer’s (2,502). His 2,591 rpm with the cutter is 12th-best.
It’s his slider (77th) and curveball (99th) where those spin rates fall down a bit, but the early numbers suggest that he still has major league stuff. My interview with Rapsodo’s GM reinforced the idea that velocity still matters more than spin, but spin can be a sign of pitcher health and quality of pitches. Velocity and spin determines a pitcher’s effectiveness in terms of getting batters out, but it’s not all bad for Samardzija. At least... not after two starts. Will check back in tomorrow.
Okay, well, it’s two days later and here I am. Samardzija had a terrific start against a terrible lineup, as any quality major league pitcher should probably do. He struck out seven Rockies in seven innings, walked one, scattered three hits, didn’t allow a run, and the Giants somehow won a 1-0 game.
Yeah, figure that his next start or two starts from now he won’t fare so well against a healthier Rockies team and this is just a three-game sampling (anybody can look good in a three-game sample), but for a player who struggled with a shoulder injury last season to the point that his status was questionable even in the early part of the offseason, this fast start is a glimmer of hope.
This isn’t like Chris Stratton’s tremendous April to begin last year, though; please, don’t get me wrong. I’m talking about the possibility that Jeff Samardzija could bounce back to his 2017 form. That’s not amazing, but it’s effective, and if he’s used properly — and there’s certainly an indication that the team has rethought how they’re going to use him this year — he will appear to be a miracle, one you can only presume has a monkey’s paw curse attached to it.
That’s because we’re still used to the Giants not respecting the Third Time Through The Order Penalty or still believing that the goal of every starting pitcher should be to throw 200 innings a year. In both cases, at least where Jeff Samardzija is concerned, those concepts appear to have been abandoned. As Alex Pavlovic wrote:
“The focus is on five really good innings. Anything beyond that is gravy...”
He can give five good innings far more often than he can seven shutout innings, and our three-game sampling suggests it’s not solely because of the team’s new strategy: he’s back to form. Now, his rankings dropped a bit from start two (cited above) to start three, but overall, here’s a look at his spin rate data compared to 2017 with their MLB rankings along with the MLB averages.
Again, three game sample. And, yes, in case you were wondering, the average velocity on every pitch is down from 2017. Both his fastball and sinker averaged 94.3 mph in 2017, down to 92 mph here in 2019. That’s still effective velocity especially with the movement, but with the goal being only five innings, or basically twice through the order, he can get through more starts than with the previous management method.
There are plenty of other quirks to note. That hard hit rate figures to settle in to his career rate, but it’s been 36% to start the season. He has an odd quirk for his times faced splits too: Batters have a .720 OPS against him first time through, then it drops to .692 the second plate appearance, before surging to .768 the third time through. A “sub wrinkle” of that is the .741 OPS against that batters have in Samardzija’s first 25 pitches of a game. It drops to .683 on pitches 26-50 and then rises to .712 for 51-75. So, putting an opener in front of him wouldn’t necessarily help him, but telling him that he only needs to worry about getting through the first five innings might also help him settle in faster.
His career 8.1 strikeouts per 9 doesn’t put him into the James Paxton, Rich Hill or Alex Wood stratosphere — pitchers whose 140-160 innings per year, on average, are highly effective — meaning he’s not going to be the every so often ace... but he’s setup to keep the Giants in games in front of their 8-man bullpen.