Jeff Samardzija has always thrived with velocity. Throughout his career, he’s relied on being able to throw 95-96 mph with two different types of movement. We saw him do this with the Giants the first two years of his deal and while his ERA wasn’t pretty, the peripherals were solid. He had velocity and stuff, but more importantly, he had velocity.
Then he suffered a pectoral strain and his shoulder burst into flames in 2018 and the velocity disappeared. He can’t throw his four seamer 96 anymore. He can barely throw 94. He’s averaging 91.9 mph with the four seamer which is down nearly two miles from 2017. So, what has he done to make up for it? He’s relying on the stuff. Mostly, he’s relying on the cutter and the slider.
It makes sense. If you can’t throw as hard, make the ball move more. Wade Miley had a resurgent 2018 by turning into a cutter maven. By pitch values, Samardzija’s cutter has been worth about 3.4 runs which is fourth-best in the majors right ahead of Miley. He’s not getting a ton of whiffs with it, but hitters aren’t squaring up the pitch. On 19 batted balls, hitters have an average exit velocity of 83.4 mph against it. That’s a small sample, but so far, the cutter is performing much better than the four seamer.
The slider has been even better for him. Hitters are waving at it more than a third of the time, and when they do make contact, it’s even softer than against the cutter.
Since 2017, he’s preferred the sinker to the four seam. His loyalty to the sinker makes him a bit of an anachronism. Pitchers across baseball are ditching the two-seam grip in favor of sliders and four seamers, but not Samardzija. The slider usage is up but the four seamer is going away.
I suppose there’s some virtue in zigging when everyone else is zagging. Not everyone can just drop a pitch from their repertoire and turn into Gerrit Cole (except for Tyler Beede). There were a few pitchers last year that improved while throwing their sinker more. For all the attention Patrick Corbin got for throwing his slider more, he also increased his sinker usage by 5.7 percent last year. Corey Kluber also went to the sinker more often.
I suspect that Samardzija has stuck with the sinker because he can more reliably get it in the strike zone. When Samardzija could pitch last year, he couldn’t throw the ball in the strike zone. The percentage of pitches he threw over the plate fell by nearly six percent. Generally, pitchers have better command with a two-seam grip, and when he’s throwing more sliders, he’ll need something he can more reliably get strikes with.
Hitters have done the most damage against the sinker and four seamer. It’s to be expected when a pitch loses its luster. The sinker isn’t really an out-pitch for him at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw more cutters and more sliders as the season goes on.
Samardzija’s velocity is gone. Ordinarily, that would spell disaster for a pitcher. We saw how that affected him last year, but he’s figured out a way where he can still be effective. He’s cutting and sliding his way to competence and after last season, that’s a welcome sign.