The Transformation of Jeff Samardzija
I’ll admit: I was a rampant Jeff Samardzija hater during the 2009 and 2010 seasons. He was horrendous, and watching him pitch was more painful than watching The Situation’s roast of Donald Trump. I couldn’t help but wonder why in God’s name he chose to play baseball over football. A 6’5 wide receiver who averaged 77.5 catches, 1133 yards and 13.5 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Notre Dame? Are you kidding me? He could have been a great outside receiver in the NFL – I was honestly praying, by some outrageous miracle, that MLB/NFL trades would be allowed so that the Cubs could just trade him to the Bears. It made perfect sense. Obviously, life doesn’t work like that. Samardzija stuck it out, continued to work hard and never gave up. That leads us to where we are now: how has Samardzija’s transformation actually occurred?
During the 2009-10 seasons, Samardzija combined for only 54 innings pitched and a 7.83 ERA. He couldn’t find the plate for his life. He had no control over his pitches whatsoever, and even when he did seem to find the plate, it would usually result in a hit. He walked almost as many guys during 19.1 IP in 2010 (20) than he has all of this season (24 walks in 69 IP). This is why Samardzija spent most of his time in the minors. Through 200 IP at the AAA level during those two seasons, he wasn’t what most would consider a dominant pitcher, but he did pitch well, indicating to all of us that the potential was certainly there. He just needed time to develop.
After a truly great season out of the Cubs bullpen in 2011, I thought Samardzija had finally found his niche as a middle reliever. With him, Kerry Wood, Sean Marshall, James Russell, Chris Carpenter, Andrew Cashner and a Jekyll-and-Hyde Carlos Marmol, the Cubs could have had one of the best bullpens in all of baseball this season, and that excited me. However, things haven’t worked out that way: our boy Kerry lost any ability he had and retired, Sean Marshall was traded to the Reds for Travis Wood, Chris Carpenter was traded to the Red Sox as part of the Theo Epstein compensation, Andrew Cashner (who may or may not have been a reliever but was one of the Cubs’ top pitching prospects once upon a time) was traded to the Padres for Anthony Rizzo, and Carlos Marmol went… well, Carlos Marmol on us and finally lost his closer role. And oh, by the way, Jeff Samardzija is no longer a middle reliever. In fact, he happens to be arguably one of the 10 best starting pitchers in the entire National League. In my opinion, his awesome, free-flowing hair alone should boost him into the top five. But that’s just me. Crazy how much changes in a year.
How has Samardzija done it? Well, according to Fangraphs.com, his ground ball/fly ball ratio is way higher than it has ever been (1.55 compared to his career ratio of 1.09), meaning that his slider and two-seam fastball (a.k.a. sinker) are working exactly the way he wants them to. The statistics show that Samardzija has thrown less fastballs this season (54.2% of the time) than he ever has (67.8% in 2009), in addition to more cut fastballs (13.2% vs. 6.7% career) and more two-seamers (18.0% vs. 13.6% career). Simply put, Samardzija has gotten hitters to fall back in the count at a greater rate, giving him the leeway to throw less four-seam fastballs and manipulate more at-bats. There is one aspect to Samardzija’s game, though, that continues to stick out like a sore thumb: strikeouts.
Samardzija has 71 strikeouts in 69 innings thus far this season, making his 9.26 K/9 rate his highest in the majors since… ever. For pitchers with 60+ innings pitched, he is ranked 6th in the National League and 10th overall in the K/9 category, ahead of strikeout machines Felix Hernandez, Justin Verlander, and CC Sabathia. He is striking out an amazing 24.6% of all batters he faces.
Samardzija is also walking batters at a lower rate than ever before (3.13 BB/9 and 2.96 K/BB) – only 8.3% of the time. Clearly, his control has been top-notch more often than not, and that really says something for a guy who just could not throw a strike at the major league level early in his career. On top of all of this, Samardzija is leaving 77.1% of all his base runners stranded (compared to 56.2% in 2010). This just goes to show that he has really learned to overcome the pressure of having runners in scoring position and getting out of tough jams – something he struggled mightily to do before last season.
So, how do I feel about Jeff Samardzija now? Let’s just say I’ve grown to love him, and I don’t think this is a fluke by any means. Of his 11 starts this season, seven of them have been quality starts (6+ IP, 3 ER or less), which is great considering he had only one quality start in four career chances coming into this season. Take away his two bad April starts, and we’re looking at a guy with a 2.09 ERA, a full run lower than what it actually is now (3.13). It shouldn’t surprise any of us that he is one of only two untouchable Cubs (I don’t care what anyone says, but Starlin Castro is not getting traded) after how impressive he has been this season. Samardzija worked his ass off to get to where he is now and never gave up. He proved haters like myself wrong, and he has been one of the very few bright spots for the lowly Cubs this season. Hard work has clearly paid off thus far. Let that be a lesson to us all.