Player spotlight: Jeff Samardzija

Written by: Scott Rowland

Jeff Samardzija was well-regarded coming into 2015. He was coming off consecutive seasons with 200+ innings pitched, good strikeout rates, improving ground ball ratios, and in 2014 an ERA below 3.0. While it was true he had lost more games than he had won for three years in a row, it was mostly while playing for a terrible Cubs team.  Fantasy owners were encouraged by his improvements – enough so that the budding star and new White Sox ace was considered a top 20 pitchers, but as the year unfolded people were left feeling terribly disappointed.

Fantasy owners could have expected some regression back towards his career ERA mark from the second best mark in his career. He was going to be pitching for the whole season in the AL for the first time in his career, moving to a more hitter friendly ballpark in The Cell. Maybe owners could have even expected a slight dip in his strikeout rate since he wouldn’t be facing the pitcher anymore. What they didn’t expect was a strikeout rate that dropped by more than 5%, a groundball rate that dropped by over 11%, and a flyball rate that rose by over 9%, all leading to a jump in ERA by nearly 2 full points. During the offseason Samardzija signed a contract with the Giants. He’ll be back in the NL, facing pitchers, and he’ll be in a more pitcher friendly environment. Will that be enough to vault him back into the good graces of fantasy owners?

Looking at his pitch selection in 2015 we see a huge change from his career numbers:

Season 4 Seam Sinker Cutter Splitter Slider
2012 36.8 % 16.4 % 8.4 % 14.0 % 20.6 %
2013 25.1 % 27.7 % 11.2 % 15.0 % 20.7 %
2014 30.8 % 24.1 % 13.4 % 11.2 % 20.3 %
2015 33.5 % 8.8 % 20.2 % 13.1 % 24.4 %
Total 36.4 % 16.5 % 12.3 % 10.8 % 20.1 %

In his two best seasons he threw his sinker more than 24% of the time; this dropped to less than 9% in 2015. He increased the usage of all his other four pitches but mostly fell back to his cutter. This is a big deal because up until 2015 his sinker was one of his best pitches. Looking at his PITCHf/x values:

Season 4 Seam Sinker Cutter Splitter Slider
2012 -2.2 -4.6 -2.9 8.9 10.2
2013 -4.8 -1.4 -4.7 0.9 4.2
2014 -0.3 9.4 -2.9 3.9 9.2
2015 -5.4 -4.2 5.4 0.6 -5.6
Total -26.4 1.7 -1.1 14.3 21.9

In 2014 (his best season) his sinker and slider were great. Even in 2013 where his sinker was 1.4 runs below average, it was still one of his better pitches, and his slider was worth a decent amount. In 2015 his sinker and slider were terrible. He fell back to using his cutter significantly more than normal because it was the only pitch that he had much success with. One other interesting thing to note here is that the velocity on all of his pitches were in line with his career norms – value wasn’t being lost because of a drop in average velocity.

Let’s look a little deeper at the sinker. Compared to 2013 and 2014 (his breaking out years) the sinker had a couple of interesting characteristics. The velocity of his sinker in 2013 and 2014 was between 84 and 99 MPH, in 2015 this changed to between nearly 91 and 98. His previous worst home run per plate appearance was 2.4% in 2013, but this jumped to 3.8% in 2015. He allowed a .188 ISO, up from .097 in 2014 and .142 in 2013. It seems with the narrowing of the range of velocity he was throwing the sinker, he wasn’t able to deceive hitters quite as well in 2015, leading him to throw the pitch less often and rely on other pitches to try and get hitters out.

We know his sinker was getting hit last year; let’s look at how balls were batted against him overall. From 2012 through 2014 his ground ball rate increased each year, from 44.6% to 50.2%. His line drive and flyball rates both dropped during this time too. As I mentioned before, this trend reversed itself, and in an extreme way. His ground ball rate dropped 11%, his flyball rate increased 9%. The HR/FB rate luckily stayed about the same, but he still gave up nine more home runs because of the increase in flyball rate. There could be some explanation of this in his pitch locations.

Player spotlight: Jeff Samardzija chart 3

Player spotlight: Jeff Samardzija chart 2

Player spotlight: Jeff Samardzija chart 1

You can see that in 2013 and 2014 he threw inside to right handers and attacked the outside of the zone more than in 2015. It seems like he may have lost the feel for his pitches in 2015 and started throwing down the middle more. This is a recipe for disaster.

Overall I don’t believe Samardzija is as bad as we saw last year, or as good as we saw in 2014. His numbers should improve a bit with the move back to the NL pitching in a much better ballpark with an elite defense behind him. If Samardzija can get back to throwing his sinker with confidence I think he will throw around 200 innings with about 190 strikeouts along with an ERA and WHIP of 3.6o and 1.25 respectively. That being said, he will provide value if you can draft him outside of the top 50 starting pitchers as he has the upside to finish inside the top 40. Early average draft positions at have him going as the number 46 starting pitcher off the board. There is limited room for value in drafting him there. Whether you should take a chance on him depends on where he falls in your draft.


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