The other day in the Giants’ clubhouse, I told Jeff Samardzija he was close to setting a record. “I don’t want to hear about it,” laughed the amicable righty. “No, no, a good one,” I pointed out, informing him of how he’s close to recording the best strikeout-to-walk figure of all time.
“Doesn’t mean I don’t have plenty to figure out,” he responded back.
Yesterday in these pages, I looked at Detroit’s Michael Fulmer, who ranked 10th among qualifiers by ERA entering Thursday but just 42nd by strikeouts minus walks. Fulmer, it seems, has used his changeup to manage contact and outperform his fielding-independent numbers.
Samardzija is the reverse of Fulmer this year. Ranked 58th in ERA, he enters today’s start having produced the fifth-best K-BB% mark in the league. He doesn’t have a launch-angle suppressing changeup like the Tiger and (perhaps as a result) is suffering on the ball in play, as Tony Blengino pointed out earlier today. Nearly 33% of his balls in play are hits, and only 22 starters have given up more home runs per game.
I asked Samardzija why that might, and he wasn’t quite sure. It wasn’t that he was around the plate too often. “In order to get a swing, you have to start it in the zone,” he pointed out. He’s 23rd in zone percentage, though, so there might be something here. You limit walks by staying in the zone, but outcomes are better on pitches in the zone.
But the righty speculated that it was more about his work in certain counts. “Maybe I’m just not finishing sliders with two strikes?” He’s right that it’s about certain counts. But it’s not two-strike counts. Check out his relative home-run rates in zero-, one-, and two-strike counts. I’ve highlighted his worst home-run rates, but take a look at one-strike counts in particular.
|Pitch Type||Count 0k||HR 0k||Count 1k||HR 1k||Count 2k||HR 2k|
What the heck? Let’s look at the placement of those highlighted pitches in those counts to see if there’s anything that’s going on in those situations. Below are those pitches, to righties, in those counts.
We find two nodes for Samardzija’s sinkers on zero strikes, and fastballs generally give up more homers than other pitches, so there’s nothing that stands out there — other than perhaps he should consider moving to the left on the rubber if that’s an option. Perhaps, if he did that, the dark red spot down the middle would be more on the black, and maybe he could give up fewer homers there.
Samardzija has always given up too many homers on his cutter. For his career, it’s the pitch that has produced the highest home-run percentage. This year, it’s given up almost twice as many homers per pitch as his next most homer-friendly offering. But the pitcher knows about this and is mostly moving away from the cutter — he even changed his mechanics to improve his slider and splitter and go away from the cutter.
But let’s zoom in on sliders with one strike, especially since we know that he has a one-strike problem. Moving from one strike to two strikes represents a huge shift in the count, so it makes sense to throw to the zone as he does with sliders in one strike counts. On the other hand, he’s throwing a lot of sliders to one spot. What if he threw those sliders a little further from the center of the zone?
Is he too predictable overall in one-strike counts? Look at how all of his pitches to righties in one-strike counts compare to another pitcher who shares his excellent strikeout-to-walk ratio: Chris Sale.
The comparison isn’t flawless, of course. Sale and Samardzija are very different pitchers and throw with different hands. That said, both are excellent at getting strikeouts and limiting walks. And yet they act differently on one-strike counts. Samardzija mostly lives away, while Sale has a few different nodes — in on the hands, back foot, down, and away. Both pitchers live in the zone, but one of them tends to live in certain area while the other moves his locations around. And look how high in the zone Samardzija throws in one-strike counts and compare that to the ideal exit velo and launch angle locations.
Given how many homers The Shark has given up on one-strike counts, there seems to be a decision he’s making there. There’s some logic to it. Throw a breaking ball on the outside corner and in the zone. If a batter swings over the top of it, you’ve two strikes; if there’s no swing, you’ve also got two strikes. Even though he’s added the curve this year — a pitch on which he has yet to concede a home run — and has a decent stable of pitches from which he can choose, he still lives in one location on two strikes to righties. And that location is maybe a little bit higher in the zone than he’d like.
Jeff Samardzija may not be predictable when it comes to which pitch he throws with one strike. He is, however, predictable when it comes to where he throws that one-strike pitch. And that may have something to do with his penchant for getting strikeouts, limiting walks, and giving up home runs.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.