Jeff Samardzija Has Resurrected an Old Pitch

By now, we’re used to seeing once-starters transition to the bullpen and have successful careers. We’re used to the mold. It’s a hard-throwing righty who’s got a fastball and a slider but just can’t master a consistent changeup. He gets moved to the bullpen, he ditches the changeup entirely, he ramps the velocity up a few ticks, and the fastball/slider combo dominates in one-inning bursts. It’s become a rather common career arc. And it’s almost the precise opposite of Jeff Samardzija’s career arc.

After playing football for four years at the University of Notre Dame, Samardzija cracked the big leagues two years after being selected in the fifth round of the 2006 MLB draft, and after four years pitching out of the Chicago Cubs’ bullpen, made the rare reliever-to-starter conversion. Not only that, but he actually reduced his arsenal when he became a starter. Usually, it’s the other way around. So much about Samardzija’s career seems backwards.

From an ESPN article from 2012:

Samardzija was tough against the Atlanta Braves on Monday as he got some much needed distance from a terrible June. Last month he added a curveball into the mix and might have leaned on it a bit too much.

“These last few starts we have been feeling things out, seeing what works and what doesn’t,” said Samardzija, whose next outing will be Saturday at New York. “But I was kind of fed up with walking guys and stuff so I really wanted to get into the zone, and I knew I could get into the zone with my slider.”

Starters-turned-relievers have no qualms with abandoning their problem pitches, because they don’t have to worry about giving batters multiple looks in order to turn over a lineup several times. Every batter a reliever faces, he’s only going to face once, so he trusts his best stuff and lets the hitter have it. Starters do have to worry about multiple looks, and so theoretically, the wider the arsenal, the better, as long as the pitches are effective. Jeff Samardzija used to throw a curveball, but once he transitioned into his starter role, he began to struggle. He identified the curve as being no longer effective, so he ditched it. From August 8, 2012 to July 23, 2016, Jeff Samardzija threw zero curveballs.

In the second inning of Samardzija’s July 24 start in New York against the Yankees, Starlin Castro saw something he couldn’t have possibly expected:

Gameday’s automatic PITCHf/x algorithm is still calling it a slider, but the more nuanced classification systems know better, and know that Samardzija’s curveball is back:

SharkCluters

You see that newer cluster on the far left of the image. Some of it’s green, and some of it’s blue, but those are all curveballs. The slider comes in at 87, on average, and the curve has been coming in closer to 82. And in each of the four starts since Samardzija’s started throwing the curve, he’s been getting more velocity separation between it and the slider; in yesterday’s start against Miami, Samardzija threw 16 curveballs and they averaged just 79 mph.

If you’d been waiting for the return of the curve, I hope you weren’t holding your breath, but there was reason to anticipate its comeback. Samardzija told us as much. From that same ESPN article in 2012:

“I think the more I get to learn myself and how I pitch in games and how guys approach me at the plate, I think there will definitely be time to use the curveball again,” he said. “But it still needs work, and I need to learn how to carry over the work from the bullpen into a game. And it’s a learning process especially with that pitch.”

He expected there would be a time to use the curveball again. He just probably didn’t know it would take four years.

I can’t say precisely why Samardzija decided to resurrect the curveball, but we can infer that the overarching reason is the same as why he ditched it in the first place: things just weren’t working. Over Samardzija’s first 10 starts with the Giants, he ran a 2.54 ERA and a 2.97 FIP, looking every bit the borderline ace he was before struggling for the White Sox last season. Over his next nine starts, however, Samardzija’s home-run problem showed its face again, and the ERA ballooned to 6.14, the FIP to 5.85. Then came the curveball.

Evidently, Samardzija decided he needed a change. And the curveball does just that: it provides a change of pace. It makes the hitters think about a third speed, and a new shape. Without the curveball, nothing in Samardzija’s arsenal averages below 86 mph. The most recent iteration of the curve had it sitting 79, and against Miami, Samardzija was frequently using it to set up his fastball, at times providing something near a 20-mph change in velocity.

Now, it’s understandable to be skeptical of this development. After all, in the four starts since the curveball has taken over as Samardzija’s go-to secondary offering, he’s ran an identical 5.18 ERA and FIP. It’s not like this has suddenly turned Samardzija’s season around. But! The curve, on its own, has looked good.

By velocity, movement and spin rate, its closest comp is the curve thrown by Carlos Carrasco. It shares many characteristics with Jacob deGrom’s curveball, too. Samardzija’s gotten whiffs on 14% of his curves thus far, putting him comfortably above the league average of 11% and in the upper-quartile of all starters with at least 50 curveballs thrown this year. When it’s been put in play, it’s resulted in a ground ball 57% of the time, also soundly above the league average. If small-sample pitch-type results aren’t your thing, we can just look at how Samardzija’s commanded his new wrinkle:

SharkCurves

Samardzija’s certainly let a few slip — that’s to be expected — but on the whole, this is a pretty impressive plot for a pitch he hadn’t used in a game in nearly four years. Far more than half of Samardzija’s curves have been kept in the bottom of the zone, and what’s more encouraging is how he’s changed the location based on batter handedness. He’s done a good job of keeping it outside both to lefties and righties, suggesting a level of command beyond “being able to keep it down.” He’s been keeping it down and he’s been keeping it to his preferred side of the plate.

Samarzija’s still throwing too many mistake fastballs, and those mistake fastballs are leading to the home runs that have plagued the big righty over the past couple seasons. And as long as those mistake fastballs persist, so will Samardzija’s struggles. What an effective curveball can do, though, is make the mistake fastballs a bit less punishable. A third speed makes it tougher to sit on that heater. A third shape makes it tougher to sit on something straight. A sixth pitch, executed well, can’t hurt. Samardzija’s trying what he can to get back.





August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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channelclemente
5 years ago

It’s important to note that the curveball Samardszija has put back into his repertoire is a spike or knuckle curve, and not the pitch he threw earlier in his career. By doing so, his curveball is coming more cleanly off the fastball motion. Almost a changeup as Scully likes to call it.