Although Jeff Samardzija is dealing these days, and was a fifth-round pick who scored a major league deal when he was drafted in 2006, baseball wasn’t easy for in those in-between years. He walked too many batters in the minors, and it only got worse when he hit the bigs. He could have been forgiven for a little despair. But he opted for evolution instead, working on each of his pitches to find the combination that has led him to where he is now: a top-25 pitcher by WAR with a top-10 strikeout rate among qualified pitchers.
In the pen, Samardzija was out of place. He didn’t have control of his upper-90s fastball; his split-finger outpitch wasn’t one he could throw for strikes, either. He was miserable. “I was unhappy with being a reliever,” Samardzija told me before a game in Oakland last week. “If you have good stuff as a reliever, your growth can get stunted by living off your stuff. If you always throw 95 [mph], 96, 97, you don’t need to learn other pitches.” To his credit, Samardzija wanted to learn more, and though he couldn’t use all of his pitches in game action, he threw all of his pitches in bullpens. He always has.
First was handling the fastball. Since Samardzija throws one of his two fastballs about 70% of the time on the first pitch, part of that process has been focusing on the first-pitch strike. That’s not surprising, given that it’s the peripheral best associated with good walk rates. “The Shark” has bettered his first-pitch strike rate the past two years, and it’s now barely above average. But he’s taken the process even further: “I think first pitch of the inning is probably more important than first-pitch strike percentage, because you really want to start that first hitter off with a strike and get that first guy out,” he said. If the first-pitch strike is hugely important to the at bat, then the first strike on the first hitter is hugely important to the inning.
But probably just as important to his current success has been harnessing his secondary stuff. “I think throwing my offspeed pitches for strikes has really helped me out a lot,” he says now.
Take his slider. Our pitch-type values have the pitch as his best, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t changed some. While, to some extent, Samardzija wants batters to put the pitch in play — “I might be trying to get more of a rollover on mine because it’s got more of a diagonal break” — it’s become an outpitch for him. Part of that process was trying to figure out how to use the pitch against lefties. “For so long, it had been a strike pitch for me that I never used it as an outpitch,” Samardzija said. But learning to put it down off the plate against lefties helped him realize he could use the pitch to finish at bats. He now uses it more than 10% of the time with two strikes; the pitch has his second-highest whiff rate, and it still boasts the best ball rate of his mix.
But it’s the splitter that’s Samardzija’s bread-and-butter pitch. He laughed when I asked him how hard it was to throw the pitch for strikes: “It’s pretty hard… if you’re throwing that splitter for a strike, it’s probably going to be pretty flat and more like a straight changeup type pitch.” More often, The Shark is hunting. If the batter is swinging, he’ll go for the diving, falling splitfinger and the whiff.
Yes, if you read between the lines , you’ll see it: Jeff Samardzija has two splitfingers. Or more.
Normally it has some arm-side fade. But it cuts, too, like a slider. “You’re not sure where it’s going to end up, and if you’re not sure where it’s going to go, then the hitter is guessing, too,” Samardzija said about the splitter’s beauty. Depending on the day, though (“If it’s giving you fits, you’ll probably just stick with one and live with it.”), there are things he can do to alter the movement. He doesn’t really change his grip, but he does change how he throws the pitch.
“It’s just pressure on your fingers and thumb location,” he told me. “If you’re heavy on your index finger, it’s going to go one way; if you’re heavy on your middle finger, it’s going to go the other way. Deeper in your hands to make it go slower, with more of a deep bite. Don’t have much control over those. Those are the ones you start down the middle and let it do its thing.”
So this pitch, depending on how exactly he throws it, sometimes fades, sometimes cuts, sometimes dives and is sometimes flat? That makes classifying it fairly difficult, I’d imagine. Here are all the pitches PITCHf/x has called a changeup or a splitfinger since The Shark started swimming in big-league waters. Velocity determines the color of the mark, so you might actually see his “slow, flat” splitfingers near the y axis. Those are his get-them-over splitters. To the far left, you’ll see dark circles in an erratic high-movement area. And then in the middle might represent his traditional splitfinger changeup.
And yet, he says some of his splitfingers cut like sliders. So that means we aren’t looking at the full map of all of his splitters, most likely. That makes analyzing pitching so difficult. And, basically, pitching is difficult.
Samardzija added that grip has a lot do with the movement on his splitter; and mechanics are a big deal, too. “If you’re not getting on top of the ball that day, you’re really kind of pushing it; it’s just going to be a flat pitch,” Samardzija said. “A lot of times that doesn’t get decided until the second or third inning, when you’re really warmed up and your arm’s warm and your body’s warm.” He doesn’t pay attention to movement on his splitter in warmups because he doesn’t get the same action when he’s not in the game.
Not only does Samardzjia react to the way each pitch is working for him during a game, but he thinks about the season as a whole. “As season goes on, I’ll work the ball up a little more, but it’s harder for me to make the adjustment up than it is down, so I feel myself as a down-ball pitcher,” he said. There’s even evidence he thinks about these things on a career level. When we talked about his curveball, the Cubs ace joked he had one he hasn’t used since last year, but that he is waiting until he slows down a bit before breaking it out.
Ask Samardzija how he’s improved as a pitcher, and the answer seems simple: “It all came together when I was throwing my fastball for strikes, and my slider for strikes, and obviously with my splitter as an out-pitch,” he said. But the way he got there wasn’t simple. He had to work on first-pitch strikes. He had to refine his slider strategy. He even developed a few variations on his splitter along the way. All that work so that now — when he goes to the mound — he has options. He can deal with the occasional iffy day, and he has different ways to get deep into that lineup. It’s a constant battle, though, this evolution thing.
“Pitches come and go so much throughout the year,” he said. “You’ll go two week stints where two or three of them will be on, and the other one you’re wondering what happened to it. You just have to keep throwing it, keep working on it. That’s the most important thing as a starter, knowing that things change over five-day spans and you always need to be in tune with your body and with your arm and really know what pitches give you the best opportunity to get an out.”
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.