Jeff Samardzija’s Oddly Dominant Season

It’s been an utterly lost season for the San Francisco Giants. Sure, it’s not an even year, so finding the Giants outside of the playoff mix isn’t a total shock, but the second-worst record in baseball? Not exactly what Bay Area fans had in mind.

It’s a richly deserved record, to be sure. The club has done absolutely nothing well. Buster Posey and Brandon Belt are the only hitters with a chance of making opposing pitchers sweat, and their vaunted, expensive starting rotation hasn’t come close to being able to weather the extended absence of ace Madison Bumgarner.

Matt Moore is lost, Matt Cain appears cooked, and Johnny Cueto recently replaced Bumgarner on the disabled list. Very quietly, however, Jeff Samardzija has posted some of the most incongruous numbers ever seen on a pitching line.

Quick, who do you think has the best strikeout-to-walk ratio among ERA-qualifying MLB starters? It’s not Clayton Kershaw, Max Scherzer, or Chris Sale. It’s Samardzija, with a stellar 136:14 mark.

So what on earth is he doing tooling around with a pedestrian 4-11 record and 4.86 ERA? As we know, won-lost records and ERAs can be quite misleading, so let’s use granular batted-ball data to get a feel for Samardzija’s true 2017 performance level.

In the tables below, Samardzija’s plate-appearance-frequency and contact-authority data is provided, current through his July 16 start.

Plate Appearance Frequency Data
Samardzija 2.5% 30.1% 24.6% 42.8% 26.4% 2.7%

Contact Quality/Authority Data
Samardzija 130 152-81 112-106 105-94 99 119 86 74

The first table shows Samardzija’s K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all balls in play (BIP) by category type. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations above league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The second table shows his Unadjusted Contact Score in the first column. This represents, on a scale where 100 equals league average, the actual production level allowed on balls in play. Basically, it’s actual performance with the Ks and BBs removed. Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category are then listed. Adjusted Contact Score represents the production level that each pitcher “should have” allowed if every batted ball resulted in league-average production for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket.” Finally, overall Adjusted Contact Score, actual ERA-, FIP-, and “tru” ERA- are in the rightmost columns. “Tru” ERA adds back the Ks and BBs, and incorporates the Adjusted Contact Score data, to give a better measure of Samardzija’s true performance level.

The eye-opener in Samardzija’s frequency table is his microscopic BB rate. It’s over two full standard deviations better than league average, the very best among NL ERA qualifiers. He’s become increasingly adept at avoiding the base on balls over the years, but this is clearly new territory for Samardzija. That improvement hasn’t come at the cost of his K rate, which sits in the 83rd percentile among NL qualifiers. Such K/BB dominance affords a pitcher all kinds of margin for error with regard to contact management.

Samardzija has never displayed an extreme batted-ball tendency; on balance, he’s been a bit of a fly-ball pitcher, if anything. This year, he’s been hurt by a high line-drive-rate allowed. As I’ve stated many times before in this space, liner rates allowed are extremely volatile from one season to another. Samardzija’s liner-rates allowed, as is the case for most pitchers, have been all over the place over the years. It’s quite likely that his current rate, sitting in the 90th percentile among NL qualifiers, will drift downward in the second half.

So, we have an extreme K/BB guy with a rather unremarkable frequency profile that should improve as his liner-rate allowed corrects. This brings us to the second table, which indicates the overall quality/authority of the contact he has allowed.

Samardzija’s Unadjusted Contact Score of 130 is off-of-the-charts high, among the worst in either league at the break. (Only teammate Matt Moore was worse among NL qualifiers.) That’s why his ERA is so high. How much of that is real, and how much is attributable to ill fortune?

You need not look any further than the next column, which indicates his Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores on fly balls, for the answer. Samardzija has allowed a .404 batting and 1.115 slugging percentage on fly balls, for a 152 Unadjusted Contact Score. Based on the exit-speed/launch-angle mix of those fly balls, he “should have” yielded only a .300 AVG-.806 SLG, for a very solid 81 Adjusted Contact Score. The big righty has deserved much better.

He’s also been somewhat unlucky on the ground, with his Unadjusted Contact Score of 105 higher than his adjusted mark of 94. The average velocity of the flies he’s allowed is 88.2 mph; the grounders, 80.7 mph. Both figures compare favorably to MLB norms.

Combining all of the balls he’s allowed to be put into play, his overall Adjusted Contact Score is almost exactly league average, at 99. League average, that is, despite a sky-high liner rate. An extreme K/BB guy with league-average contact-management ability is a star; Samardzija profiles as a star who actually offers a bit of upside as his liner rate regresses downward.

His “tru” ERA-, which is based upon his Adjusted Contact Score with the K and BB added back in, is a very strong 74, better than both his ERA- and FIP-. FIP- is a solid metric, but it simply doesn’t take into account the authority of the fly balls Samardzija has allowed.

One more note about Samardzija’s K/BB excellence. At the break, his K/BB ratio was 3.68 standard deviations better than the average among NL ERA qualifiers. Since 2000, only 11 qualifiers have bettered that mark: Curt Schilling (3 times), Cliff Lee (2), Pedro Martinez (2), Roy Halladay, Phil Hughes, Ben Sheets, and Carlos Silva. With the exception of the two Twins near the end, that’s a pretty incredible list.

Samardzija’s stuff, size, and athleticism are very real. He has taken the ball every fifth day since moving to the rotation in 2012. Sure, he might be just 63-83, 4.12, for his career, but this is not a mediocre starting pitcher.

Any club trading for him is taking on an $18 million per-year commitment that runs through 2020. It’s not pocket change, but for a pitcher whose skills tend to age well, there is excess value to be had. I wouldn’t empty the prospect vault for him, but he should be classified as an asset, and not just a salary dump, as the deadline approaches.

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6 years ago

“Sure, it’s an even year…”

2017 is divisible by 2?

6 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

it now says “not an even year”. did he sneak not in there after the fact? if so that is very like and very weak.

6 years ago
Reply to  EonADS

Yes, 2017 is divisible by 2.