What’s Up With Jeff Samardzija?

The free agent signing season should kick into gear soon, shortly after the results of Friday’s qualifying-offer acceptance deadline determine which free agents require draft pick compensation. The starting pitcher market will be particularly intriguing to monitor, with a healthy supply/demand situation from the players’ perspective further enhanced by the Cards’ loss of Lance Lynn for the entire season due to Tommy John surgery.

David Price, who does not require draft pick compensation, and Zack Greinke, who does, stand alone at the top of the market. Beneath them, among others, stands Jeff Samardzija, who is statistically coming off of the worst season of his career. What is his true talent level, and how he might he fare in this offseason’s market?

Samardzija’s backstory, obviously, is quite unique. Baseball was essentially his second sport early in his college career at Notre Dame; he was a highly renowned wide receiver, thought to be a likely future high round NFL draftee. As his two-sport career progressed, however, his fastball ramped up into the mid-to-upper 90s, while his football production plateaued.

I was a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers throughout Samardzija’s baseball career, and had the opportunity to see him pitch many times, particularly during his junior season. The raw arm strength was always there, and by the Big East tournament of his draft season, he was pumping it up there at 98-99 mph. His slider flashed plus, but it was quite inconsistent.

Despite that lethal one-two punch, he only struck out 61 batters in 97.2 innings during that junior year. No matter. I would venture that, to a man, all of the scouts following him that year would agree that his pitchability and overall performance would likely take a major step forward once football was out of the picture and this exceptional athlete focused all of his efforts on baseball.

Entering the 2006 draft, Samardzija made it clear that his price tag was very high, the equivalent of a high first round pick. Draft slots and top ten round draft budgets had not yet been put into place at that time; a club had to take on the informal slotting system, the commissioner’s office, and often its own ownership to step up and claim a player like Samardzija. The Cubs did just that, and signed him to a five year, $10 million major league contract with a $2.5 million signing bonus in the fifth round.

For quite awhile, it didn’t appear that this investment was going to work out. The flashes of brilliance but extended periods of inconsistency he had shown at Notre Dame persisted into his minor league career. In 2007, he struck out all of 65 batters in 141.2 innings at the High-A and Double-A levels in his first full professional season. Players with such minor league K rates typically do not have major league futures, and guys with high octane fastballs, such as Samardzija, usually miss way more bats.

Each season, I compile my own ordered list of minor league position player and starting pitcher prospects, based on production and age relative to league and level. Samardzija came nowhere near qualifying for my list in 2007, and his 2008 season didn’t start much better, as he recorded a poor 44:42 K:BB ratio in 76 innings in a return Double-A engagement.

Sometimes, the best thing you can do with an extremely talented but struggling minor leaguer is promote him. Makeup is key; to ultimately succeed, only a prospect who is absolutely unafraid of failure is a candidate for what I like to call an “adversity promotion.” Samardzija, despite perhaps not deserving to advance, moved up to Triple-A Iowa and unfurled six strong starts, posting a 40:16 K:BB ratio in 37.1 innings, thereby qualifying for my minor league starting pitcher list at #63.

While not yet a finished product, it was now clear that Samardzija had a big league future. For the next couple seasons, he alternated between pitching well as a starter in Triple-A and struggling in the major league bullpen, before settling in as a high-end Cubs’ reliever in 2011 and moving into their rotation in 2012. Except for being shut down for a handful of starts in September of that season, he hasn’t missed a start since.

Despite that durability and the ongoing flashes of greatness — he’s struck out more than a batter per inning twice, over 200 batters twice, recorded an ERA under 3.00 in 2014, when he posted a 99:12 K:BB ratio in 111.2 innings after his midseason trade to Oakland — one still can’t help but think as a disappointment on some level. Now we all know that win-loss records and ERAs only tell us so much, but a 47-61, 4.09, mark with a career 104 ERA- and 97 FIP-, is at best, somewhat middle-of-the-road.

So what is Jeff Samardzija? Let’s delve into some 2015 batted-ball data, his plate appearance outcome frequency and production allowed by BIP type data, to get a better feel. First, the frequency information:

Plate Appearance Outcome Frequency, 2015
Metric % REL PCT
K 17.9% 90 36
BB 5.4% 74 18
POP 4.0% 111 61
FLY 35.8% 115 83
LD 21.2% 101 50
GB 39.0% 88 17

The one clear positive here is Samardzija’s continued low BB rate. After struggling with his command during his amateur, minor and early major league career, he recorded an exceptional BB rate percentile rank of 18 for the second consecutive season. His liner rate percentile rank of 50 is perfectly average, and basically in line with previous career norms.

The biggest red, or at least orange flag is the precipitous drop in his K rate last season. After posting lofty K rate percentile ranks of 93, 89 and 80 from 2012-14, Samardzija’s 2015 mark dropped way down to 36. What gives here? While his average fastball velocity held strong at 94.3 mph last season, his overall swing-and-miss rate dropped from 11.1% in 2014 to 9.8% in 2015. The good news is his whiff rate was still just above the average of AL ERA qualifiers last season, so some positive regression might be expected. A fairly significant decline in the effectiveness of his slider (-5.6 run value in 2015 after many years of above average performance) was the culprit here, and some minor delivery tweaking could restore it to out-pitch status.

In another fairly significant development, Samardzija officially became a fly ball pitcher in 2015. After posting grounder percentile ranks of 69 and 67 in 2013-14, that figure plummeted to 17 in 2015, while his fly ball percentile rank reached a career high 83. Prior to last season, he had pulled off the neat daily double of high pop up and grounder rates in the two previous seasons. In 2015, his pop up rate percentile rank of 61 remained above average, but he lost the ground balls.

While a drop in grounder rate is typically not a good thing, one can only infer so much without introducing BIP authority data into the equation. To do so, let’s take a look at Samardzija’s relative production allowed by BIP type data:

Relative Production Allowed by BIP Type, 2015
Metric AVG OBP SLG REL PRD ADJ PRD ACT ERA CALC ERA FIP TRU ERA
FLY 0.152 0.464 71 96
LD 0.659 1.110 110 90
FLY + LD 0.439 0.830 99 90
GB 0.282 0.301 118 103
ALL BIP 0.332 0.544 112 102
ALL PA 0.269 0.308 0.439 104 96 4.96 4.12 4.23 3.79

The actual production allowed on each BIP type is indicated in the batting average (AVG) and slugging (SLG) columns, and is converted to run values and compared to MLB average in the REL PRD (or Unadjusted Contact Score) column. That figure is then adjusted for context, such as home park, team defense, luck, etc., in the ADJ PRD (or Adjusted Contact Score) column. For the purposes of this exercise, sacrifice hits (SH) and flies (SF) are included as outs and hit by pitchers (HBP) are excluded from the on-base percentage (OBP) calculation. One quick note here. I have presented this type of analysis many times, but this is the first time I am showing fly ball and line drive line items both separately and combined.

The most noticeable thing about Samardzija’s profile is that his Unadjusted Contact Scores are higher than his Adjusted Contact Scores, pretty much across the board. This means that contextual factors, most importantly team defense, caused his actual performance to be much worse than it should have been. Context reduces his fly ball/line drive contact score from 99 to 90, his grounder contact score from 118 to 103, and his overall contact score from 112 to 102. Despite a newly suboptimal batted ball mix, Samardzija remained essentially an average contact manager in 2015 thanks to better than average authority allowed.

Add back the Ks and BBs, and he checks in as a better than league average pitcher, with a “tru” ERA of 3.79 that is well below both his ERA (4.96) and FIP (4.23). The 1.17 negative difference between his “tru” and actual ERAs is the largest among any 2015 ERA qualifier in either league. His two next closest competitors for that distinction could be found elsewhere in the Chisox clubhouse this season. Chris Sale and John Danks‘ “tru” ERAs were 0.95 and 0.93 lower than their actual marks.

The reason for this? The White Sox horrific team defense. In my article on the Mets team defense last week, I referenced my Team Defensive Multiplier metric, which compares a club’s head-to-head defensive performance with their opponents over the course of the season. The Sox, who finished last in most advanced defensive metrics this season, were second worst in my metric at 109.0, fractionally worse than the Padres and fractionally better than the Yankees. They were well below average in the infield and outfield, and on all BIP types. There was no escape for White Sox starting pitchers.

Interestingly, Samardzija’s “tru” ERA was also one full run below his 2013 ERA, at 3.34 vs. 4.34. In both 2013 and 2015, his calculated component ERA was much closer to his actual ERA, at 3.91 and 4.12, respectively. This led me to wonder whether sequencing has been an ongoing bugaboo for Samardzija. He indeed has struggled much more with men on base than the typical MLB pitcher. His career OPS+ allowed with RISP is 114, compared to the 2015 MLB average for all pitchers of 106. Similarly, his career OPS+ with men on base is 113, compared to the 2015 MLB average of 107. Samardzija’s performance does appear to be hampered from the stretch, another area that might be targeted for a tweak or two.

Moving forward, what do we likely have in Jeff Samardzija? He clearly deserves to receive high grades in the athleticism, durability and raw stuff departments. Among the eight other QO-receiving free agent starting pitchers, the two best 2015 performers, John Lackey and Marco Estrada, are the two oldest, while the youngest, Brett Anderson, has the lengthiest injury dossier. Samardzija, along with perhaps Jordan Zimmermann, appear to be the best positioned from a risk/reward standpoint to capture the largest total financial commitment in terms of years and dollars.

Shopping for free agent pitching is dangerous, but if you haven’t grown your own rotation stalwarts and hope to contend, it can be a necessary evil. While my personal preference is to focus on stocking a roster with players who will outperform their contracts, eschewing the free agent market when possible, pricing these pitchers accurately so that you project to at least recoup their contract cost is vital. Jeff Samardzija, a modestly above average starting pitcher who can be relied upon for 200 innings per season, might be the one sub-Greinke/Price level free agent pitcher who projects as some combination of athletic/durable/dominant/precise enough to pay off a four-plus year, $18 million per year contract.





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Mr Big Swingin' D
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Mr Big Swingin' D

I still cannot believe Beane traded Addison Russell (and McKinney) for half a season of Shark and Hammel.

Shark got a ton of love on this blog in 2014, but he is nothing close to an elite pitcher. He’s had one season above 2.7 WAR.

Beane was in a slump there for awhile – the Donaldson trade, the Cespedes/Lester trade, the Billy Butler signing, Escobar for 1 yr of Clippard. I think there are a few other examples that don’t come to mind at the moment but we can’t condemn him for anything I can’t remember.

Beane has a well-deserved reputation for doing more with less, but he hasn’t been on his A game recently.

jtt
Guest
jtt

It was for 1.5 years of shark actually… Don’t forget trading for Jim Johnson and paying hi $10mm just to avoid giving Doolittle an arb raise. 2014 was not Beanes finest year

jtt
Guest
jtt

Doolittle signed an extension a few weeks into 2014 my bad. Still Jim Johnson was a head scratcher

Mr Big Swingin' D
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Mr Big Swingin' D

JTT – thank you very much!

I forgot it was indeed 1.5 years of Shark.

So he used Shark for 1/2 a season and then flipped him for infielder Marcus Semien, catcher Josh Phegley, infield Rangel Ravelo and right-handed pitcher Chris Bassitt of the White Sox.

We have to wait to see how those other prospects turn out, but I don’t think any of them is going to be anywhere close to Addison Russell.

Buns
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Buns

Cubs also got Billy McKinney in that deal, top 2-4 org prospect.

Cory Settoon
Member

You 2.7 WAR comment, while true, is a little misleading. His last four years are 2.7, 2.7, 4.1, and 2.7. That makes him just barely a 3 WAR pitcher.

He is almost a James Shields clone over the last four years.

Bad comp police
Guest
Bad comp police

“He is almost a James Shields clone over the last four years.”

This is a really odd comp. Shields going back to 2011 (2011 first): 4.5/4.2/4.0/3.3/1.1, with a reliable 200 IP 3-4 WAR pedigree going back to 2007. Samardzija was converted to SP in 2012 at age 27 and had a history of inconsistency, and has only mustered a season better than 2.7 WAR once. He’s also at a very different point in his career.