Can Defense Save Samardzija?

After David Price’s and Zack Greinke’s $200 million deals, it is easy to treat the $90 million contract the Giants gave to Jeff Samardzija as simply the price one pays for an average starting pitcher these days. Of course, looking at 2015 alone, it may be a stretch to call Samardzija an average starter. As Jeff Sullivan detailed, Samardzija led baseball in both hits and runs last season. His 4.96 ERA bested only Alfredo Simon and Chris Tillman among the 78 qualified starters.

Fortunately for the Giants and Samardzija, 2015 was something of a statistical outlier for him. He will likely be better next season simply because of regression, and as Sullivan explained, Samardzija’s lack of stuff and health issues makes him a “fixable” player for Giants’ pitching coach Dave Righetti. In my mind, Samardzija’s potential benefits from the Giants do not end there.

For the bulk of his career as a starter, Samardzija has had the misfortune of playing in front of poor defenses. From 2012 to 2014 on the Cubs, Alfonso Soriano, David DeJesus, Chris Coghlan, Junior Lake, and Ryan Sweeney combined to cost the team 38 runs in the outfield according to Defensive Runs Saved. Nate Schierholtz was their only above average defensive outfielder with more than 450 innings over that stretch. Starlin Castro cost the team 12 runs at shortstop over the same period, and catcher Welington Castillo, despite having a great arm and blocking a high rate of pitches in the dirt, cost the team nine runs overall due mostly to poor pitch framing.

The White Sox were much the same defensive story for Samardzija in 2015. In particular, Avisail Garcia and Adam Eaton cost the team a combined 25 runs in the outfield and Alexei Ramirez, Conor Gillaspie, and Micah Johnson cost them 21 runs in the infield. Overall, the White Sox were the sixth worst defensive team in baseball last season.

In between those two stops, Samardzija spent half a season with the Athletics, one of the best defensive teams that season. While Samardzija’s ERA actually increased from the first half of that 2014 season with the poor defending Cubs to the second half with the Athletics, his FIP did as well. Meanwhile, if you look at the difference between Samardzija’s ERA and FIP for his three team stops, there is a clear trend.

Samardzija’s ERA – FIP by Team
Season Team Team DRS ERA – FIP
2012-14 Cubs -31 0.28
2014 Athletics 33 -0.16
2015 White Sox -16 0.73

For both the Cubs and White Sox, below average defensive teams, Samardzija’s ERA was higher than his FIP. Last season, the difference was dramatic at 73 points. In contrast, his ERA was lower on the defensive-minded Athletics in 2014.

Last season, the Giants finished fourth in baseball with 44 Runs Saved, and the defensive core in the team remains intact entering 2016. Their four primary infielders of Brandon Crawford, Matt Duffy, Brandon Belt, and Joe Panik were positive defensive contributors in 2015, combining to save the team 42 runs. Buster Posey led all catchers with 17 Runs Saved. Center field was the team’s lone defensive hole as oft-injured Angel Pagan cost the team 20 runs, but uncertainty in left field could conceivably be solved by moving Pagan there and signing a better defensive center fielder like Gerardo Parra.

However the Giants resolve their outfield situation, it’s extremely likely Samardzija will see a major boost in defensive support in 2016. Add that to the potential mechanical improvements Righetti could make, a dramatic swing from the hitter-friendly U.S. Cellular Field (111 HR Index) to pitcher-friendly AT&T Park (87 HR Index), and general regression, and Samardzija looks like a major bounce-back candidate.

Steamer projects Samardzija to have a decent 3.48 ERA and 3.54 FIP next season but only regresses his strikeouts per nine to 7.6, halfway between his 6.9 last season and his three-year standard of 8.8 from 2012-14. I think that’s conservative, and Samardzija’s big strikeout upside makes him a great value likely outside of the top 50 starting pitchers in drafts.

Scott Spratt is a fantasy sports writer for FanGraphs and Pro Football Focus. He is a Sloan Sports Conference Research Paper Competition and FSWA award winner. Feel free to ask him questions on Twitter – @Scott_Spratt

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Great analysis of the different defences that he played with.
In a worst case scenario, could his great 2014 season have been a career year and the outlier? Looking at his baseball reference page it looks like that could be possible. Thoughts?