Jeff Samardzija & The Quest for Fantasy Ace-dom

In 2014, Jeff Samardzija had the best season of his career as a starter, finishing with an ERA under 3, a 3.06 SIERA and a miniscule 1.8 BB/9, all during a campaign in which he was traded between leagues.

That’s pretty good. Put another way, it’s so good that even though Samardzija finished 21st in Zach Sanders’ end of the season rankings for starting pitchers, it’s hard not to feel that he was still a bit cheated from fully realizing his fantasy potential.

Why? Because of the same reason that’s prevented him from flourishing as a true front-end fantasy starter for the past three years: A severe lack of wins.

For the third straight season, The Shark finished well under .500, and, in fact, his 7-13 record was his worst since becoming a rotation man. Zooming out, Samardzija has compiled a 24-39 record since 2012, a mark that is as unjust as it is frustrating, so far as bitter fantasy owners are concerned.

You probably remember Samardzija’s Chicago odyssey from earlier this year. Thanks to the Cubs’ punchless offense, the right-hander was winless in his first 10 starts despite compiling a 1.46 ERA, and by the end of June, his record stood at just 2-7 despite universal recognition as one of the National League’s best pitchers in the first half.

Thankfully, in July, Samardzija was liberated from Stalag 1060 West Addison as part of the mega midseason deal between the Cubs and A’s. Joining a team that was 20 games over .500 and owners of the best record in baseball at the time, here, at last, Samardzija’s string of ridiculously bad fortune seemed sure to come to an end. But nooooo. In 16 starts, Samardzija still couldn’t break the .500 mark, going 5-6 despite taming American League hitters to the tune of a 3.14 ERA (3.30 FIP), a microscopic .931 WHIP and a ridiculous 8.3 K/BB ratio. Oh, and the bullpen pox that so afflicted him in Chicago, costing him four wins, seemed to make the trip out west with him: Samardzija left three games in line for a victory, only to watch Oakland relievers cough them up during a historic second-half choke job.

The good news, however, is that pretty much everything else about Samardzija’s season was extremely encouraging. A surge in his F-Strike% helped chop his walk rate nearly in half from 2013, and that increased focus on attacking hitters resulted in him throwing 3.6% fewer pitches than last year — despite hurling more innings over the same amount of starts (33). He surrendered his fewest hits per nine innings since becoming a starter, which, combined with the paper-thin walk rate, lowered his WHIP to 1.07, good for eighth among qualified starters. His outstanding ERA was validated by a 3.20 FIP and 3.07 xFIP.

And his excellent season wasn’t the work of outsized peripherals, either: his BABIP, strand rate and HR/FB rate all were at perfectly reasonable levels and completely in line with his career norms.

Meanwhile, Samardzija’s batted ball profile continues to bend in a positive direction since he became a starter:

At the expense of some of these trends, however, was a noticeable dip in strikeouts; Samardzija’s 23 K% rate was nearly two ticks down from 2012, and his 8.3 K/9 was off the strikeout-per-inning pace he established in 2012-13. But his 10.9 SwStr% was an increase over last year as well as his career average, he easily posted his highest strike percentage as a starter and his share of 0-2 counts set a new career high as well.

At work here has been an evolving pitch selection since 2012, when Samardzija relied heavily on his splitter. Over time, he’s throttled back on using the pitch, instead choosing his cutter and slider more often. In the case of the latter, it’s easy to see why: His slider velocity was nearly a full mph faster in 2014 than it was two years ago, and he’s generated more vertical movement on the pitch, as seen in the chart below:

samardzija-slider

So it comes as no surprise that Samardzija’s whiff rate on sliders has increased in recent years, and in 2014, he posted 7.9 slider runs above average, which was ninth among qualified starters.

As for his cutter, that pitch seems to have played a key role in Samardzija’s improvement against left-handed hitters, who had tagged him for a .770 OPS between 2012 and 2013. Data compiled by Brooks Baseball show that Samardzija has steadily increased his cutter usage in all counts against left-handed hitters since becoming a starter, particularly in two-strike situations, and by 2014, when lefties’ OPS against Samardzija dropped to .662, the pitch had become just as much of a weapon against them as his vaunted slider.

Now, what had been a fastball-heavy strategy against them in 2012 has expanded to include all of Samardzija’s offerings at a roughly even distribution:

samardzija1

Considering that much of this article has been devoted to lamenting Samardzija’s bad luck in getting wins — and blaming his teams for not helping him accumulate them — it would be inappropriate not to take his 2015 team into account in projecting his value for next year. But this post was written days after the blockbuster Josh DonaldsonBrett Lawrie deal, and I’m not qualified in the slightest to predict how Billy Beane will, or won’t, use Samardzija as a trade chip (he has one more arbitration year before he hits free agency). Of course, sticking around the pitcher-happy O.co Coliseum wouldn’t be the worst place for him to spend 2015, though the potency of Oakland’s offense remains to be seen now that they’ve traded away their best hitter.

But suffice to say, wherever Samardzija ends up, his luck can’t be any worse than it was playing for the dreadful Cubs or the floundering 2014 stretch-run A’s. He hasn’t missed a start in three years, his fastball velocity continues to sit in the mid-90s and there’s little reason to believe that he can’t regain a strikeout-per-inning pace.

More importantly, however, is his undeniable growth on the mound, and at age 30 next year, he will be entering a phase in his career where he can still perform as a power pitcher, only now with his talent aided by experience. No matter where he pitches in 2015, consider Samardzija a strong No. 2 hurler on draft day with the upside to finish among the top 12 starting pitchers — legit ace material, in other words.

We hoped you liked reading Jeff Samardzija & The Quest for Fantasy Ace-dom by Karl de Vries!

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Karl, a journalist living in Washington, D.C., learned about life's disappointments by following the Mets beginning at a young age. His work has appeared in numerous publications, and he has contributed to the 2014 and 2015 editions of The Hardball Times Annual. Follow/harass him on Twitter @Karl_de_Vries.

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Spicerello
Guest
Spicerello

I owned him in 2013 but he seemed so damn inconsistent. Looking back, was there any way to predict the breakout into a borderline fantasy ace?

Grant
Guest
Grant

He’s been pretty solid for a few years now. Just roll him out there and the numbers will even out through the course of a year. Everybody is inconsistent. Variance in data is what it is.