The first thing you probably notice when you look at Jeff Samardzija’s player page is his ERA of 4.34 last year. And if you click over to his 2013 splits, you’ll see that ERAs north of 5.00 in each of the last three months of the season were responsible for the high ERA.
But don’t let the Shark’s apparent struggles in the second half scare you too much. In reality, July was the only one of those three bad months in which Samardzija actually pitched poorly. His strikeout and walk rates went in the wrong direction in July, but they were back within his normal range in August and September. His ERA just stayed bad because his BABIP was over .340 in those months, his strand rate was 66% in August, and his HR/FB rate was 26% in September.
What’s most concerning is that the July blip wasn’t the only significant rough patch that Samardzija has had since becoming a starter. In June of 2012, his strikeout and walk rates also went in the wrong direction, and his ERA ballooned to 10.41 in that month. Just to give you an idea of how out-of-the-ordinary those two months were, here is a chart showing the Shark’s strikeout and walk rates, ERA and xFIP for each of his 12 professional months as a starter.
I picked Samardzija to write about because I wanted to look into his two bad months and see if I could identify what went wrong. But there’s nothing obvious that I can find.
I started by looking at his pitch mix and found no red flags. It seemed strange that he used a curve about 9% of the time in June 2012 because that is a pitch he had not used before and has hardly used since. But that didn’t contribute to the bad month because his curve had the lowest ISO and slugging allowed of any of his pitches that month. Other than that, nothing in his pitch mix appeared to be the cause.
I also thought he might have been dealing with an injury, but I don’t believe he ever appeared in Jeff Zimmerman’s MASH Report, and he had no issues with velocity in either of the problem months.
Then I thought he might have had a mechanical problem. I took a look at brooksbaseball.net to see if there was any issue with his release point, but that yielded no answer. His release point might have been a hair further out from his body than normal in July 2013, but it was so slight that it couldn’t have been the cause of his struggles. And his release point in June 2012 was consistent with his typical release point, so that’s not the problem. It’s possible he could have a different mechanical issue that the available data can’t clue us in on, but there’s no obvious answer to the blowups in his release point.
Ultimately, the answer is probably that consistency is tough and Samardzija just didn’t have his best stuff for those stretches. As he said in an interview with Eno Sarris in July, “Pitches come and go so much throughout the year. 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.”
I was hoping to find some obvious reason for the dips in Samardzija’s performance to determine what the risk was of it happening again. But I realize that the possibility of another blowup month some time in 2014 may not be something that should scare me off. Had he not had the bad luck in the final two months of last season, I probably wouldn’t be as worried about him because his ERA probably would have been under 4.00. If he had two straight seasons with an ERA in the high-threes and stud strikeout numbers, I’d happily sign up for another season of that. But his skills say he should have had that sub-4.00 ERA last year, so that’s what I expect from him going forward.
With his ability to miss bats, Samardzia will always have upside. Unfortunately, he has a bit of an issue with homers. If he could manage to keep the ball in the park, he could potentially get down to a 3.40-ish ERA with a top ten strikeout rate. His upside is something like what A.J. Burnett did last year, which would make him a borderline top 30 fantasy starter. But because of the homer issues that have shown no indication of going away, I’d guess his 2014 roto line looks something like what Jon Lester did last year with more strikeouts and fewer wins. That would make Samardzija a borderline fourth starter in 12-team mixed leagues and a solid fifth starter. With his upside, I’d be comfortable taking him as my fourth starter.