On April 8th Jeff Samardzija reintroduced himself to the world. He pitched 8.2 innings, giving up only one earned run on a solo shot in the 9th, allowed 4 base runners in total while striking out 8, and dismissed all concerns that his Spring Training was just a fluke. Five months later he finished off the best season of his young career with a complete game, allowing 5 base runners, 2 earned runs and struck out 9 Pirates as the Cubs decided to shut him down with 3-plus weeks to go. From an outside perspective, a 3.81 ERA, 3.57 FIP, and 3.5 WAR in 174.2 innings pitched is along the lines of a solid mid-rotation starter. It’s a good season but not great; however, the stats don’t tell the whole story.
The knock on Samardzija until this year was his results never matched his stuff. Most importantly, he lacked a strike out pitch despite his overpowering velocity. His fastball was too straight to accrue swings and misses, so throughout his minors career he attempted to develop new pitches to find that elusive out pitch. When Samardzija was first called up, he relied on 3 pitches: a 4-seam fastball, slider, and changeup combination. In 2009, he added a cutter and started experimenting with a curveball; and then in 2011 he added a two-seam fastball. The new pitches added to his repertoire but he never found the out pitch he was looking for, until this year.
During the offseason, Samardzija developed a split-finger fastball which has quickly turned into one of the best in baseball. He only used the split finger about 17% of the time; however, it resulted in an astounding 48% of his strikeouts and batters hit a measly .128 against his split-finger with only 7 extra base hits. The addition of the split-finger immediately made Samardzija a solid option in the starting rotation; but he was not done tinkering with his arsenal. During the month of June, Jeff tried to utilize his curveball instead of his slider with disastrous results.
During the 3 starts where he scrapped his slider in favor of the curve, Jeff gave up 17 ER in only 14.2 IP. In July, when he went back to using his slider as his 3rd pitch, his results returned to his form before the curveball experiment. If you remove the 3 starts where he experimented with a curveball his numbers look outstanding:
In fact, if you compare his 25 starts without the curveball to the seasons of the top 10 NL pitchers according to FanGraph’s WAR, Samardzija’s stats are comparable:
As you can see Shark’s season – sans curveball experiment – was among the best pitchers in the NL. Moving forward you would assume he will stop trying to add the curveball and focus on the 5 pitch combination he had great success with in 2012. Even though Samardzija has had an up and down career, I feel very confident he’s turned the corner and should be projected as a front-line starter for the foreseeable future. I would let Samardzija go through arbitration this season, then if he does maintain his performance in 2013, look to extend him 4-5 years buying out 2-3 years of free agency and keep him under control for his age 28-32 seasons.