Chicago Cubs: The future of Jeff Samardzija

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Chris Moran is a second-year law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He is also an assistant coach with the baseball team at Washington University. He graduated from Wheaton College, where he wore the tools of ignorance for the baseball team. Follow him on twitter @hangingslurves.

Chicago Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija or “Shark” as he is sometimes called, is something of a late bloomer. The 6’5 225 Notre Dame alumnus decided to forgo football and entered the draft in 2006, where the Cubs selected him in the fifth round. He reached the majors in 2008, but struggled in his first three seasons, with a 5.95 ERA and a 13.0% walk rate over 81.2 innings. While control issues still dogged him, 2011 was much better, as Samardzija managed a 2.97 ERA out of the bullpen with a 22.9% strikeout rate.

The Cubs finally moved him to the rotation for good in 2012, and Samardzija had a strong year. The 3.81 ERA was solid, but his underlying numbers were even better. His 24.9% strikeout rate was a career best, and his walk rate dropped all the way down to 7.8%. Overall, Samardzija was a top 30 starter.

Jeff Samardzija

Samardzija threw a career-high 213.2 innings in 2013, the fifth most in the NL.

Samardzija threw a career-high 213.2 innings in 2013, the fifth most in the NL. His strikeout and walk rates declined slightly, to 23.4%, and 8.5%, respectively. However, thanks to increased usage of his two-seam fastball, he largely offset the decline of his strikeout and walk rates with an increase in his groundball rate. Despite seeing his ERA jump to 4.34, Samardzija’s xFIP was 3.45, only a marginal increase from 3.38 the previous year.

Samardzija, who will be 29 in January, has two remaining years of team control before he hits free agency. Unless they make a serious push and unload several of their blue-chip prospects, the Cubs will likely not be contenders in the next couple of years. General Manager Theo Epstein has done a good job of trimming payroll, and building up the minor league system, and is unlikely to make a big move at this point. Given that the Cubs are probably at least three years away from contending, should they deal Samardzija now, or sign him to an extension?

Well, given what we know about Samardzija, what can we expect going forward?

First of all, Samardzija is 29, which is on the wrong side of the aging curve for pitchers. Still, because of the relatively late start to his baseball career, he’s thrown only a little more than 1000 innings of professional baseball. Matt Garza, the free agent prize of this offseason has thrown over 1500 innings. He’s a year older than Garza. Zack Greinke who was signed to a huge deal roughly a month after his 29th birthday, had thrown more than 1700 innings at that point. So Samardzija doesn’t have as much wear and tear as most pitchers his age.

Samardzija has a very good fastball. From 2012-13, only Stephen Strasburg and Jose Fernandez can top Shark’s 94.7 average fastball velocity. His swinging strike rate on the pitch is better than both Strasburg and Fernandez. Samardzija’s fastball velocity dropped slightly in August from its May-July peak, but it rebounded in September.

Throw in a good slider and an excellent splitter, and it’s clear Samardzija has very strong stuff. Only Koji Uehara‘s splitter got more swings and misses. His slider got more swings and misses than Matt Harvey‘s slider. Overall, only five pitchers have a better swinging strike rate than the 11.2% rate Samardzija has from 2012-13.

Control has been a concern for most of Samardzija’s professional career. For the first six years of his career, his walk rate sat at 11%. Over the last couple of years, it’s 8%, exactly the MLB average. It’s hard to completely brush away these concerns, especially since Samardzija’s best secondary pitch is a splitter, which is notoriously difficult to control. This last year, he located it in the strike zone only 25% of the time. Still, as long as hitters are whiffing on nearly a quarter of his splitters, he’ll be fine.

Jeff Samardzija is a good pitcher. Don’t be fooled by the 4.34 ERA, his xFIP-  is better than Jordan Zimmermann and on par with Madison Bumgarner and Gio Gonzalez. After seeing Tim Lincecum sign for two years and 35 million, it looks like the market is starting to ignore ERA in favor of pitching independent metrics. Maybe Samardzija is asking more than the Cubs want to shell out. After all, pitchers are always a risky proposition, and Shark will be on the wrong side of 30 by the time they are ready to contend. If the Cubs feel like they have to trade him, they should get a good return.

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, Baseball Savant, and Brooks Baseball.

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  • Brendan Miller

    The increased ground ball rate is huge. Well written piece, Chris. Stole the words out of my mouth.

  • chris moran

    Thanks. Shark started throwing the two-seamer in 2012 when he moved out of the pen, and in 2013 threw the two-seamer more frequently than his fastball. Its groundball rate is almost 60%.

  • Steve A

    I liked the piece, but small gaffe made me lose my train of thought. Jed Hoyer is the GM, Theo is the President of Baseball Operations.