Chicago Cubs ace Jeff Samardzija is leading the major leagues in ERA. Of course ERA isn’t everything, and in a ten start sample, it does a very poor job of predicting the future. But, by almost any measure the big right-hander has been one of the 20 best pitchers in baseball. Samardzija, who will almost certainly be dealt at the trade deadline or before, was connected with the Seattle Mariners in trade rumors this offseason, but nothing materialized.
The Cubs hurler has made some changes to his game, and they appear to be paying off. He’s swapping strikeouts for control. With a fastball, slider, cutter and splitfinger, the Shark possesses an excellent four pitch repertoire. In his first two seasons as a starting pitcher, he posted an 11.2 percent swinging strike rate, which sandwiched him between Clayton Kershaw and Justin Verlander for the 7th best in the major leagues. His splitter, which had a swinging strike rate of 24 percent, provided a good chunk of those whiffs.
Of course, the splitter can be a very difficult pitch to locate in the strike zone. For his career, the Shark’s split has a 30 percent zone rate, a number that was down to 25 percent last season. His overall zone rate was only 47.9 percent, significantly below the major league average. Accordingly, his walk rate of 8.5 percent was the 16th highest mark among qualified starting pitchers.
This year, Samardzija has swapped out some of his splitters for more heaters, particularly those of the two-seam variety. Not surprisingly, he locates his two and four seamers in the strike zone more than any of his other pitches. Also, he’s throwing first-pitch strikes at a much higher rate than in the last two years. Shark currently ranks 7th in the major leagues in first-pitch strike rate at 67.7 percent, an eight point increase on the previous season. First-pitch strike rate has a base correlation with walk rate of -0.60 and the six pitchers ahead of him have a combined walk rate of 5.1 percent.
With all these first pitch strikes, Samardzija is getting more quick outs than ever before. Here’s a table showing how often Samardzija got an out within the first two pitches of the at-bat.
|Year||# of 1 and 2 pitch outs||% of PAs|
This year he’s 6th in that category, behind pitchers such as Adam Wainwright and Sonny Gray. Overall he’s throwing 40 percent of his pitches while ahead in the count, and just 13 percent of his pitches while behind in the count, both improvements on the last two seasons. It might be a smaller difference than you would think, but BABIP and HR/FB ratios go down when the pitcher is ahead in the count.
Furthermore, those two and four seamers generate more ground balls. In 2012, Samardzija threw his four seamer more than twice as often as his two seamer. Last year the ratio was basically even. This season, he’s throwing 40 percent two seamers and 17 percent four seamers. As a consequence, his ground ball rate has increased from 45 percent to 48 percent and now 52 percent. The increased ground ball rate along with a HR/FB ratio of 3.9 percent, has allowed him to drop his FIP from 3.77 to 2.87.
The average velocity on Shark’s two and four seam fastballs is down relative to this time last year, though in his last start against the New York Yankees, his four seamer clocked in at 96.4, and his sinker at 96.6 according to Brooks Baseball. Samardzija isn’t striking out as many guys as last season, but he’s making up for it with a lower walk rate and a higher ground ball rate. Eventually, he’ll give up more home runs and batters will have more than a .198 BABIP with runners on base and his ERA might creep up into the 2 or 3 range.
Prospect Insider has been calling Samardzija an ace since the offseason, and now that his ERA is better than his strong peripherals, it’s hard to disagree. When the Cubs decide to deal him, he’ll command a big return.