The Jeff Samardzija Experiment

Jeff Samardzija is incredibly frustrating at times.  For the first few months of 2016, Giants fans saw a pitcher who would more than earn the five-year, $90-million contract he had signed in the offseason.  In April and May, Samardzija posted FIPs of 3.67 and 2.45, as well 11.9% and 19.1% K-BB rates.  Those numbers are pretty worthwhile considering Samardzija has forged himself into a workhorse, averaging over 200 IP over the past four seasons.  The Giants would be plenty happy with that for a full season.  All seemed well in Giants land.  The free agents were proving their worth, Madison Bumgarner’s greatest concern was with his own hitting (that may always be true), and Buster Posey was healthy.  The even-year sorcery seemed to be working.

June and July came around, though, and Samardzija saw himself regress into what looked like the 2015 version of himself.  In June and July Samardzija posted FIPs of 7.09 and 5.06.  Samardzija was giving up homers at an alarming pace and he was desperately struggling to strike people out.  Oddly enough, Samardzija was drastically altering his pitch mix in the middle of the year.


Holy cow.

That looks experimental more than anything else.  For Samardzija to maintain his level of performance even in his good months is pretty solid given such drastic changes in pitch mixes.

For reference, here is Samardzija’s FIP throughout the course of last year.


You can see the success I mentioned earlier before June and July came around, but Samardzija also set out on a strong end to the season, posting a 3.67 FIP in August and a 2.38 FIP in September/October to somehow bring his FIP below the league average.  That final stretch also saw Samardzija posting a 21.8 K-BB% as well, maintaining a similar walk rate he posted all season while striking out 28.6% of batters.

Staring through the bevy of pitches Samardzija featured through the season, you can see where he was getting to in the end.  He almost entirely ditched his cutter and found a balance between his four-seam and two-seam fastballs.  The curveball usage held steady, the slider usage went down, and the splitter continued to emerge as a favorite.  The splitter usage has appeared to come about as Samardzija’s neutralizer towards lefties, and it has worked well.  Lefties have given Samardzija trouble for his whole career and the near-60-point difference in wOBA versus lefties last year is fairly alarming (.331 vs .276), so an offspeed pitch that moves away from lefties is crucial.

That splitter itself is fairly similar in movement to Masahiro Tanaka’s.

Samardzija: -6.7 x, 3.9 z

Tanaka: -6.7 x, 3.3 z

Should Samardzija use the splitter versus lefties as much as Tanaka does (nearly 30%!) and locate it as Tanaka does (low and away from lefties), it should be effective, given his SwStr% with the pitch throughout his career (19.5%).

Here is Samardzija in his last tune-up before the season.

(Skip to 0:13 for the nasty nasty.)

In those final two months last year, Samardzija was able to continually do better against righties while limiting lefties to a somewhat manageable .410 SLG.  Should Samardzija maintain a similar pitch mix, he would look more like his four-win 2014 campaign.  Pitching isn’t that simple, but he’s making his way back to something that had worked quite well for him in the past.

The 2016 Giants season became all about the monstrous second-half collapse, but hidden in there was a bit of a Jeff Samardzija resurgence.  In 2017, Samardzija will almost assuredly be worth his salary in durability alone.  But if he can continue to utilize his splitter as he had toward the end of 2016, I would expect him to outperform his projections (Steamer 3.84 ERA 3.78 FIP 4.09 xFIP) and deliver a performance more in line with his 2014 season.  The Giants rotation already runs deep, but they could be looking at one of the most durable and effective groups of front-line starters in the game.

Owen is a contributor at FanGraphs. He got his start blogging about baseball when he was in college and you can find him maybe talking about something on Twitter @O_dotco.

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Jim Melichar
5 years ago

I’ve got a really lengthy and heatmap heavy, half-written article, about the Shark sitting around. Basically how he’s turning his curveball into what his slider used to do for him (whiffs). I’m excited to watch him throughout April, even if the HR bug crept back in last night in AZ.