Jeff Samardzija’s Hair Is Long And Bite Is Strong

The final month and a half is rather important for the Cubs Jeff Samardzija. The 28-year old hard thrower from Indiana is under club control through the fall of 2015, and it’s no secret that Theo Epstein and Co. will entertain inking Samardzija to a long-term extension once the season is over. How much entertaining? That’s still unclear.

After looking like a frontline starter in April and May, in which Samardzija posted a 2.85 ERA and struck out 80 batters in 72 2/3 innings, the man simply known as Shark has more resembled a can of tuna over the past two months plus, posting a 4.20 ERA in June, 5.28 ERA in July and 6.29 ERA in August. But—to the delight of shark freaks across the globe—the good Samardzija returned Monday night, tossing the third complete game of his career while allowing one run on six hits to go along with five punch outs and no walks against Jordan Zimmermann and the Nationals.

On the season, Samardzija is 7-11 with a 4.12 ERA, 1.32 WHIP and 168 strikeouts in 168 1/3 innings. While the ERA is on the high side, he does have a much cleaner 3.59 FIP and 3.50 xFIP. And he’s well on the way to his first 200-strikeout season in only his second full season as a big league starter—he struck out 180 batters in 2012 after the team shut him down in the second half of September.

While it’s very hard to pinpoint what kind of money Samardzija has coming his way (it’s still probably a lot, but nothing out of this world), I’m more interested in determining what Dave Cameron’s No. 41 player on FanGraphs 2013 Trade Value list is worth in dynasty leagues.

First things first: Samardzija turns 29 in January, meaning we’re not dealing with a conventional soon-to-be, third-year starter here. Samardzija tossed 174 2/3 innings in his first full year as a starter, and he’s currently 6 1/3 innings away from matching 2012’s total after going nine against Washington. Therefore, treating Samardzija as a normal, almost 30-year old starting pitcher with innings stacked on innings doesn’t really apply. Since his 2008 debut, Samardzija’s tossed 512 2/3 innings across six seasons. For comparison, Rick Porcello has already logged 822 2/3 innings at the major league level—and he’s still a baby at 24. Keep this in mind when evaluating Samardzija for future seasons and don’t let his age turn you away.

Upon switching from the bullpen to the starting rotation last season, Samardzija found immediate success. In 2010, he walked a ridiculous 20 percent of batters. In 2011, he walked 13.2 percent. But in 2012, after a dominant spring training that gave the Cubs no choice but to slot him in the starting rotation, Samardzija’s walk rate shrunk to an outstanding 7.8 percent. He’s backed it up with an 8.8 percent walk rate this year, which is only that high because of a 12.4 percent walk rate in July—no other month is higher than 8.9 percent. Samardzija’s first-pitch strike rate is more than fine at 60 percent, and his Zone% is up from a year ago, from 43.6 percent in 2012 to 45.1 percent in 2013.

It hasn’t been all peaches for Samardzija, however, with two trends of at least some concern. First, Samardzija’s swinging strike rate is down from 12.2 percent in 2012 to 9.9 percent in 2013. This appears to be a result of the second concerning trend, a decrease in his swing rate on pitches thrown outside of the strike zone, from an elite 34.2 percent in 2012 to a league average 31 percent in 2013.

Now, does that completely take me off the Samardzija bandwagon? Absolutely not. Take a look at a player comp I came across on the FanGraphs leader boards:

Player: O-Swing%, Z-Swing%, Swing%, Contact%

Jeff Samardzija: 31.0%, 66.6%, 47.0%, 77.7%,

Max Scherzer: 31.0%, 66.8%, 47.4%, 74.6%

While Samardzija is struggling to separate as his team’s best starter, Max Scherzer has gone out and become the Tigers No. 1 with plate discipline numbers that line up competitively with Samardzija. Scherzer’s biggest improvement, however, has come from a 5.8 percent walk rate, down from 7.6 percent in 2012. And, as I’ve already mentioned, Samardzija was recently there with a 7.8 percent walk rate in 2012. Can he at least get there again? I most definitely think so.

No, I’m not saying Samardzija is the next Scherzer or anything like that. I just think it’s a good exercise to remind owners—including myself—that one down year, or months, in the Shark’s case, isn’t the be all and end all.

Coming into the 2013 season, I was overly optimistic on Samardzija, boldly predicting he’d be a top-20 starter. Obviously that didn’t pan out, but I still see a bright future for Samardzija, regardless of how much money the Cubs pay him.

Alex Kantecki also writes for Fake Teams and Vigilante Baseball. You can poke him on Twitter at @rotodealer.

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