Chum the Shark: Fishing for Jeff Samardzija
Jeff Samardzija dashed the hopes and dreams of many fantasy owners last year. He entered the season highly ranked off his promising 2014 season with the Cubs in which he had a 2.99 ERA in 219.2 innings. Despite the losing 7-13 record many experts pegged the Shark as a hot sleeper last winter because of the super-low ERA and his dramatically improved walk rate (from 3.29 BB/9 down to 1.76 BB/9). He was also going from a bad Cubs team to a high-scoring White Sox team that was expected to compete for a division title. Many thought that Samardzija, who is one of the hardest throwing starting pitchers in baseball, had finally taken a long-awaited step forward as one of the top pitchers in baseball. But those prognostications got shot down in flames very quickly.
Samardzija’s ERA ballooned to a whopping 4.96 while his strikeouts dwindled to a career low 6.86 K/9. He actually won more games despite adding two full runs to his ERA. His luck factors (.303 BABIP, 67.2 LOB%, 10.8 HR/FB%) took a slight turn for the worse but not nearly enough to account for the horrific ERA. His velocity held steady near his career average at 94.5 mph. So what happened that caused his performance to tumble so badly?
No one issue stands out as the single blatantly obvious cause for his troubles. It seems to be the sum of several small negative effects. He moved to the American League where it is harder to get strikeouts and you don’t get to face the pitcher twice a game. He moved from Wrigley to U.S. Cellular Field, which is a tougher place for pitchers. He moved to a White Sox team that finished 28th in Defensive Efficiency Ratio last year.
After the season there was some talk from Samardzija and others that he had been tipping his pitches throughout the 2015 season. Supposedly this issue was fixed just before the end of the season prior to his final two dominant starts. In those two starts he gave up just two runs in 16 innings, including a complete-game one hit shutout versus the Tigers. I don’t really put too much faith in that theory however. I find it hard to believe that all the other teams in baseball figured this out or found out about it before the the White Sox did. That would be some world-class conspiratorial secret mongering if accurate. Maybe he was tipping his pitches and a few hitters were able to capitalize on it, but I don’t think it was a major reason for his bad performance all year long.
Perhaps the biggest reason for his struggles is the change he made to his pitch selection. He doubled the usage of his cutter and greatly reduced the number of sinkers. This was odd because the sinker had always been much more effective for him. I believe the White Sox worked with Samardzija to hone his least effective pitch, the cutter, prior to the season. The cutter was in fact much more effective in 2015 than it had ever been before in terms of both batting average and slugging percentage against. However this increased focus and reliance on the cutter seems to have had detrimental efffects on the rest of his pitches, all of which saw large increases in batting average against and slugging against. The split-fingered changeup has always been Shark’s most effective pitch, but even that one went from a .120 AVG and .162 SLG in 2014 to a .185 AVG and .328 SLG in 2015. It remained his best pitch but those are some big drop offs.
Moving forward I would expect the Giants to re-work Samardzija’s pitch selection ratios and help him regain the former effectiveness of his entire repertoire rather than focusing so intently on his cutter.
After last season Samardzija rejected a $15.8 million qualifying offer from the White Sox. Seems like a shocking decision for a pitcher with a losing record and 4.96 ERA to turn down that much guaranteed money to seek a better deal as a free agent tied to the loss of his new team’s 1st round draft pick in a market with plenty of good starting pitchers available. The decision paid off as he signed a 5 year, $90 million contract with the San Francisco Giants. That is $18 million per year for five years to a 31 year old pitcher coming off a terrible season! Obviously the Giants view Samardzija as a very good pitcher despite his down year.
There are definitely some things to like. Samardzija is a workhorse. Over the past four seasons he has started 126 games and pitched 822 innings with 759 strikeouts. Oddly enough he lost exactly 13 games in each of those four years, for a combined record of 35-52. He has never played for a good team though. He has always played in hitter’s parks that haven’t helped his career 4.09 ERA. He will be moving to a very strong pitchers park to play in front of the Giants defense, which ranked 2nd in the major leagues in Defensive Efficiency Ratio (which is hard to do in a huge ballpark like AT&T Park). The Giants have a long history of getting the most from their pitching talent. The Giants averaged 4.3 runs per game, which is noticeably better than the 3.8 runs per game the White Sox managed last year. More runs equals more wins for the pitchers. These changes should make a large improvement in Shark’s fantasy value even if he doesn’t improve his actual performance on the mound.
I believe Samardzija will improve his personal effectiveness over and above the gains from changing teams. Looking at his career track record, last year was the outlier. His ratios and peripherals all took big steps backward last year for the reasons mentioned above. There is no reason to suspect an injury. There has been no velocity loss compared to his career average. No missed starts or stints on the Disabled List. No whisperings or rumors of injury. He is not old enough to expect any age-related dropoff in performance. The logical thing is to expect a bounce-back season from Samardzija. The Giants’ $90 million investment show they are convinced he will be worth that much or more over the next few years. Of course there have been myriad examples of bad contracts given out to pitchers over the the last decade, but if a pitching-savvy organization like the Giants are willing to risk a huge chunk of their payroll on Samardzija it would make sense for fantasy owners to pay the low price that Samardzija will cost us this winter. Let’s face it, Shark is not exactly a coveted pitcher right now in fantasy circles. His season was so poor last year that you should be able to acquire him cheaply this winter.
The Verdict: Samardzija makes for a cost-effective target in fantasy leagues right now. He is likely to provide more value for your team than you will have to give up to get him. Don’t expect a #1 or #2 starter on your team, but he should be a good #3 mid-rotation starter who will post good strikeout totals and plenty of Wins for your squad. Due to his durability and the fact he plays for a good team, his counting stats will be more of a strength than his ratios. I project a 3.50 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 200 strikeouts and 14 Wins in 220 innings. Those numbers are approximately league average in 12-14 team 5×5 leagues. In deeper leagues he would be decidely better than average. League average has a lot of value when you consider what replacement value looks like. Samardzija is not going to win your league for you, but he is plenty good enough to fill out a championship-caliber starting rotation. He makes a good trade target if you can get him cheaply from a disgruntled owner.
If you missed last week’s column check it out here: I Love Prospects, I Hate Prospects!
Share your thoughts in the comments below. Who do you think makes a good trade target this Winter?