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Shark Attacked: Explaining Jeff Samardzija’s Struggles

After seven starts, Jeff Samardzija has not lived up to the promise the Chicago White Sox had envisioned.

Jeff Samardzija


When the Chicago White Sox traded for Jeff Samardzija in the offseason, many people heralded the move as a success and the club pulling a fast one on Oakland Athletics’ general manager, Billy Beane. Many thought the Sox gave up very little in acquiring a frontend starting pitcher.

After seven starts, Samardzija has not lived up to the promise the team had envisioned. Being paired up with ace Chris Sale, “Shark” was supposed to naturally fit in as a number two starter in what looked to be a deep, White Sox rotation.

After seven starts, the team has a pitcher who holds a 2-2 record with an ERA of 4.80.

So this is the part where you tell us that his advanced stats are better than his traditional numbers, right?

Not this time.

When we released our top 22 best starting pitchers’ list, many people were befuddled as to how struggling righty, Corey Kluber, made it to the list. Many were left wondering how a pitcher with a 5.00+ ERA and a WHIP of 1.39 could be considered among the elite.

The simple answer is the advanced metrics (we used Field Independent Pitching (FIP) and Skill-Interactive Earned Run Average (SIERA) to evaluate his season) stated that Kluber was not pitching as bad as his traditional ERA would indicate. Both his FIP and SIERA were hovering around 3.20 which placed him among the top 22 pitchers.

And after recently notching 18 strikeouts against the St. Louis Cardinals, one can say the advanced numbers had assessed Kluber correctly.

Fore more details on fip and siera, CLICK HERE.

Unfortunately for Samardzija, both his FIP and SIERA are currently hovering around 4.00. Yes, that’s better than his traditional ERA, but that’s still an awful mark to have.

In spite of continuing to keep his walks in check (currently owns a Walk Rate (BB%) of 4.0 percent, the lowest of his career), his advanced metrics are still bad because his strikeouts are also down (Strikeout Percentage (K%) currently stands at 17.7 percent).

So there’s no control issues. Perhaps it is bad luck that has plagued Samardzija, correct?

Many people have pointed out that Samardzija’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (or BABIP, a stat that measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit) is sitting high at .320. So there is some bad luck involved in his season. A natural assessment seeing how his K% has noticeably dropped.

However, the high BABIP and bad luck does not explain why his SIERA isn’t more forgiving. But the high BABIP is easily explained by his batted ball percentages this season:

Jeff Samardzija’s Batted Ball Rates
Year LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB BABIP
2013 20.4 48.2 31.4 10.1 13.3 0.314
2014 19.3 50.2 30.5 10.6 10.6 0.283
2015 29.1 35.1 35.8 7.5 11.3 0.320

He was working on becoming a ground ball pitcher the last couple of seasons, keeping variance at bay, and creating his own luck. As one can see, he survived a BABIP of .314 in 2013 because of the high volume of grounders.

This season, however, the Line Drive Rate (LD%) is really high. Samardzija owns the fourth, highest LD% in baseball. The random results of his batted balls have caused this uncertainty, resulting in the .320 BABIP.

There is some bad luck involved, but the drastic change in distribution of batted balls is not simply explained by luck. Something else is in the works here that has caused Samardzija to go from a ground ball pitcher to owning a very high LD%.

It can only mean one thing: a drop in velocity!

Well…no:

Jeff Samardzija Velocity (mph)
Year 4-Seam 2-Seam Cutter Splitter Slider
2013 94.6 94.3 91.2 83.8 83.9
2014 94.6 94.2 92.1 85.3 85.8
2015 94.1 93.8 91.8 84.5 83.5

There’s a slight dip in his fourseam fastball, but not enough to affect him negatively. Samardzija’s fastball ranks as the 13th fastest velocity in baseball among qualified starting pitchers. For the most part, in terms of velocity, things have remained static.

Velocity is not a concern, then perhaps he’s experimenting out there.

Yes and no:

Jeff Samardzija Pitch Type (%)
Year 4-Seam 2-Seam Cutter Splitter Slider
2013 25.1% 27.7% 11.2% 15.0% 20.7%
2014 30.8% 24.1% 13.4% 11.2% 20.3%
2015 29.1% 12.3% 24.4% 9.0% 25.0%

There’s been a drastic decrease in his two-seamer and a big jump in the cutter usage. But his bread-and-butter remains his fourseam fastball. And as we explained, it’s still pretty darn good.

Perhaps the big increase in his cutter usage and trying to harness it might be part of the problem, but per Brooks Baseball, his cutter “explodes on the hitter” and is “blazing fast.”

What else can it be then?

At this point, if he does not have apparent control issues or diminishing skills (yet), then the only thing left to conclude is that Samardzija is struggling with command.

Currently, Samardzija has thrown 52.5 percent of his pitches in the strike zone, the highest it has been since 2009 when he was still a raw project coming out of the bullpen. The increase in pitches in the strike zone has resulted in hitters feasting on his pitches.

Currently, he’s setting career highs in Swing Percentage and Swing Percentage Inside the Strike Zone. More worrisome, his Swinging Strike Percentage (8.9 percent) is the lowest it has been since 2011.

That’s not all.

So you get a pitcher who is throwing more pitches in the strike zone and hitters who are aggressively swinging at his pitches, and now you have a pitcher with high Contact Rates. His Contact Rate Inside the Strike Zone (89.8 percent) is the highest it’s been since his rookie season in 2008. Contact Rate Outside the Strike Zone (67.9 percent) is the highest it’s been since 2011.

Hitters aggressively swinging and having high success rates of contact leads one to believe that Samardzija’s pitches simply don’t have much movement inside the strike zone. Otherwise known as having “command” issues.

CONCLUSION

The White Sox thought they grabbed themselves a legit, top-of-the-rotation starter in Jeff Samardzija. It was also part of a great narrative: former White Sox fan now pitching for hometown team. Unfortunately, baseball has a way to turn the best dreams into nightmares and right now, he’s having a nightmare of a season.

Simply put, Samardzija’s command issues has led to lesser strikeouts, higher swing and contact rates, and a ridiculously high LD%, despite the fact that his skills and stuff have mostly gone unchanged.  It’s a small sample size and based on talent, he deserves more time to break out of his horrid start to the season.

Nevertheless, time is of the essence and it’s costing the White Sox wins, a decreased probability in making the playoffs (currently at 16.1 percent per Baseball Prospectus), and, most importantly for Samardzija, it’s costing him money as he is also auditioning for a big contract in 2016.

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