Free agency is in full swing and the highest sought after starting pitchers are already signed. The San Francisco Giants made a move of their own to bolster. Ian York takes a look at starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija and what he will bring to the Giants starting rotation.
Jeff Samardzija just signed a 5 year, $90 million contract with the Giants. Which Samardzija will the Giants be seeing?
To say Samardzija has had a mixed career is an understatement. As a rookie in 2008, he was an excellent reliever. Then he was a terrible reliever, except that in 2011 he was a pretty good reliever. He became a full-time starter in 2012, and he was pretty good, except that in 2013 he was pretty bad, until 2014, when he was good again, followed by 2015, when he was awful. The Giants are not paying him $90 million in the hope he’ll give them five years of a 79 ERA+; they are hoping that the 2014 ace Samardzija can reappear.
Samardzija has a slightly unusual repertoire. He doesn’t throw a curve or a change, replacing those with a cut fastball/slider combination and a split-fingered fastball respectively. He preferentially throws a slider and sinker to right-handed batters, and the cutter and splitter to lefties, but that isn’t a rigid rule; he mixes in the complete set to both sides. His pitch mix has changed somewhat since becoming a starter: He has been backing off his sinker since 2013, and in 2015, he threw more cutters than in previous years, and more sliders to righties.
Looking at speed vs. horizontal and vertical movement, his pitches looked like this in 2015:
These are generally a nice looking set of pitches, showing good velocity, lots of movement, and clean separation from each other. (The little cluster of “sliders” mixed in with the cutters are almost certainly just misidentifications by PITCHf/x; I didn’t manually reclassify his pitches here.) The splitter makes a good changeup substitute, with nearly 10 mph difference from his fastball (85.4 vs 94.3 mph) and good horizontal movement. His slider combines good speed with a wide and confusing range of vertical movement, and his cutter is very fast (93 mph) with good horizontal movement.
Are there any clues as to what went wrong for Samardzija in 2015? Brooks Baseball shows that the velocity and movement on all of his pitches have not changed very much, if at all, since 2012, so we need to look elsewhere for an explanation. His repertoire did change somewhat since his very successful 2014, but the difference is not dramatic.
A starting point comes from FanGraphs’ rating of the value of Samardzija’s pitches per 100 pitches:
His slider has gone from a well above-average pitch pre-2015, to a fairly poor one in 2015, and his splitter value has tracked his overall effectiveness, with his good years (2012, 2014) showing a positive-value splitter and his bad years (2013, 2015) showing negative value. By comparison, his cutter has gone from a low-value pitch to his only above-average pitch in 2015, explaining the increased use of his cutter.
Before we look more closely at the splitter and slider, we should see where Samardzija normally locates his pitches. This shows the distribution for 2015:
Most of his pitches end up in the strike zone, though his splitter and slider work at the bottom of the zone or below it. If we look at his history, we can see that this has been true since 2012. The next chart shows the vertical locations of his splitter and slider since 2012, to left- and right-handed batters (red and blue respectively) relative to the strike zone as it was called each year (the red lines indicate the approximate top and bottom of the zone; note that in 2014 and 2015, umpires called the bottom of the strike zone slightly lower than in 2012 and 2013). The dashed and dotted lines inside each distribution indicate the 25%, 50%, and 75% marks.
In 2013 and 2014, about half of Samardzija’s splitters and sliders were below the bottom of the strike zone, and his “average” pitch was almost exactly at the bottom margin of the zone. In 2015, though, only about a quarter of them were below the zone, and the average was several inches up, right in a batter’s wheelhouse.
This indicates a loss of command of these particular pitches. Samardzija’s splitters and sliders can be great pitches when they start off looking like a strike, but drop out of the zone as the batter begins his swing. Leaving these pitches up just makes them easy targets for major-league batters.
Samardzija has said that his struggles in 2015 were related to mechanical issues with his delivery, and that a small adjustment led to his marked improvement in his last two starts of 2015. As quoted by Bruce Levine (CBS Chicago):
“It was just a simple fix with my hands,” he said. “The fix was the mechanics where my hands were. They had been getting away from my body, which made my delivery get around the ball. That made me miss left and right and up in the zone mostly.”
Although every pitcher who has ever had a bad season has blamed correctable mechanical issues, in this case it seems at least possible that it was the case. Missing up in the zone is exactly what we see, and with no change in velocity or movement, command seems the most likely cause for Samadzija’s issues.
With the Giants, Samardzija will work with well-regarded pitching coach Dave RIghetti, which should help him keep his mechanics consistent. There are a lot of “ifs” for a $90-million contract, but if Samardzija can fix his command and return to his 2014 form, the contract could prove to be a bargain for the Giants. If not, it will be a painful five years for both sides.