Projecting Samardzija as a starter

Projecting Samardzija as a starter

The Cubs are looking for more starters for 2012.  With only Matt Garza, Ryan Dempster, and possibly Randy Wells as sure things next season, the Cubs may have two spots to fill.  The first hope is that one of them is filled by Andrew Cashner.   A healthy Cashner would be  a tremendous shot in the arm for the Cubs.

The second spot could be filled by a minor league pitcher such as Chris Rusin, Nick Struck, or Trey McNutt -- but the first two are likely bottom of the rotation starters and McNutt may not be quite ready after a season in which he struggled.  Trades and free agency are also an option if the Cubs can find a reasonable deal this offseason.

Then, just when you thought it was safe, the Shark is popping up once again as a starter candidate.

Jeff Samardzija hasn't done very well as a starter in his brief career.  Heck, he didn't do particularly well as a reliever either until this year.  This season the former Notre Dame wide receiver has finally started to put things together on the pitching mound.  Is he now a viable option for the 2012 rotation?

Scouting Perspective

When the Cubs signed Samardzija to a $10.5M major league contract, the expectation was certainly not that he was going to be a middle reliever.  They viewed him as a raw pitcher with the talent to become a front line starter.  One team official even compared him to John Smoltz at the time.   So far he has fallen well short of those expectations, but his breakthrough season warrants him a second look.

Samardzija was nowhere near a polished product when he was drafted.  He still had a body built more for football than a major league pitcher.  His baseball experience wasn't nearly as extensive and his mechanics had flaws.   At the time, he threw between 91-94 mph and had a slider that was hit or miss -- not exactly a recipe for success, but the team's scouts felt like he had a lot of projection left.

The Cubs believed he would eventually operate consistently in the mid 90s.  That has actually proven to be the case.   He routinely throws in the mid 90s and often touches the upper 90s as a reliever.  It's hard to imagine he could throw 97-98 mph as a starter over the course of a game, but 94-95 is certainly feasible.  That's more than enough to succeed in the majors.

The slider has also become a more consistent pitch.  His command on the slider has improved by leaps and bounds.  It always had great velocity (mid 80s) and showed good bite, it's just that now that with improved command we're seeing it as a legitimate strikeout pitch.

That's 2  "out" pitches for the Shark, which makes him a candidate to be more than just a 4th or 5th starter.  Another key for any starter is to have a 3rd pitch to fall back when one of the first two just aren't working.   That's where Samardzija's split-fingered fastball comes into play.  He's used that more than his change-up, which is average and unrefined at best.  Recently he has relied much more on  the splitter. This gives him a pretty respectable third pitch.  In fact, it's been more effective than his fastball this year, ranking second next to his slider in terms of effectiveness.  Overall, Samardzija has 4 pitches: A hard sinking fastball, a slider, a cut fastball, and the split finger.  The range in velocity goes from an average of 95 mph on his fastball to the mid 80s on his slider and split finger.  It gives him a 10 mph differential;  That's not exactly elite when it comes to changing speeds, but it's certainly good enough to keep hitters off balance.

Statistical Analysis

Unfortunately, the numbers aren't quite as promising as Samardzija's pure stuff would indicate.  The first thing we want to note is his control, which has always been a concern.  This year,though, it has gotten better.  He has averaged 3.9 walks per 9 innings in the second half which makes him about average, but it's certainly not the control of a top of the rotation starter.  His strikeout ratio of 9.1 per 9 innings, however, does indicate front of the rotation stuff.  But let's look a little deeper.

Samardzija's FIP this season is respectable at 3.67 but when we look at his xFIP (which normalizes for home run rate) it rises up to a 5th starter-like 4.22.  Samardzija has had an exceptional year keeping the ball in the park this season, allowing only 0.54 HRs per 9 innings.   He also has a very low BABIP of .247 as opposed to a career average of .277.   Additionally, his strand rate is  slightly higher this season. So it's certainly possible Samardzija has had more than his share of luck this season.   His pedestrian walk rate would have certainly hurt him more if some of those batted balls had fallen as hits.


A guy like Samardzija is difficult to project as a starter because he started out so raw and simply keeps improving.  His stuff is much better than it was 5 years ago, as is his command of it.  There's no reason to think that it can't get even better.

That BABIP number is awfully low though.  Even Smoltz, the pitcher the Cubs compared him to in terms of stuff, had a lifetime BABIP of .283.   We can certainly expect that Samardzija will give up a few more hits next year whether it's as a starter or a reliever.  His HRs may come up as well, but considering that he  keeps the ball down with a hard sinker and his splitter, he's never going to give up a ton of HRs as long as his command is good.

Samardzija needs to make up for  the extra hits he's bound to give up by improving his control and cutting down his walks even further -- but it's doubtful he can get it down to Smoltz's level.  He was often under 2 BB/9 in his prime.  A more realistic upside is our own Ryan Dempster, who also converted from a reliever to a starter.  Dempster has average control at 4.11 BB/9 IP for his career and it actually improved as a starter.  The Cubs hope that history can repeat itself there with Samardzija.

I certainly think it's worth the gamble.  The Cubs have plenty of hard-throwing relievers in their system and none have the 4 pitch repertoire that Samardzija has.   At worst he can always return to the bullpen --and at best the Cubs may have themselves another Dempster-like reclamation project.


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  • Well, John, since this was posted at 1:19 am and nearly all of your readers are probably still asleep, let me get the ball rolling...

    Why not see if Samardzija can start? I have read that he certainly WANTS to do it. Do you have his FIP and xFIP splits before and after the break? Since he is clearly pitched better of late, his second half FIP and xFIP may be a better projection, even with a smaller sample size.

    Given the uncertainty with Cashner's shoulder and that I think McNutt should be given the chance to dominate a higher level (AA or AAA) before his promotion, anything to increase the number of available options should be vigorously pursued. If he pans out as, say, a No. 3 starter, then both financial and player assets can be directed toward other needs. And as this year has painfully proved, starting pitching depth is vital to any hope of success.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    I had a bout with insomnia last night! I'll see if I can find those second half splits though I would be worried about shrinking the sample size even further. Even still, the FIP of 3.67 is solid and I tend to lean toward that number more than his xFIP -- I think Samardzija will give up less HRs than your average guy because of the type of stuff he has...heavy and low in the strike zone.

    I do think 3rd starter has to be the new ceiling for Samardzija. He's not quite the Smoltz like pitcher they'd hoped he'd be but he can be a high strikeout guy who's tough to hit albeit with a walk here and there...

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    What, you couldn't sleep because of the following:
    a) Quade started LaHair, but couldn't find room for Colvin, who has ridiculous power numbers against Cincy's SP Leake
    b) Quade lets Dempster throw 128 pitches and rationalizes it by stating the team wasn't "in a dogfight for the playoffs", OR
    c) Both of the above, because since the team is not "in a dogfight for the playoffs", why didn't Quade start Colvin in LF instead of Soriano, who is 1-11 lifetime against Leake.

    My apologies beforehand for getting off-subject and potentially turning this into a Quade-bashing thread.

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    Haha! I'd have to say that inexplicable Colvin benching got me off on the wrong foot and stretching out Dempster late in the season to try to win a meaningless game is just clueless. I'm probably not the only Cubs fan who had insomnia last night.

    Don't worry about getting off subject...if that's where the comments take us, then we'll let it ride!

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Should also say that LaHair's hot start has Quade saying it will take ABs away from Colvin, not Soriano.

    Is he seriously this obtuse??

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Hmm, that was a rhetorical question, wasn't it? ;^)

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    Let's not forget our power hitting marvel - Byrd. Lord knows we can't take ABs away from that patient, deep in the count, clutch RBI machine.

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    No...we can't take Byrd out. You can never have enough singles with nobody on base.

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    We cannot expect Quade to start an OF of LaHair, Campana and Colvin, now, can we? He did that on Sunday, and all he got was a 5-12 night with 6 R, 3 RBIs, 3 BBs, 1 SB, 2 2Bs, and 1 3B. To think we might have to suffer through that again...

  • In reply to CubsFanInNorway:

    Of course! We all know the answer :)

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    Ah yes, good old Smardge! Another recipient of one of Jim Hendry's famous NTC's, which he tended to hand out like Halloween candy, but I digress. Seriously though, I don't see the harm in seeing if he can start. He was always a high risk/high reward player in that he was so raw but so projectable, and there is a possibility that his improvement this season could be the start of a trend. Of course, it could also be an aberration, but this team isn't going to the playoffs next year in any case. So why not find out what his ceiling really is?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I agree. There isn't much to lose. As Norway mentioned, he could end up being a #3 type starter if everything breaks the right way -- those aren't cheap on the market or in a trade.

    The Cubs have a surplus of RH power relief pitchers and Samardzija has had 3 plus pitches this year. As you say, nothing really to lose here.

  • I say we give Smardge one more shot at the rotation. If it works, he can be a good fourth starter, if not? he can always go back to the bullpen. I have a sneaky feeling though, he's probably a reliever more than a starter.

  • In reply to rodeosteve:

    I think he can be even a little better than that if he pans out. As I said in the piece, I believe his stuff and walk rate compares favorably with Ryan Dempster. He has better stuff than any internal candidate except for Trey McNutt, who probably won't make the team unless he blows everyone away in the AZ Fall League and then again in the spring.

    He may well have Sean Marshall-itis, though, in that everything suddenly falls apart when he starts but it's certainly worth one more shot to find out.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    Perhaps we can call it "RussMarsh-itis"

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    LOL! Russell too...good point. He's even worse as a starter than Marshall. Marmol wasn't too impressive as a starter either...almost forgot he started that way too. We could always just stick with Carlos and call it Marmol-itis, which I think really rolls off the tongue nicely.

  • I suppose my stance is a bit unique in that I was actually in Kodiak, TN, the night he made his 1st appearance (start) for the Smokies (have the tee shirt to prove it). Sat 2nd row just to the left of the plate ($10). Several scouts nearby.
    He never got much above 90mph, the conversation between the scouts was mostly negative -- short-armed the ball, non-repeating mechanics, and the like. The outing, overall, was pretty decent. Not dominating but decent.
    This is one where I would have to give Riggins the credit. When he was sent down the 2nd time last year his delivery was completely overhauled. His arm now comes way back behind his body, his overall mechanics are much smoother, his fastball sits mid to upper 90s, and his cutter & slider really keep hitters off his fastball. He uses the split as his off-speed pitch, usually, and has had pretty good success. Command could be better but it too has improved.
    I like it, John. As well as he's pitched in relief (more and more of than coming in "game" situations) why not give him a shot. Stretch him out over the winter, let him work on his command and his other pitches, and give him a full-out look next spring. What's to lose? He's got team options (as I remember) for 12 and 13 ... I vote yay.

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    Great observations Moneyboy...

    Samardzija's mechanics were a mess last year. Cleaning them up has done wonders for the life on his pitches this year and his command. You get the feeling Samardzija was trying too hard just to throw strikes instead of using his god-given gifts and just rearing back. The result was that he had neither good control or good velocity...a nightmarish combination.

    The team options are an excellent point. If Samardzija works out as a starter that makes those options a no-brainer. He'd be cheap as say a 3rd or 4th starter. As a reliever he isn't quite the same bargain.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    If I may, John .... I wonder if he was so up-and-down, command and results wise, that he wasn't over-throwing, not trusting his stuff?? He never seemed to get locked in and had little in the way of positive results, making it a challenge to "relax" and trust your stuff.
    Since his return - and being a bullpen guy only - he has seen better results, been used more and more when it's mattered. His corresponding confidence would likely not be a coincidence. The extra hop on his fastball makes it easier for the slider to keep them off the fastball ... the development of the cutter and split further that development.

  • In reply to MoneyBoy:

    Could well be. When you don't trust your stuff you can try to be too fine with your location...sacrificing your stuff in the process.

    Was watching a game with my wife the other day when he struck out a couple of batters to get out of a jam and, as she watched his gait and body language walking off the mound -- even she remarked that he looked like a confident guy. And she's not inclined to watch the Cubs that closely.

    But where the confidence really shows is on the mound. He's just attacking hitters now and, as you say, trusting his stuff.

  • And, as you mentioned at the top: We hope Cashner will make it as a starter but accept that he may end up in the bullpen. Seeing if Samardzija can start gives the Cubs options if that occurs. Either way you get at least one hard thrower in the bullpen. This way you may still get at least one in the rotation as well.

  • In reply to bruno14:

    Good way to put just gives the Cubs more options and flexibility. If Cashner makes it, you can still have Shark in the bullpen (or vice versa)...or you can even have them both and build a young power rotation of Garza, Cashner, Samardzija, and eventually McNutt. Then maybe throw Rusin in there somewhere just to throw off everybody's timing.

    You can never have too many good arms. It's a good problem to have.

  • I think you make a good case with the stats John, but there are a certain number of us that have Shark PTSD gained honestly from years of trauma that no amount of sabermetrics can get us over!

  • In reply to Ryno2Grace:

    LOL...I was a little worried about that when I wrote the article! I didn't want to bring up bad memories of Samardzija's first go round as a starter.

  • I'm fine with trying this. The Cubs have nothing to lose by trying him as a starter. I like the comparison to Dempster, John. With Dempster being done after next season, it would be nice if Shark can be in place, so we can use Dempster dollars towards the free-agents pitchers in 2013.

  • In reply to dgedz27:

    I like "Dempster dollars"! We'll also have Zambrano dollars as well! I'm leaning toward waiting for that 2013 class as well unless we get a deal that's too good to pass up this offseason.

  • In reply to John Arguello:

    I think we're in total agreement here. I would love the Sanchez deal we've talked about. Man, can't wait till this GM stuff is settled, so we can get a sense of direction.

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    John, should Smardge go to winter ball and be a starter?

  • In reply to Michael Caldwell:

    I don't think so, Michael, because there isn't something like a 3rd pitch he needs to work on. As far as stretching him out that can be done in spring training. Might as well save his arm for what might be a big jump in innings next year. That's something the Cubs will have to monitor closely if he becomes a starter.

  • I'd absolutely give this a shot. Is there any indication that the Cubs are considering this? Or would that probably not come until a new GM & manager are in place?

  • In reply to ChiRy:

    The word is that the Cubs are having internal discussions about this. It's definitely on the table and I agree that they should at least see how it works out. Like many have said, there's not much to lose by trying.

    We'll have to wait until the new GM is hired for this to be official, but it's likely that this current discussion is being made with our scouting people, who are still going to be around when the next GM is hired.

  • To quote Darth Vader: Noooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo! Samardzija finally has had a bit of success in the bullpen this year, why not leave him there and see if he can expand on it next year?

    If the Cubs are serious about winning, they need to stop the jerry-rigging of their rotation. IMHO, the Cubs need to sign/trade for 2 SPs to go along with Garza, Dempster & Cashner. Wells can be slotted in the #5 spot if Cashner has any problems or the Cubs just want to leave him in the bullpen (maybe to replace Marmol?). Starting pitching has been the #1 reason for the Cubs poor record this year. They don't have anyone in the minors that is even close to being major league ready, and that includes Coleman. The Cubs need to make the rotation their #1 priority this offseason after the new GM is in place. Without a major rotation upgrade the Cubs will continue to be bottom feeders.

  • In reply to Zorb:

    Thoughts ...
    The Cubs rotation fell apart the 1st wk of the season when Wells & Cashner were hurt. The Cubs had signed a bunch of FA pitchers in the spring - none worked out b/c of injury or lack of interest. They were forced into aging, bad stop gaps.
    Demp pitched so-so, Z has flashes (pitching, not temper), and the bullpen/defense torpedoed Garza.
    The weather, the defense, the offense, the starters, the bullpen -- every phase contributed to the season basically being over end of May.
    Looking forward - Z, gone. Demp - 1 yr left (think Lilly). Wells - a #5 at best. Coleman - not when we are in contention (13 and beyond, God willing).
    Free Agents - NOT a great 2012 class. Achy, old, bad. One guy stands above the crowd and he'll be bid up ... nope.
    You're right about the minor league crowd, overall, not being ready. They seem close (John will get around to SP in the Round Table soon).
    Cashner, Shark, and Marshall ... Cashner was slated as a 2 or 3. I am of the belief that Shark has the stuff ... he's worth the shot.
    Main thought behind all of this ... Don't want to overpay for average FA talent or with talent from the farm system in a trade.
    John's observation about defense is dead spot on. Your comment about a rotation upgrade is also spot on. I would prefer to give our young, COST-CONTROLLED pitchers a chance to prove they're capable.

  • Wow...thanks for the strong opinion! Appreciate the thoughts.

    I have a couple of quibbles though. The first is that I think the Cubs defense has been the main offender this season. I read a stat where the Cubs have gotten an out on just 69% of the balls put in play this season. That's dead last in the majors. We need to improve our fielding and I think we'll see our pitching get much better.

    I'm almost more inclined to switch Wells and Samardzija. It seems to me that Shark's stuff is too good to not at least try him as a starter whereas Wells' stuff projects more like a middle reliever/5th starter, even though he's done very well of late. Wells sort of is who he is but Samardzija has a chance to upgrade the rotation at no cost. Worst case scenario is you move him back to the bullpen...

  • A few stats from on the cubs all in relation to defense and pitching:
    Earned runs allowed - 6th worst
    Runs allowed - 5th worst
    OBP - 5th worst
    Walks allowed - Dead last
    Stolen base percentage - 22nd
    WHIP - 28th

    Errors- First
    Double plays - 24th
    Assists - 25th
    Putouts - 27th
    FPCT - Last
    DER - Last

    This combined with 18th offensive OBP and 10th in avg. with 21st in RBI kills a team. So if we shore up the defense, walk less guys and get some clutch hitting, we could be very competitive. I am all for Samrdzija getting a fair shake as well. He just needs to cut down on the walks a bit. Dempster is good at getting out of jams but he does go through some streaks where he blows up and takes us out of the game.

  • In reply to Break The Curse:

    Break the curse...that is a pretty sorry list. I think I'm going to go have a beer now.

  • Those are all fair points. The Cubs defense has indeed been atrocious. I'd rate the defense as problem 1B behind the rotation as 1A. Another thing to consider with Samardzija is the Cubs have already tried him as a starter twice before in the majors and each time was a disaster. I don't have the #s in front of me, but I don't believe he was even a very good starter in the minors. He's already been jerked back and forth several times between the roation and bullpen. I'd like to leave him in the pen and see if the progress he made this year can continue.

  • In reply to Zorb:

    He did stink, Zorb. He was downright awful. The hope is just that he's a better pitcher now I guess. There is some evidence to support that idea but it's far from conclusive.

    My view is give it a shot, stretch him out next spring and see how he does. If he doesn't look good, he can always start in the bullpen -- similar to what we did with Russell...but with hopefully better results!

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