Not many fans had a lot of faith that Jeff Samardzija would end up being a viable starter, much less a good one. Heck, he wasn't even a very good reliever until the 2nd half of last season.
Can he actually be the Cubs ace next season?
Samardzija made his final start of the season and finished strong. Despite a 9-13 record, Samardzija is looking like like a legit top of the rotation starter for next season to team with Matt Garza. If Garza is still around, that is.
In his first full season as a starter, Samardzija had a solid ERA of 3.81 and walked just 2.89 per 9 innings while striking out 9.27. His xFIP of 3.39 was the best on the team and ranked 17th in all of baseball. He was worth 3.5 WAR last season, good for 23rd in baseball.
His best two pitches, fastball and splitter, were legitimate plus-plus pitches this season. The fastball was at 95-98 mph with great arm-side run that he maintained deep into games. The splitter, which was his go-to pitch with two strikes, was even better. Batters hit just .132 against it and, according to a Fangraphs article, it accounted for 41% of his strikeouts (as of the August writing) despite being thrown just 17% of the time, making it a second legitimate out-pitch. Fangraphs called it perhaps the best split-fingered fastball in the game.
The slider was hit or miss this year and it was the pitch he most had trouble with when he tried to force it. When it was on, however, it had a short, but sharp break and gave him a 3rd effective pitch to count on. When he had all 3 going with his good command, Samardzija showed flashes of dominance you normally associate with the #1 starters in this league.
The control is now at least average and in some areas it is above average. He started throwing more fastball for strikes. Whereas last year it was below 50%, (47.9), this year as of August it had increased to 58.8%. His ability to get ahead of hitters this year allowed him to put hitters away with the split-finger more often than he ever had in the past.
The Cubs shut down Samardzija because his innings nearly doubled from 88 to 174.2. There have been studies done about the effect of such an innings increase, but much of that focuses on pitchers less than 25 years of age and you will note that the risk is a lot less for older, big-bodied pitchers. Samardzija is well beyond the 25 year mark and at a sculpted 6'5", 225 lbs, he certainly qualifies as a big-bodied pitcher, so there is less to worry about. But with the season lost and the Cubs entering next season with 2 possible rotation members (Garza and Arodys Vizcaino) coming off of serious injuries, even a low-risk is completely unnecessary.
Samardzija should come into 2013 healthy and ready to take on a full load. He's already a top 3 starter and if he continues to build on the progress he made in terms of stuff and command, we could be looking at the Cubs ace next season -- even if Garza does return.
Filed under: Analysis