There's a lot of news surrounding Jeff Samardzija right now. There's the obvious stuff; Samardzija inked a new contract and the Cubs avoid arbitration with yet another player. There's the undercurrent of what the obvious stuff could mean; does the contract make him more or less likely to be traded, will he sign a contract extension to stay on with the Cubs? And then there's the stuff that teems beneath the surface; what will his situation say about the Cubs competitive window? Will he be around on the next Cubs winner? And why does PECOTA hate him so much?
Ah, that last one is interesting. Before we dive into that let's take another serious look at what Samardzija did in 2013.
Shark's ascendance to de facto Cubs Ace (so we hope) has been a rather interesting one. His story is far from complete but Samardzija has competently gone from "expensive bullpen failure" to "pretty solid mid rotation starter" in three years' time. It's not been easy and he did falter badly last year in terms of stats like ERA (3.81 in 2012, 4.34 in 2013) and WHIP (1.22 in 2012, 1.35 in 2013).
The final results felt especially brutal after a string of borderline brilliant performances that ran from April into June. Over that span Samardija made 12 starts and provided 79 innings of 2.96 ERA ball. Opponents slashed .203/.278/.324 off him over that stretch and he posted a 3.25/1 K/BB ratio. It was solid baseball that seemingly marked Samardzija's arrival as a frontline starter.
Samardzija faded as the season wore on, however. From June 8th until September 29th Shark posted a 5.15 ERA in 134.2 innings. Opposing batters teed off on him to the tune of a .284/.351/.459 mark. The K/BB ratio was still a respectable 2.46 and his BABIP over that period of time was a robust .338 so maybe there was some bad luck mixed in there but it's still a pretty ugly picture.
Overall Samardzija made some positive gains and took some steps backwards in 2013. His Innings went up drastically and he topped 200 IP for the first time in his career, but he also took a step backwards in terms of K% and BB%.
In terms of Samardzija's batted ball profile he gave up less line drives last year, increased his GB%, and induced more infield fly balls.
So, it was a weird year considering the ultimate results and the peripheral stats that accompanied them. It's doubly confounding when you take the stuff into account. Here are the 2013 outcomes for what hitters did against Samardzija's pitch types.
The slider got hit harder than it did last year (opponents slugged .322 against it last year) but other than that the batted ball profile remained about the same as it was during his breakout year in 2012.
Samardzija's splitter is still the ultimate out pitch for him; he generated a 27.12 WHIFF% on it last year. He's come to rely on it as his strikeout pitch as well as he threw it 328 times in counts with two strikes last year. Next highest was the fourseamer which he went to 201 times.
The peripherals and the stuff do paint a more optimistic story than the one Samardzija authored in 2013. That would lead one to expect some positive regression in 2014, yes?
PECOTA isn't so optimistic
Here are the stats projected for Samardzija by PECOTA:
That would be a definite step backwards towards backend starter territory. By comparison here are Steamer and ZIPS predicitions:
PECOTA stands out as the most pessimistic of Samardzija in 2014 Rather than expecting positive regression PECOTA predicts Shark to regress further. The picture painted is one of a backend starter rather than the frontline guy that's Samardzija has teased at being.
So what gives? What will Shark end up being in 2014? Will he take a massive step forward and establish himself as a #2 starter ala Max Scherzer or will he continue to slink back into mediocrity and take the Yovani Gallardo career arc?
There are a few things to consider here. While Samardzija has not logged a lot of innings he is 29 and while he teases at a bigger potential there likely isn't a huge mental growth spurt in him. Any growth left in Samardzija is likely to be incremental. The other thing to take into account is that the PECOTA projections are the most likely outcome with leeway to go either way. The fact that it is so pessimistic about Shark is concerning in a manner because there's the very real possibility that he could be worse than his projection suggests, but there's also a good chance he's better than the numbers.
PECOTA breaks down his projections thusly:
So while PECOTA projects a pretty abysmal season from Samardzija it also concedes that there's a 38% chance he improves over last year and a 25% he has a breakout season. Those aren't great odds, but they are something to consider.
I stand by my assessment that Jeff Samardzija is a mid-rotation starter who can sometimes string together a few performances that make you think he's something greater. He's a bit like Matt Garza in that regard, but if he maintains 210+ innings he'll have more value than the erratic Garza in my estimation. Shark has obvious stuff but command and repetition will always be issues for him and that will keep him from being a true frontline guy. I think you can win with a guy like that in your rotation.
Samardzija got 5.3 MM from the Cubs to avoid arbitration but he's still looking for a contract extension. The Cubs are in an interesting position with regards to Shark. They've attempted to shop him around without much luck. The Blue Jays were heavily involved there but that avenue never came to fruition. With the Cubs losing out on Masahiro Tanaka and having a thin rotation as is I find it difficult to believe that Samardzija will be traded before the seasons starts. Regardless of where the Cubs think they are from a competitive standpoint they will need the innings Samardzija provides. Someone has to start those games and it would reduce the stress placed on a revamped bullpen.
When you consider trade opportunities concerning Samardzija it's important to keep in mind that the Cubs would be selling low on a commodity that will be asking for at least Edwin Jackson money when it comes to an extension. The Cubs are light on pitching prospects and it would take the right organization and good timing to pull off a trade that would net a good return for the Cubs. Shark is a flippable asset but his value is at a low heading into the season. If the Cubs are intent on trading Samardzija they would be better served waiting for a team in contention to find themselves in sudden need of a starter.
Shark is still a bit of an enigma at this point in his career. While the arm is young, the rest of him isn't. There's room for growth but I'm in the camp that his ceiling is much lower than "True Ace". Shark's surface numbers should look better this year; the ERA was inflated in 2013 and his peripheral numbers suggested as much. I do think it'll be important to keep in mind that inconsistency will likely be a theme to his career, if it isn't already. Anyone who's taken a peek at his game logs can tell you as much and it's hard to correct inconsistency at 29.
Samardzija is a fine pitcher, but he's no ace. That's ok, very few are.