And the game ball goes to... Jeff Samardzija?

Ryan Dempster did not have his best stuff last night, giving up five earned runs on eight hits, including a homer, while collecting just three strikeouts against two walks. After five innings, the Cubs were losing 5-3. Generally, for Quade, that means a call to the B-team: bring in Berg, or Grabow, or whoever.
Last night, the man Q decided to bring in was Jeff Samardzija. And you might say that the Shark delivered: two innings, no runs, one hit, two walks, and three strikeouts. To use a baseball-y phrase, Jeff gave the team a chance to win the game. He even got the W, as he should.
And don't look now, but Samardzija's stats are actually pretty solid. He has an ERA of 2.96; more than a strikeout per inning pitched; and despite an absolutely horrid walk rate (22 walks in 24.1 innings!!), just 14 hits allowed. He's basically doing the best Carlos Marmol impersonation that he can.
It used to be that he shouldn't even try to emulate Marmol, because he simply didn't have swing-and-miss stuff. The league average whiff rate for pitchers tends to be around 8%; that is, hitters tend to swing and miss at about 8% of the average pitcher's pitches. In 2008 and 2009, Samardzija's whiff rate was roughly 7%; last year, it was 5.4%. Not good.
This year, it's up above 10%; it was 10.5% before last night's game, and then Jeff got six more swing-and-misses out of his 40 pitches against the Marlins. 
The key appears to be his slider. Prior to this year, Jeff was pretty reliant on the fastball; roughly two out of every three Shark pitches was a heater before this year. But in 2011, the velocity on his slider is up a tick -- from 81-82 to 84-85 --  and he's throwing it way more often, with nearly 33% of his pitches thrown being sliders, nearly double the amount of sliders from years past. Throw in some splitters and the occasional cutter, and you've got yourself a repertoire. 
Of course, this all may fall apart after a while: Samardzija's BABIP is unsustainably low at .236, and his walk-rate is unsustainably high at nearly a walk per inning (to be sure, Marmol had a 7.91 BB/9 rate in 2009, which he paired with an 11.31 K/9). But for a guy who never really appeared to belong in the majors, this swing-and-miss stuff is a great step forward towards being a valuable piece of a big league team.

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