Now that Ryan Dempster and Paul Maholm have been traded and Matt Garza is injured, the de facto “ace” in the 2012 Cubs rotation is…Jeff Samardzija. Yes, that is strange to say. Yes, it doesn’t really bode well for this team’s chances to contend in the remaining games of this season. But amazingly, Jeff Samardzija hasn’t completely sucked. In fact, he’s been quite good for most of the season, if a tad inconsistent. We were all skeptical after spring training when we learned that Samardzija would be in the rotation as part of the new front office’s grand experiment. Who’s laughing now?
It is somewhat unfair to analyze Samardzija now, when there’s still 49 games to be played (including tonight’s game) and anywhere between 8 to 10 starts left for Jeff. However, before this game, Jeff had accumulated 132.2 innings pitched, with a 4.21 ERA in 22 starts. He hasn’t had a huge dropoff from his strikeout rate from last season when he was primarily a reliever, still striking out almost nine per 9 innings. His walk rate has been manageable though he still has some bouts of wildness. This may be due to his harnessing a devastating splitter. It may be that he’s gotten good instruction from the new guys over the winter and in spring training and also due to his own hard work. Either way, improved control and an arsenal that includes a high-90s fastball, a cutter, a slider (that for whatever reason doesn’t always seem to have good horizontal movement but is still effective) and the aforementioned splitter (that has become his go-to strikeout pitch) have allowed Jeff to become an effective starter.
It remains to be seen if he can keep this up. At one point Jeff had a curveball but he ditched it after he basically got destroyed for all of June. If he can work on this curve in the offseason and figure it out, then adding it to his existing arsenal could potentially turn him into a #2-caliber pitcher. Looking at his game logs you can see a bunch of brilliant starts and also a bunch where he’s been shelled. Getting shelled happens to all starting pitchers so that is not a worry. I’m just happy that he hasn’t embarrassed himself and has rewarded the faith of his front office in performing better than expected.
One thing I have noticed is the high pitch-count in most of his starts. For a guy who has never pitched more than 141.2 innings professionally in a single season (tonight’s start will get him really close to this mark) he hasn’t been skipped much in the rotation (only a couple push-backs that I can recall) and he hasn’t seemed to have a drop in velocity with his fastball either. I guess he’s such a well-conditioned athlete that the workload doesn’t bother him, but every now and then those 100 pitch, 5 IP starts remind me of Rich Harden and it’s something of a small miracle that Jeff has remained healthy all season. It will be interesting to see how he is handled for the rest of this season, as I expect him to end up around 170 or 180 innings for the year which is about 100 more than last season when he was a long reliever.
As for advanced statistics, Jeff has been okay at generating grounders (46%) including a couple of double plays tonight. He hasn’t been particularly lucky on homers given up (11% HR/fly ball) but hasn’t actually given up that many, with 14 leaving the park including tonight. His ERA is still hovering around 4, but his fielding independent pitching and xFIP have outperformed that ERA, largely buoyed by his superb strikeout rate. With almost 140 innings of data, this is probably not a fluke. The Cubs saw something good in Samardzija and let him loose, and Samardzija did not disappoint.
At some point the Cubs might think about resting him more, skipping some starts, etc. and maybe even shutting him down, but Samardzija hasn’t shown many signs of slowing down. We’ll look at this again at the end of the season, but suffice it to say that at least one Cubs fan is happy about the results of the great Jeff Samardzija experiment so far.