Jeff Samardzija and the Chicago Cubs avoided arbitration right before Cubs convention got underway as both sides agreed to a one year, $2.64MM deal. This was first reported by our very own Anno:
BREAKING NEWS: A WORLD SERIES DREAMING EXCLISIVE Directly from Theo Epstein HIMSELF! Russell & Samardzija have been signed. No details given
— WorldSeriesDreaming (@WSDreaming_Cubs) January 18, 2013
–Nicely done; he was so excited he couldn’t even spell. I love “exclisives”…
So, this of course leads to a few questions.
Why would the cubs onlt sign Samardzija for only one year? Thats the only pitcher worth a shit
— Angel Torres (@A_Torres69) January 19, 2013
-That guy was so displeased he couldn’t spell either.
Well, because that’s how arbitration works. A player is under team control for 6 years of service time before he can become a free agent. In the interim the player is eligible for arbitration after three years. Here’s a full definition:
“Once a player has been on a roster for three seasons and isn’t locked up with a long-term deal, he becomes eligible for salary arbitration. A player with at least two years experience is also eligible provided he is among the top 17 percent in cumulative playing time in the majors of players who are between two and three years of experience.
During arbitration, the team and player each present a dollar figure to an arbitrator, who then decides for either the player or the team based on comparable wages within baseball. Oftentimes, the arbitration process leads to a compromise salary before the ruling.”
So the Cubs and Samardzija came to a reasonable deal and moved forward. I think it’s smart by both parties given that Jeff Samardzija went into the 2012 season trying to earn a rotation spot. But he ended the year by surpassing every reasonable expectation for performance. His walk rate dropped to one of the lowest rates of his career and his strikeout rate jumped to the one of the highest of his professional career. In comparison to his breakout year as a reliever in 2011 he was walking nearly half as many batters and striking out even more batters than his previous major league high rate.
Samardzija’s season was not without bumps in the road, and the biggest was a month long stretch where he reverted to his previous form. In the month of June, Shark allowed 27 earned runs for a 10.14 ERA. He allowed 47 earned runs in the rest of the season to finish the year with a very respectable 3.81 ERA. Jeff Samardzija’s season would have been at an elite level of pitching had that blip not occurred, but you cannot just take a month out of the season to make an argument.
However, June is the difference between Samardzija pitching like a 1 or 2 pitcher as opposed to a 3 or 4 like he did this past year.
A number of theories have been proffered to explain this hiccup and we are going to delve into the numbers to see which ones have the most evidence supporting them.
Pitch selection has been one theory about why the month of June featured a 10.14 ERA from Shark, and it is a theory that he offered himself.
There are two noticeable trends in his June pitch selection. In the month of June he threw more cutters and curveballs at the expense of his slider and splitter.
These changes make a lot of sense when you consider some of the criticism Samardzija faced when trying to earn a starting spot. The lack of control and not a deep enough repertoire to make it through the order a second and third time were the most common arguments for why Shark would fail in the rotation. His own manager actually leveled that criticism against him in spring training saying that he needed to learn that he can’t throw everything hard. So the attempt to add a curveball in June is not exactly surprising.
Samardzija only threw 45 curves all season and 40 of them occurred in June. In addition to the attempt to add the curveball, he also began throw his cut fastball well above the average rate for the season (15% in June compared to 10% over the entire season). The curveball, however, was the pitch that Jeff Samardzija brought up as his explanation for the June struggles, and it is interesting to see how he used the pitch and the results. Samardzija favored the curveball in 0-1 counts in the month of June as he threw that pitch 22% of the time in that situation. The pitch was not effective however with it resulting in a ball 60% of the time and the lowest swing percentage of any pitch in the month of June at 22.50%. However, Shark rarely used the curveball in decisive pitches as only 4 curveballs ended a plate appearance. He racked up one strikeout and only give up a single on the pitch. So while the curveball was not an effective pitch, it also was not the pitch that resulted in huge jump in ERA.
The same could not be said for the cutter. Batters in the month of June hit .438 with a 1.000 SLG when putting the cutter in play. Samardzija gave up 2 homeruns on the pitch as well. His sinker was also roughed up for a .433 average and a .667 SLG. The splitter on the other hand was nearly as effective as always as batters only managed a .190 AVG and a .476 SLG.
There is one more theory as to why Shark slipped in June: fatigue. Samardzija was tasked with handling a fairly intense workload. He was initially drafted as a starter but anytime a pitcher is asked to add 100 innings to their usual work load you have to expect the results to be a bit rough. The chart below from fangraphs show the change in release point.
Fatigue shows itself in a few different ways. It can manifest as a loss in velocity, a loss of movement, and can also lead to a lapse in proper mechanics which could result in the sudden lowering of the arm slot that Samardzija displayed in June.
Notice the drop in release point from April to June. Shark would maintain this lower arm slot throughout the rest of the season. The June 27th start is interesting because of the variety of release points. A number of pitches were close to the old release point but if you notice the majority of those are curves, which typically has a higher release point. Samardzija would maintain the lower arm slot for the rest of the year.
Samardzija was a well above average pitcher last year, and that was a dramatic surprise. Samardzija pitched like a true front of the rotation starter at times last season. June was a terrible month that was mostly likely brought on by fatigue and attempting to add pitches to his repertoire at the big league level. The attempt to increase his arsenal was notable given that a common concern was that his similar stuff would lead to hitters being able to figure him out, but that did not happen last season. As the season wore on and he went back to his fastball, slider, and splitter offerings, his numbers got better.
The question remains what will Shark be going forward? He will pitch at an ace level at times and he will have other outings that remind you of all the concerns people had about him starting. The change in mechanics midseason was concerning, but he was able to find consistency with the new arm slot. He had his best run of the season in the second half with this change in arm slot, scrapping the curve, and reducing the use of the cutter. Given the peripherals from last year the strong outings outnumber the bad ones, and he will hopefully take another step forward.