After a dismal 2015 with the Chicago White Sox, Jeff Samardzija signed with the San Francisco Giants looking for a bounce-back year. Contract details aside, Samardzija justifiably worried fans with his performance last season, but playing with an improved defense behind him in a much more pitcher friendly park made a turnaround look possible, if not probable.
Through two months with the Giants, Samardzija has excelled. He has largely ditched his splitter and has relied heavily on his cutter, while reintroducing his two-seam fastball. This has combined for another effective groundball recipe, following a season in which Samardzija allowed a 0.98 GB/FB ratio. Boasting a much improved GB%, Samardzija has pitched to a 2.54 ERA/2.93 FIP/3.42 xFIP for a thriving Giants’ rotation (or at least mostly thriving), and a few other indicators suggest this is a legitimate improvement.
First, we’ll go back to the pitch mix. Per Fangraphs’ PITCHf/x, Samardzija has increasingly relied on his cutter since 2013, but he has nearly doubled its usage from 20.2% in 2015 to 39.4% this year. Samardzija’s brought back the two-seam fastball that he moved away from in Chicago, and lowered his four-seam fastball usage to a career low 22.8%.
As a result, Samardzija is getting groundballs at an above-average rate once again. Interestingly, his splitter and slider are also both being used at career-low rates over a full season, but the two pitches are as good as ever in most aspects. Samardzija’s K% is also up from last year.
Obviously, the cutter is likely the main component of Samardzija’s rebound. It is the 3rd fastest cutter among starting pitchers that have thrown at least 100 cutters this year, at just over 93 mph. Samardzija’s cutter has a 54.19% swing rate with a 29.38% Whiff/Swing rate that ranks 6th place according to Baseball Prospectus’s PITCHf/x leaderboard.
Samardzija’s cutter, with a 31.5% K%, is far and away a career-high for Samardzija, and though he’s given up a 28.6% LD% on it, its 54 wRC+ suggests those line drives aren’t hit particularly hard. His cutter’s Z-Contact% is also sitting at a career-low 79.4%, and its GB% and IFFB% are up to career highs, suggesting that more than just the usage has changed.
According to Brooks Baseball, the cutter Samardzija is throwing now is most similar to the one he threw in 2013, in terms of horizontal and vertical movement. What I also found though is that Samardzija’s release point has been quite inconsistent from year to year. We’ll just focus on the horizontal release point of the cutter here:
|Year||Horizontal Release Point (feet)|
We can see that Samardzija threw more over-the-top toward the beginning of his career, but in 2014, his career year, Samardzija dropped his arm angle pretty significantly. The movement on his pitches actually stayed fairly similar. It was his control that improved the most, as he lowered his BB% from 8.5% in 2013 to 4.9% in 2014, and it has remained around 5% since then.
In my opinion, Samardzija’s control is what has allowed him to alter how he mixes his pitches without compromising the effectiveness of his overall ability. Samardzija has thrown his cutter an incredible amount this season, however, its SwStr% has actually increased to a career high 13.5%, despite not being a totally different pitch. This reason for this may be his four-seam fastball, which Samardzija has thrown for a strike a whopping 62% of the time without compromising its SwStr%.
With a tighter breaking cutter, perhaps an optimal arm angle, and a more extreme, probably Johnny Cueto-inspired twist in his windup (see above), Jeff Samardzija has turned his 2015 season into a very distant memory. And with less of a reliance on his slider and splitter, it appears Samardzija has learned how to let his stuff play up to its potential by not searching for strikeouts, making him a wiser long-term investment than most initially thought.
Statistics provided by: FanGraphs.com, Brooks Baseball
Images thanks to: MLB.com, USA Today, ABC, Washington Post