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April 11, 2012

Prospectus Game of the Week

Samardzija's Big Day Out

by R.J. Anderson

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In the old days, we ran a feature called Prospectus Game of the Week. Started by Jonah Keri and later written by Derek Jacques, the column ran fewer than 40 times in total—most recently popping up more than five years ago. A rise in team-specific blogs offering game threads and recaps probably cut into the utility of the piece, but the timing was a shame, as it coincided with the rise of MLB.tv. No longer does a person have to record a game to access it later. Rather, you can do it online through myriad devices. Maybe it was decided people didn’t care to watch a game and then read a recap about it later on. Whatever the reason, Prospectus Game of the Week—which, actually, was rarely offered weekly—faded from memory; at least until now.

The rebirth of Prospectus Game of the Week will not make the title ring any truer.  Sometimes a week will go without a contribution. Not because there won’t be a game worth watching, but because that’s how life works. Similarly, the game featured will not always be the best game. This first entry, for instance, focuses almost exclusively on Jeff Samardzija’s afternoon on the top. The hope is that Prospectus’ special blend of narrative ability and analytical prowess can entice people to read about a game they previously watched or held little interest about. With that note, here goes nothing.

***

Jeff Samardzija was born on a Wednesday, made his major-league debut on a Friday, and arrived on a Sunday, a sunny Easter Sunday at Wrigley Field.

To understand how big this start became for Samardzija, you have to understand where Samardzija entered the spring. Despite selecting Samardzija in the fifth round, the Cubs put on the full-court press to sign him, going as far as to offer him no-trade protection and a signing bonus that rivaled those of the top picks. The reasoning is simple: Samardzija also had a promising football career on the horizon. An advantage that Samardzija held over the typical high-ceilinged two-sport star: Samardzija was in college and near the point where he could declare for the National Football League draft.  In other words, choosing football would not have affected his ability to make ends meet in the short-term.

There are few burdens like that of the well-paid athlete. Samardzija struggled through the 2010 season and caused many to dismiss him as a sunk cost. He was a disappointment despite the other major-league players chosen in Samardzija’s round being none the better off (Nathan Adcock, Scott Sizemore, Hector Ambriz, Chris Davis, Chris Hatcher, David Herndon, Dustin Richardson, George Kontos, and Shane Robinson). Samardzija entered the 2011 season without any options, leaving the Cubs with no choice other than to throw him into the bullpen and make sacrifices to the great fire in the sky. Although Samardzija had a 5.95 ERA over his previous 53 major-league appearances entering the season, he tossed 88 innings, struck out 87 batters, and held a 2.97 ERA while pitching for a rudderless team.

For as long as Samardzija has been in the Cubs system, he has wanted to start. The old management tinkered with the idea, but Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer green-lighted the experiment over the winter, affording Samardzija the opportunity to compete for a rotation spot in the spring. Samardzija showed up prepared and determined, and left victorious after winning the third starter’s spot. 

***

Samardzija’s first pitch on the afternoon, to Nationals leadoff hitter Ian Desmond, is a 95-mph fastball. Desmond fouls it off and falls behind 1-2 before shooting another fastball down the left-field line for a double. Just like that, Samardzija faced adversity.

The physical part of pitching is hard to analyze, but easy to observe. Samardzija’s physicality is plain as day. He stands 6-foot-5, maybe 6-foot-6, weighs more than 220 pounds and looks the measurements. His mane draws attention to his face and fierce jaw line that bore his nickname (“Shark”). At this point, Samardzija starts tossing baseballs and hitting the mid-to-upper-90s on radar guns. Describing Samardzija as a power arm feels right. Add in the football background and you expect Samardzija to have a physical toughness as well as a mental toughness that lends itself to pitching. Cubs Director of Amateur Scouting Tim Wilken stopped just short of saying that after drafting Samardzija:

“He’s got a chance to be a front-line pitcher and top-of-the-order guy. He’s got a very free and easy arm action; a very fast arm and a very coordinated delivery. He has a chance to have a solid to average slider, if not better. There’s a lot of untapped promise there. He’s very competitive and has a chance to be a power pitcher that could be a top of the rotation guy.” 

Part of evaluating a pitcher’s mentality on the mound is seeing how he reacts to the ebbs and flows of the game. A handy trick is seeing if a pitcher begins to quicken his motions after a runner reaches base or a run scores, as if panicked. Samardzija’s pace actually slowed—noticeably so—once Desmond reached. He got ahead of the next batter, Danny Espinosa, after a foul bunt, then induced the second baseman to fly out to center field. Ryan Zimmerman flew out to right field and a strong, carrying throw from David DeJesus dissuaded Desmond from racing it to the base. That left Adam LaRoche as the Nationals’ last chance to crack the scoreboard in the first inning. He would go down on strikes, having swung and missed on a pair of splitters. Crisis averted.

***

Some time later, WGN displays an overlay that shows Samardzija’s career statistics as a major-league starting pitcher. An ERA with three crooked numbers, more walks than strikeouts, and so on. The inability to throw strikes is a plight that affected Samardzija in the bullpen as well as the rotation. Alas, a reliever can get away with walking four or five batters per nine innings because the pitchers are responsible for fewer outs, and thereby fewer pitches. Samardzija said all the right things during spring training, but saying something and doing it are two different things. First the notable quotable, found here:

“I had to come in and show I wasn’t going to give any free bases and attack the zone and I feel I’ve been doing that. When you do that, you see what happens today, and you get quick outs. Then when you do get in trouble, you still have the pitches to work with and your pitch count isn’t up and you know you can battle and get on to the next inning. I’m happy and it’ll be interesting to go through the lineup a couple times. I’m right where I want to be.”

If Samardzija’s goal is to attack the zone and generate quick outs, then his next four innings are the finest of his career. A 13-pitch second (including two strikeouts), a 10-pitch third (another strikeout), and a combined 17 pitches over the fourth and fifth innings (six fielded outs) give Samardzija 53 pitches through five innings. More importantly: Samardzija had yet to issue a free pass. Now given a 1-0 lead, Samardzija took the mound to start the sixth inning against the bottom of the order.

What transpired next transpired quickly. Wilson Ramos singled on the first pitch of the inning and Jordan Zimmermann bunted Ramos over on the second pitch. Desmond came up and stung Samardzija again by hitting a ball into right field, yet Ramos was unable to score. With runners on first and third and one out, Samardzija set his sights on striking out Espinosa or getting him to hit a double-play ball. Samardzija’s plan was going to plan, starting with a mid-90s fastball middle-away that Espinosa swung through, and following up with a low-placed splitter that caused Espinosa to pay homage to The Masters: 

Samardzija went for the punch-out by firing a fastball up and away, but the second baseman fought it off. Three splitters later, the game is tied after Espinosa lifted a sacrifice fly to right field. Angrily, Samardzija retaliated by fanning Zimmerman on three pitches, ending the half-inning.

***

By now, a reader might be wondering what was going on with Jordan Zimmermann and the Cubs offense. The truth is not a whole lot. Zimmermann dispatched the first seven batters he faced before yielding a hit to catcher Steve Clevenger.  Alfonso Soriano hit a sacrifice fly in the fourth inning to give the Cubs a 1-0 lead and would break the 1-1 tie with by plating Darwin Barney with a single in the sixth. Zimmermann would last seven innings in total, but the relief combination of Ryan Mattheus and Sean Burnett would allow another two runs, giving the Cubs a 4-1 lead entering the ninth inning.

***

An effective pitch isn’t always a pitch that misses a bat or goes for a strike. Sometimes, an effective pitch is simply a pitch that misses the barrel, sets the batter up for the next pitch, or controls bat speed. A pitcher has to be economical most of the time in order to use set-up pitches when he needs them. Cubs manager Dale Sveum believes Samardzija should understand this theory if you go by what he said following an untidy spring outing:

“[Samardzija] probably learned a lesson yesterday,” Sveum said. “You can’t throw 90 percent of all your pitches 91 miles an hour and above. You better have unbelievable location if you do that.”

 

[…]

 

 “I’ve got to throw my slider for a strike, I’ve got to throw it for a strike early in the count, I’ve got to throw my split, I’ve got to use all my pitches. You can’t be three, four miles an hour on 90 percent of your pitches.”

Samardzija throws five pitches: a four- and a two-seam fastball, a cutter, a slider, and a splitter. Everything works off the four-seamer, making location and mixture a vital combination. The PITCHf/x classification algorithm can confuse some pitches with others, making user adjustment necessary. Here is a rough guess at the totals that Samardzija threw on Sunday, along with some other pertinent information:

Usage rates (rounded to the nearest whole percent)
Fastballs: 60 (55 percent)
Cutters: 6 (5 percent)
Splitters: 21 (19 percent)
Sliders: 23 (21 percent)

 

Strike rates
Fastballs: 46 (77 percent)
Cutters: 3 (50 percent)
Splitters: 11 (52 percent)
Sliders: 19 (83 percent)

Swinging Strike/Swing rates
Fastballs: 3 (14 percent)
Cutters: 0 (0 percent)
Splitters: 5 (45 percent)
Sliders: 3 (33 percent)

First-pitch usage rates
Fastballs: 20 (65 percent)
Cutters: 3 (10 percent)
Splitters: 0 (0 percent)
Sliders: 8 (26 percent)

Two-strike pitch usage rates
Fastballs: 15 (43 percent)
Cutters: 0 (0 percent)
Splitters: 16 (46 percent)
Sliders: 4 (11 percent)

***

Samardzija took the mound for the ninth inning having retired eight-straight batters and knowing that he would have to face the top of the Nationals order. Desmond and Espinosa went down on five pitches apiece, both having reached 2-2 counts. That left Zimmerman as the final hurdle between Samardzija and a complete game. Zimmerman hit a ball that, for a moment, looked to be the game’s final out. A Starlin Castro error extended the game, however, and out came Sveum. Whatever Samardzija told his manager was enough to send the rookie skipper back to the dugout.

Up stepped LaRoche with a chance to bring the tying run to the dish. Samardzija tossed a splitter for a strike and followed it up with a pair of sliders in the dirt. Faced with a 2-1 count, Samardzija turned to his heater, tossing a 94-mph fastball middle-away that LaRoche fouled. Now, about to toss pitch 110, with the opportunity to end the game, Samardzija had to make a choice. He had struck LaRoche out with splitters twice and coerced him into a lineout on a fastball. Would Samardzija go for the hat trick or instead call on one more high-wattage heater?

Samardzija’s story would feel unauthentic had he gone with the splitter and struck LaRoche out. No, instead, he went with the heat—a 97-mph fastball, a proverbial Easter egg in the basket; LaRoche smashed it to right field, putting the Nationals within a run. Out popped Sveum and off walked Samardzija, who, to his credit, seemed wiser in retrospective after the game:

"LaRoche is a great fastball hitter, and I went a little 'Garza' on everybody and tried to blow his doors off, and he took it about 400 feet to right," Samardzija said, referring to teammate Matt Garza, who does have a tendency to try to throw everything hard. "That's the way it goes. I'd been throwing him soft all game, and I let my ego get in the way there a little bit."

Maybe next time Samardzija can close shop. After Sunday, he should receive plenty of opportunities.  

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

Related Content:  Jeff Samardzija

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