For this week’s Tale of the Tape, we have two pitchers who were among the biggest acquisitions for a couple of the most active teams this winter. Jeff Samardzija joins a White Sox rotation that now has one of the better one-two punches in the game with him and Chris Sale. James Shields joins a Padres team that made a trade approximately every ten minutes this offseason. They placed 19th and 20th, respectively, in our rankings and will be a couple of the most intriguing pitchers in the league in 2015.
Last season, Samardzija took this category in his breakout year, putting up a 2.99 ERA to Shields’ 3.21. In the grand scheme of things, both pitchers performed well here and finished in the top-28 in baseball. For Samardzija, his sub-3.00 mark represented a huge improvement over his past numbers, as he had a 4.10 ERA in his previous two years in the rotation. He backed it up with his peripherals, though, mostly by cutting way down on walks while keeping a good strikeout rate. For Shields, on the other hand, it was just another year in a steady career. Over the last four years, his ERA is 3.17, and he never reached a higher number than 3.52. The new outfield defense playing behind him in San Diego will likely allow a few more hits to fall in, but that should be mostly offset by his transition to the National League and one of the premier pitching parks in the game. Expect more of the same from him in 2015. On the contrary, Samardzija is moving to one of the friendliest hitters' parks in the league and has a much wider range of outcomes in this category. Shields’ advantage in league and park, along with the stronger and more consistent track record, give him an edge here.
Samardzija took this category in 2014 as well. As mentioned above, his big improvement in walk-rate was a big contributor to his success, going from around eight percent to five percent. Luckily for him and fantasy players who own him, it doesn’t appear to be a mirage. The 30-year-old hit the zone more often than ever, and when he did miss the zone, he got opponents to chase at a higher rate. He was also assisted by a career-low BABIP, but the .285 mark wasn't anything especially egregious. Shields wasn’t too far behind, and also benefited from a shrinking walk-rate. Given the fact that it’s been trending in that direction over the last few years, I wouldn’t expect him to start giving out a ton of free passes this year. With that being, the shift from Kansas City’s defense to San Diego’s should result in more hits. Given that rough outfield defense behind Shields, and Samardzija’s big strides in limiting walks, I give the latter a slight edge in a category that should be tight.
Winner: Samardzija, slightly
Do you see a theme in who won last year’s battle? Samardzija took strikeouts handily by a score a 202-180 in 2014. Although Shields’ overall production has stayed consistent over the last few years, it’s been doing so with a declining strikeout rate. His move to the National League should help out a bit, but it doesn’t appear to be enough. Last season, Samardzija fell off from the K/9 he had put up in the past, but he was still able to be a 200-plus-strikeout pitcher, something Shields hasn’t been in two years. Samardzija is a relatively safe bet to take this category in 2015.
Over the last couple of years, both of these guys have proven to be among the best innings eaters in baseball. Shields tossed a few more frames in 2014, but both ended the year in the top-10. The Padres’ new ace has made a career off tossing a ton of innings, averaging 233 frames over the last four years. He may lose an inning here and there by getting pinch hit for because the NL still plays in the 1950s, but it’s not something that should affect him too much. Samardzija has also surpassed the 210 inning mark in each of the last two years, but he just can’t compete with Shields’ track record. Not many pitchers can.
Here’s everyone’s favorite category! This is always a tough one to predict, and it seems even more difficult in this case. Both pitchers are on teams that struggled in 2014, but completely revamped their rosters and hope to compete this season. There’s a wide range of possibilities for both squads. Chicago has an offense built around Jose Abreu, Adam LaRoche and Melky Cabrera. San Diego, on the other hand, could have a powerful unit with Matt Kemp, Wil Myers and Justin Upton. I can see an argument for both sides, but the potential of San Diego’s lineup intrigues me just a hair more, so I give the slightest of edges to Shields.
Winner: Shields, very slightly
We have another very close category, one that Shields just barely won last year with a 24-23 edge. Over the last three years, Shields has been more consistent in this area, making quality starts in 70 percent of his starts versus 63 percent for Samardzija. Of course, the latter made huge improvements last season that make 2012 and 2011 less significant. Still, Shields’ edge in league and park make him a safer bet to limit his runs allowed on a consistent basis, and he’s been able to stay in the game for six innings in his sleep. This gives him another very close win that could just as easily end in a tie.
Winner: Shields, slightly
Every pitcher is a risk to get injured. No one is safe anymore, something made abundantly clear when Bronson Arroyo had to undergo Tommy John surgery in 2014. With that being said, both of these pitchers have been extremely durable in their career. It’s actually one of the biggest selling points for both names. While you can’t be overly confident in any pitcher staying healthy, these two are as good of a bet as anyone. If I had to pick one, with the metaphorical gun to my head, I’d choose Samardzija as the safer bet to stay healthy. It’s a little unfair to Shields, but his track record of staying healthy and throwing a ton of innings hurts him here. There’s a whole lot of mileage on that arm, so if either of these guys is going to get hurt, the odds are better than it will be him.
Winner: Samardzija, slightly
I’m not going to waste any time here. I’ve mentioned a few times already about how both of these guys are the types to take the ball every five days. If they’re healthy, it’s very hard to see either getting skipped at all this season to give them rest. There is no winner here.
This is a pretty simple one. Shields has been a really solid pitcher for a really long time, but you’re paying for stability with him, not upside. He’s not going to drastically change what kind of pitcher he is at this point of his career. Samardzija, on the other hand, has a real chance at continuing the improvement he showed a year ago. If he can manage to keep his low walk-rate while getting back to his batter-per-inning strikeout pace, he’s going to be one of the best pitchers in the league this year. Pitching in U.S. Cellular limits what he can be a little bit, but his ceiling is easily more enticing than that of Shields.
This was an extremely close battle that ended in a tie. Both pitchers took four categories, with two slight wins for each side. It really comes down to personal preference and whether you’re looking for a safe pick or one with higher upside. If you need a safe bet for production, Shields is your guy. If you need someone with the potential to be a top-10 arm, Samardzija is the one to pick. It can go either way, but I’ll side with the ceiling and take Samardzija.
And the winner is… Jeff Samardzija
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now