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Jeff Samardzija: Fins Pointing Up

The Cubs surprised many fans when they placed Jeff Samardzija and hair into the 2012 Opening Day rotation. Can the man known as the "Shark" keep surprising?

Jamie Squire

I'm not a big Jimmy Buffett fan. I've been to one of his shows, like 10 years ago, and I don't remember much. Like any show, what makes a good show great is the people you share the experience with, not the artist, and Jimmy Buffett fans, or Parrotheads, are some of the better concert-going people I've come across in my concert travels.

They get super drunk, they shoot tequila down your throat without warning, and they won't let you leave their side until you pose for more pictures than yours and their camera or phone can hold. But what's most endearing about Parrotheads is their feelings toward clothes.

They wear very little of them and feel no shame.

Jeff Samardzija is a starting pitcher for the Chicago Cubs. From what I know he's not a Parrothead and he likes to wear clothes. He is, however, nicknamed the "Shark," and I'm certain he's drank tequila at some point in his life. He also has some of the major's best hair (pictured above).

Coming into the 2012 season, Samardzija -- who made 75 appearances and pitched 85 innings out of the bullpen in 2011 -- wasn't even penciled into the Cubs' starting rotation. Considered a long shot to make the team as a fifth starter with veterans Ryan Dempster, Matt Garza and Paul Maholm filling up the first three spots and fellow starters Chris Volstad, Randy Wells, Travis Wood and Rodrigo Lopez competing for the final two, Samardzija took the ball and ran away from his competition, throwing so well in the spring that he earned the team's No. 3 starting spot. In his first start against the Nationals, he was one out away from a complete game, throwing 8.2 innings and giving up one earned run with eight strikeouts and no walks allowed.

From that point on, Cubs fans butchered his last name until the "Shark" became an acceptable alternative. A year after taming his competition from the bullpen, Samardzija was dominating his competition as a starter, finishing the year 9-13 with a 9.27 K/9 and a 2.89 BB/9 while positing a 3.81 ERA/3.55 FIP/3.38 xFIP.

Samardzija finished 48th on the ESPN Player Rater among starters, but that doesn't begin to show how dominate the 27-year old was in his first full season as a starter. A year after issuing 50 walks in 88 innings out of the pen (a BB/9 of 5.11), Samardzija nearly walked fewer batters in roughly double the number of innings, with 56 free passes in 174.2 innings. This remarkable turnaround was aided by a first pitch strike percentage increase to 60.2 percent and a SwStr% of 12.1 percent, the fifth best mark in the majors. Samardzija also had the eighth best Contact%, at 74.8 percent.

Possibly the most surprising part of Samardzija's 2012 is the fact he threw a career high 174.2 innings and didn't hit any "innings wall." His previous high was 141.2 innings between High A and Double A back in 2007. Before 2012, the last time Samardzija pitched more than 120 innings was 2009. Stretched out as a starter, his fastball velocity actually increased to an average of 95.1 mph, the second highest fastball velocity in the majors behind only David Price, and he even gained velocity as the season progressed. There were no reports of injuries during the season I can remember, and Samardzija was shut down in early September strictly as a way to ensure one of the Cubs most important players was ready for a full workload in 2013.

Samardzija's split-fingered fastball is probably the best in baseball, and he used it a lot in 2012, producing a swing and miss 42.08 percent of the time while holding opposing batters to a .131 average. I don't see any reason why Samardzija's strikeout rate of 24.9 percent should fall off significantly, and a .296 BABIP and a 3.38 xFIP suggest his numbers can be even better in 2013.

Even with Garza coming back from injury, Samardzija is the Cubs pitcher you most want to own. Wins will be hard to come by on a team that lost 101 games last year, but he provides about as much upside, currently, as a guy like Matt Moore, who I profiled yesterday. I'd expect a slight drop off in strikeouts, but approaching 200 isn't out of the question if he gets close to 200 innings. If the wins are there, Samardzija could provide value as a top 20 pitcher that's going to be drafted outside of the top 100 players.

Statistics from FanGraphs and Brooks Baseball.