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Samardzija’s Trio of Troubles

After an all out nuclear disaster of a 2015, what can we reasonably expect in 2016?

Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

As a dynasty owner of Jeff Samardzija, I wonder what happened this year, and more importantly, what will he do in 2016?  The big picture is that Shark pitched 214 innings over 32 starts, and pitched over 200 innings for the third consecutive season.  After that you have to look at what he did in those innings.  First of all, he had a career high win total of 11...  Kidding, but seriously, here are his numbers, the weak stomached should avert their eyes.

Season

Team

IP

K/9

BB/9

HR/9

BABIP

LOB%

GB%

ERA

FIP

xFIP

2012

Cubs

174.2

9.27

2.89

1.03

0.296

73.00%

44.60%

3.81

3.55

3.38

2013

Cubs

213.2

9.01

3.29

1.05

0.314

71.70%

48.20%

4.34

3.77

3.45

2014

2 Teams

219.2

8.28

1.76

0.82

0.283

73.20%

50.20%

2.99

3.2

3.07

2015

White Sox

214

6.86

2.06

1.22

0.303

67.20%

39.00%

4.96

4.23

4.31

2016

Steamer

203

7.38

2.12

1.08

0.291

71.90%

-

3.85

3.89

In 2015 Samardzija had his career worst strikeout rate, the second best walk rate of his career, his worst home run rate ever, and a horrifying drop in his ground ball rate.  Such huge changes in strikeouts and ground balls are startling, and it instantly led me to search his location, and pitch mix from this year, and from years prior (2012-2014).  Here is what happened.

Courtesy of Brooks Baseball.

He threw the ball all over the zone, and with facing more righties than lefties, he misses low and to his left a lot.  In years prior he was locating his pitches like this.

This is three seasons worth of data, so the totals are larger.  But it helps paint a picture, in 2015 Samardzija threw 20.04% of his pitches outside of the zone to his right, in 2012-2014, he located 25.57% pitches to the left of the plate.  When it comes to low pitches he threw 22.11% below the zone in 2015, and he threw 22.52% below the zone in 2012-2014.  Essentially that location difference should make up his improved walk rate but not much else.  So the next info I checked was his Pitch F/X info.

PROBLEM 1: SLIDERS

A huge change for Shark in 2015, was his slider heavier usage, while simultaneously seeing its performance go straight down the toilet.  Take a look at his slider usage and outcomes:

Season

Pitches

Hits

AB

AVG

2012

569

27

131

0.20610687

2013

709

35

171

0.204678363

2014

678

30

144

0.208333333

2015

814

55

190

0.289473684

After using that as an out pitch for every year of his career as a starter, he started throwing that slider the second hardest, with the second most movement of his career, while simultaneously throwing it more than ever.  That sounds like a recipe for success, but the inverse happened.  In the seasons prior Samardzija recorded strikeouts with the pitch in 28.2%, 28.3%, 27.6%, in 2015 that number dropped to 18.8%.  The contact rates for this pitch both in the zone, and outside skyrocketed in 2015.  Outside of the zone it was hit 52.5% of the time after never being hit more than 44% before, and the slider was hit 91.6% of the time when in the zone, despite never being hit more than 84% of the time in the past.  Essentially he went from throwing all of his sliders to the 2015 version of Ian Desmond during the 2012-2015 seasons, to throwing it to present day Prince Fielder in 2015.

This made me wonder if location was an issue with the pitch this year, or if it was being hit more while in the zone.  MLB hitters can hit anything right down the pipe, so lets see if he was failing to get them to chase as he had in the past.

2015 Whiffs courtesy of BrooksBaseball.net

2012-2014 Whiffs courtesy of Brooks Baseball

This is a little scary.  Samardzija continued throwing sliders primarily below the zone, but was getting far fewer whiffs in 2015 than he had in the past.  As an owner, I think he needs to make a mechanical adjustment, as he hasn't experienced a decrease in velocity that would alarm many people, but his results were so far off from normal.  Take a look at a slider from 2014 and 2015.

2014 Slider

2015 Slider

The difference in the bite the two pitches have is staggering, in 2014 he threw more of sweeping slider, and last year it looks like it was thrown with later life, and the movement had to do more with release point and plane.  All in all, Shark is a very scary guy to invest in based off of his slider issues alone.  It seems that he needs to try a new pitching coach out, and while I don't want to make excuses, his old defense in Chicago was rated the worst in the MLB, and his new squad in San Francisco was rated the best.

The second issue is a little more obvious:

PROBLEM 2: LEFTIES

During his career (because I don't know how to separate splits data down to combinations of yearly info) Samardzija has managed lefties, and been very good against righties.  This is easily illustrated by his career 90 OPS+ against righties, and 111 OPS+ against lefties.  In 2015 his righty OPS+ was 94, so still 6% above average, but lefties clobbered him to the tune of a 126 OPS+.  Keep in mind that is regressed because of his unforgiving park, so his OPS against was .689 vs R, and .839 vs lefties, that OPS was fueled by a .513 SLG vs L.

Frankly, lefties killed him every single way you split it.  At home, on the road, first half, second half, he was owned.  Previously his career high number of homers given up in a season was 20, last year lefties alone blasted 21 homers against Samardzija.  Just look at the TOTAL NUMBER OF WHIFFS PER ZONE he had versus lefties in 2015.

Courtesy of Baseball Savant.

Terrible.

This brings us to home run location, and park factors.  This may be the last statistical straw that Samardzija has to grasp towards when looking towards 2016.  US Cellular is a home run hitters haven.  Fangraphs said the Cell boosted homers by lefties by 14% and by righties 6% in 2014, and ESPN said it was the 8th worst park to avoid homers in, giving US Celluar a 1.113, when 1 is average.  AT&T was FAR more forgiving, reducing homers vs righties 12%  (second best in baseball), and vs lefties 16% (best in baseball), ESPN said it was the best park scoring .599.  Looking at his homerun locations, you can see that while some were blasted, many would have been contained in other parks.

With the San Francisco Giants adding him, you see that the distance on these homers wouldn't have been enough in 3 clear instances, with three more right at the wall, and this doesn't factor in the weather that is more favorable to pitching in San Francisco either.

A move to a pitchers park, something he's always been in prior to 2015, might be something he needs going forward.  If his ground balls are going to take such a significant dip, a huge outfield with a better defense behind him will surely help him, even if he doesn't actually improve what he is doing on the hill.

Problem 3: Failure to Induce Groundballs

This is harder to solve via statistical analysis, but easy to observe.  In the past Samardzija was one of the best ground ball pitchers in baseball, becoming the 23rd best ground ball pitcher in baseball in 2014, out of 88 qualified hurlers.  In 2015, he was 66th out of 78 qualified pitchers.  Take a look at the red army of grounders he was inducing in the past.

He was inducing worm burners like he thought it was going out of style in the past.  Then in 2015, he took a turn for the worse.

This is not nearly as appealing as his previous years performance, and while all of his pitches induced fewer grounders, it appears that his assortment of hard stuff was far less effective when it came to getting grounders.

I went through a vast array of information and found that his hard pitches moved about the same horizontally, and vertically.  These pitches were released at only a slightly lower velocity than in the past.  But his release point seems to have changed.  His best season without question was 2014, prior to 2014 he had always been hovering around a 4 ERA, then in 2014 he seemed to realize his potential, and put up a 2.99 ERA.  Take a look at his horizontal release points:

This may be the key to it all.  His mechanics changed in 2014, causing him to crossfire the ball more.  Apparently, this caused much greater deception with his pitches, because it resulted in his career year, and most importantly, something that makes his 2014 appear to be skill based, and not born out of pure luck.

If I was able to find this information, I have to assume the front office in San Francisco knows this as well.  One mechanical adjustment to his release point, and Shark may not be back to ace form, but he should be expected to improve.  I'll admit this, this article was mainly negative because I found all the other information on him prior to checking release data.  I'm not sold he can have a sub 3 ERA in any of the 5 seasons he'll have in SF, but after realizing how much better he was in 2014 than any other year, I'm confident that he improve in 2016, a different set of mechanics, along with the best home park and best defense in baseball behind him could easily push his value up in 2016.  If you have a chance to buy low, which you definitely do, go ahead and try and invest in him.  After last year, he should be priced as a SP40 or lower, without all the projections I normally use, I presently have Samardzija as the #57 pitcher in 2016, but a change in his profile could result in a return to the Shark of old, this is a golden opportunity, in 2016 don't pay for a minnow from Chicago, but get a Shark in the bay.