Fantasy Baseball: Jeff Samardzija Has Been Horribly Unlucky
Baseball is weird. That's part of its appeal, at least for me.
Shark fanned 9 and didn't walk a batter over 7 innings -- a perfect recipe for success -- but he also allowed 10 hits and 6 runs. Despite the Mets posting a meager 22.7% hard-hit rate off him, his BABIP allowed for the contest was a sky-high .429.
His ERA for the game was 7.71 while his single-game xFIP was 2.58. In other words, how well he pitched didn't line up with his ugly bottom-line results.
The outing encapsulated Samardzija's 2017 campaign thus far. He's thrown pretty darn well, but he's been hard done by in terms of luck -- which makes him an ideal buy-low target for fantasy baseball.
Two Tales of One Season
Most fantasy leagues still use traditional stats, so when it comes to a pitcher, we need him to perform well in wins, strikeouts and ERA to propel our fake squads to glory.
What we should really care about, however, is how a pitcher arrives at his numbers in those traditional categories. Taking a deeper dive into advanced metrics -- like xFIP and SIERA -- can tell us more about how a pitcher is actually performing as well as allowing us to better predict future performance. Samardzija's 2017 season is a perfect example.
The San Francisco Giants' righty is 0-5 with a 5.77 ERA. Among the 41 pitchers with at least 40 innings under their belt this season, Samardzija's ERA ranks dead last. Everything so far tells us he stinks.
What really stinks, though, is using wins and ERA to evaluate a pitcher.
It's really amazing, actually, but if we look at those same 41 starters who have at least 40 innings pitched, Samardzija's 2.88 xFIP is the fourth-best mark, ranking him up with deities Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. If we sort it by SIERA, Shark comes in fifth, so no matter the advanced metric of your choosing, Samardzija is killing it.
All of these guys above -- the table shows the top five pitchers in xFIP -- except Samardzija are doing work in the ERA department (and producing for fantasy owners), showing just how terrible his luck has been.
Reaching New Heights
Yes, it's still early, but Samardzija is having the best season of his career regardless of what his traditional stats say. He is posting career-best marks in strikeout rate (28.7%) and walk rate (5.2%), which has led to career-best clips in SIERA and xFIP. His 11.8% swinging-strike rate, the second-best of his career, validates his sparkling strikeout rate.
Samardzija's batted-ball numbers are pretty dope, too. He's generating a 26.6% soft-hit rate -- the second-best clip of his career and the second-ranked mark among qualified pitchers -- to go with a 27.4% hard-hit rate allowed, which is right in line with his career average of 27.3%. His fly-ball rate allowed of 32.0% is also down from his career average of 34.8%.
So he's getting punchouts at an elite rate, preventing walks at an elite rate and generating a ton of soft contact -- how is this not resulting in a pencil-thin ERA and a whole bunch of fantasy goodness?
Don't Buy Any Lottery Tickets, Jeff
Well, in just about all of the luck-based stats -- BABIP, home-run-per-fly-ball rate (HR/FB%) and strand rate, to name a few key ones -- Samardzija has been straight cursed this season.
For starters, his BABIP against is .325. That's not an egregiously bad mark out of context, but it is the 14th-worst BABIP among qualified starting pitchers and would be the highest full-season clip of his career. When you factor in his batted-ball profile -- which we already know is pretty fetch -- it starts to look even more unlucky.
Another staple of snakebitten pitchers is the gopher ball, and Samardzija is no exception. He's allowing 1.36 homers per nine innings, a career-worst number by a pretty significant margin. His previous full-season career high in homers per nine allowed is 1.22 in 2015, and that was the only time since 2010 he finished with a dongs-per-nine mark of more than 1.06.
Thing is, these homers he's allowing look pretty unlucky, too. We know his 32.0% fly-ball rate is down from his career average, and that 27.4% hard-hit rate doesn't scream dingers. Sure enough, his 17.9% home-run-per-fly-ball rate is a career-worst mark and well above his career average of 11.3%, and this is despite 20 2/3 of his 46 1/3 frames coming at home in a park which sits last in home run factor (and 23rd in park factor) over the past three years.
The last piece in the triad of bad-luck pitchers is strand rate, and Samardzija is having a rough go of it there, as well. Among qualified starters, his 58.1% strand rate is the second-worst mark in baseball. It is miles worse than his career average of 70.7%, meaning he's giving up too many hits with guys on base, the worst time to do such a thing.
|Year||BABIP||Strand Rate||HR/FB Rate|
It's not all a hard-luck story, though.
Samardzija has never been much of a ground-ball pitcher, owning a career ground-ball rate of 44.6%, but he's really struggled to keep the ball on the ground this season. His 37.7% ground-ball rate would be a career-worst mark for a full season, and fewer grounders means more balls in the air, which is generally a bad thing.
As previously mentioned, his fly-ball rate is better than his career average, and his ground-ball rate is super low. So that only leaves one option -- line drives. Samardzija's line-drive rate allowed of 30.3% is much worse than both last season's clip (19.9%) and his career average (20.6%).
Shark also has been getting freight-trained by left-handed hitters, who have mashed him for a .397 wOBA. He's been deadly to right-handed bats, limiting righties to a .247 wOBA while recording a 29.7% strikeout rate and 3.3% walk rate against them. He's always had similar splits, just not this magnified. His career wOBA allowed to lefties is .332, compared to righties getting to him for a career .292 wOBA.
Samardzija has some warts -- namely his lowly ground-ball rate and bloated line-drive rate -- but every pitcher outside of the game's elite has some eyesores on their resume. We knew he had warts, which is precisely why he was taken as the 52nd starting pitcher this season, per average draft position data from National Fantasy Baseball Championship.
Drafters weren't looking for an ace when they took Samardzija, but despite what his gruesome traditional stats tell us, he is pitching like an ace. That makes him a dreamy buy-low target as there's a chance his owner overlooks the pristine peripherals and is fed up with a 5.77 ERA.
Will Shark's xFIP and SIERA be in the neighborhood of Sale's and Kershaw's at season's end? Probably not. But that doesn't mean he can't have a very good season; it just makes him human. Odds are his traditional stats are going to start mirroring his advanced numbers, and if you can get him for a discount, now is the time to pounce.