Why Jeff Samardzija is Worth a King's Ransom

Jeff Samardzija's change in approach has turned him into a legitimate ace. And teams better recognize it.

Jeff Samardzija has served as the poster boy for those calling for the death of the win.

As you probably have heard mentioned at some point, it took Samardzija 11 tries to finally get his first winning decision despite having an earned run average of under 2.00 over the course of those starts. While his earned run average now stands at 2.77, one thing has become clear: Samardzija is an ace, and his paltry two wins do him no justice.

As it currently stands, 147 pitchers have more wins than Samardzija in 2014. Among them are 28 relief pitchers as well as Marcus Stroman, who has started exactly three games all season. This tells us two things. First, anyone who still puts stock into wins when evaluating pitchers should seriously get with the program. Second, Samardzija has gotten brutal run support this season, and it may be to his benefit to follow Matt Garza’s words of advice and get out of the north side of Chicago as soon as he can.

Well, that decision may not be entirely up to him, but it appears to be the general consensus that the Cubs are more than willing to move Samardzija while he is at peak value. He has one more year of arbitration before entering free agency, and when he signs his new long-term contract, it's bound to be lucrative. Still though, there are many who point to Samardzija’s career low HR/FB rate or 3.27 xFIP and say he is pitching over his head. I’m here to explain that Jeff Samardzija is an ace, and the Cubs should demand a hefty bounty in any exchange involving him.

No Free Passes

Below is a table consisting of Samardzija's big league numbers:

YearInnings PitchedBB/9

The biggest improvement Samardzija has made as a pitcher in 2014 is with his walks. This season is his lowest BB/9 among any year he has pitched to date and, along with 2012, it's one of only two seasons in which his BB/9 was better than league average. Per FanGraphs, a BB/9 of 2.54 sits in the “great” to “above-average” territory, a far cry from the “awful” that was his 5.11 BB/9 in 2011.

His approach to at-bats has changed drastically this year, best evidenced by his commitment to throwing first pitch strikes. His F-Strike%, which is how often he starts at-bats with a strike, has risen 8.2% from 2013 to 2014. His career F-Strike% is 59.8%, and he clears that easily with a 67.9% this season. His Zone% is also a great way to see his commitment to throwing more strikes. Zone% is the percentage of pitches a batter sees in the strike zone, and this season batter’s are seeing 48.2% of pitches in the zone against Samardzija. This is a 3.2% boost over his career average, and bests the major league average in 2014 of 44.9% as well.

Walking less batters has served Samardzija well, and is likely the single biggest contributor to his career best numbers thus far in 2014. Another change for the better? His sinker.

Help Me, I’m Sinking!

Not only is Samardzija pounding the zone more than ever, but he’s also using his sinker with greater frequency. In his career, excluding 2014, Samardzija’s sinker has been 29% of all his pitches to lefties and 25% of all his pitches to righties. This season he’s thrown it at the same percentage to lefties, but it’s been 38% of his pitches to righties. Considering the vast majority of the batters he faces are righties, it’s a pretty significant jump. In fact, his sinker has been his most thrown pitch overall all season long, which you can visualize on this graph courtesy of BrooksBaseball. This has lead to some interesting results.

Remember how I mentioned people discrediting Samardzija’s hot start to a low HR/FB rate? Well, the sinker is a big reason that HR/FB rate is so low. His ground-ball percentage is at a career high 50.8%, well above his career 45.4% mark. His fly-ball percentage has dropped significantly in 2014 to a career low 27.1% (compared to a career 33.9% mark). These changes are not simply flukes, as they fall in line with Samardzija’s increased usage of his sinker. So, even if Samardzija’s HR/FB rate rises from 7.7% to closer to his 10.8% career figure, he’s still going to allow fewer home runs as a result of letting up fewer fly balls in general due to his sinker.

Another statistic people have pointed to in order to show Samardzija is due for regression is his .280 BABIP. That number in and of itself is not too shocking, but it is well lower than the .296 and .314 marks he posted in 2012 and 2013, respectively. This too can be at least partly attributed to his sinker, which, as I mentioned, greatly increased his ground ball percentage. More grounders is going to lead to more easy putouts, so while his BABIP may seem like a red flag, it falls pretty naturally in line with his change in approach.

King of the K?

One aspect of Samardzija’s game that seems to have taken a step back in 2014 are his strikeouts. His K/9 in 2014 is 8.11, still above the league average of 7.56. However, it falls a bit short of his career figure of 8.55, and even farther from his 9.01 K/9 last season. The reason for this is pretty simple: he’s throwing more hittable pitches.

That's not to say his pitches are themselves more hittable, as in not as sharp or nasty, but that he is quite literally throwing more strikes. It’s a change in his game that has improved his numbers overall, but will naturally lessen his strikeouts a touch. His swinging strike percentage of 9.9% is very close to his career 10.2% average, lending credence to the fact that his “stuff” is not any less good, but when you throw more strikes you are bound to let batters make more contact. This is something that has come to fruition, as batters have a contact percentage of 79.4% against Samardzija this season. On his career, that mark is 77.7%, and is slightly inflated by percentages in the 80s early on his career. While it would be nice if Samardzija could keep his elite strikeout numbers with his new approach, it simply doesn’t seem like something he’ll be able to do.

All in all, though, giving up one strikeout per nine innings seems like a good trade off considering his new approach has yielded an earned run averaged over a full run less than his career figure.

Let's Get nERDy

How does Samardzija stack up when looking at numberFire's very own nERD metric? For pitchers, nERD looks at how many runs a pitcher prevents compared to league average over the course of a full game (see more on nERD and other metrics in our glossary). Unsurprisingly, Samardzija stacks up pretty well in 2014, coming in as the 21st overall starting pitcher, ahead of several strong starters like Scott Kazmir and Sonny Gray, to name two. A bunch of starters ahead of Samardzija fall just barely in front of him, so he's not far from being among the top 15. Either way, by our metrics, Samardzija has been one of the better pitchers in 2014, and certainly good enough to be the top starter on several teams.

Samardzija Is No Joke

Samardzija’s 2014 season is no aberration. His increased number of strikes and heightened usage of his sinker has made him a fundamentally different, and better pitcher. He may have traded in some strikeouts for a ground balls, but the lower home run totals and overall better performance he has seen from throwing more strikes and sliders has truly made Samardzija an ace.

Stud arms, especially ones as durable as Samardzija, don’t grow on trees. Thus, it would be behoove the Cubs to demand nothing but at least one premier prospect, and likely several other good ones, in any deal involving him. This is not a situation where a pitcher gets hot just before getting paid. Samardzija’s change in approach has finally turned all his potential into results, and whoever ends up with him is getting someone special.