Samardzija and Hammel to the A's: How the West Was Won
"Welp, good season, boys. Y'all fought hard and you put forth a good effort. But sometimes it's just not meant to be. There's always 2015, right?"
The above is the speech that every manager in the American League gave his team last night when the Oakland A's won the pennant. In case you didn't hear, they acquired Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Chicago Cubs. In return, the A's sent Dan Straily, 2012 first-round pick Addison Russell and Billy McKinney (the 2013 first-round pick, not the former Northwestern Wildcats basketball player). A high price to pay, yes, but also a ridiculous yield.
If you've been paying attention to our Power Rankings columns throughout the year, you know how much the algorithms love the A's. The team currently has a 1.26 nERD, meaning they are 1.26 runs per game better than an average team. They have the highest playoff odds in the entire league at 97.7 percent. They also own the largest odds at winning the World Series at 19.0 percent. And now they've just made themselves even better.
Samardzija made waves earlier in the season with his valiant contributions to the #KillTheWin campaign. He heads to Oakland with a 2.83 ERA, a 3.07 fielding-independent pitching (FIP), and a mark of 8.58 strikeouts per nine innings. This helped him accumulate a nERD of 2.10. For pitchers, that means that he would allow 2.10 runs fewer than an average hurler if he were to face 27 batters in a game. You can read more about nERD here. His 2.10 nERD is the 18th best mark of any pitcher in the league this year.
Hammel, despite receiving a lot less recognition, had numbers that actually rivaled Samardzija's. After a solid six-inning, seven-strikeout performance against the Nationals Friday, Hammel brings a 2.98 ERA, 3.16 FIP, 8.61 strikeouts per nine and 1.90 walks per nine to the A's. His 1.94 nERD isn't too far behind Samardzija's marks, either. For all intents and purposes, the A's acquired two guys that have the numbers to be in the front half of most rotations in the league.
In most situations, this wouldn't be enough to declare a pennant race over. When a team already has the riches the Athletics have, though, it's pretty safe to do so.
Even before the trade, the A's had the lowest starter's ERA in the A.L. at 3.34. The only other A.L. team below 3.60 is their division-mates up in Seattle. They have been straight filthy, and that runs from the top of the rotation to the bottom.
Below is a chart with each of the starters the A's still have and their nERD this year. I don't know how they'll end up changing the rotation with both Samardzija and Hammel in Oakland, so there will be six names there. Hopefully it will help illustrate the ridiculousness of the situation once Drew Pomeranz returns from the D.L.
After how Milone threw Friday (six innings, four hits, no runs, one walk, six strikeouts), it'd be hard to drop him from the rotation, but he may be the odd man out. So, the A's could end up with five guys in their starting rotation that all have nERD's higher than 1.80. That's so incredibly unfair. As long as everyone stays healthy (fingers crossed with the complete slash-fest the baseball gods have had on pitchers this year), they should waltz to the World Series.
With everything above said, it is still possible that this puppy could end up not working as gloriously as it looks right now. I'm not saying I think this will happen, but I'm down to play a little devil's advocate just for funsies.
After his hot start this year, Samardzija cooled off significantly in June. The chart below shows his splits for each month this year. wOBA Against is for weighted on-base average of opposing hitters. It takes walks, total bases and everything into account to formulate what OPS wishes it were. For context, a mark of around .340 is excellent for hitters and blech for pitchers.
As you can see, with the exception of his strikeout and walk totals, everything went belly up for Samardzija in June. If he were to maintain this performance moving forward, then the A's would have given up the mother load for nothing.
I don't think this is a very likely situation, however. If you look at his batted-ball data, Samardzija actually allowed fewer hard-hit balls in June than he did in April. His line-drive percentage has gone down each month, from 22.1 percent in April to 18.3 percent in June. He also induced more ground balls in June (55.9 percent ground-ball rate) than he did in previous months (50.0 percent in April and 52.3 percent in May). When you add in the bump he should receive from being in a new league with hitters that aren't as familiar with his stuff, Samardzija should be just dandy.
Apocalyptic situation number two: what if Hammel goes back to old Jason Hammel? In his previous eight major league seasons, Hammel has had an ERA below 4.30 just once, and that was in 2012. Last year with the O's, Hammel had a 4.97 ERA and a 4.93 FIP with just a 6.20 strikeouts per nine innings. What if this Hammel rears its ugly head at The Coliseum?
This situation seems to be far more likely than the previous one. Hammel is heading back to the league where he had spent five of his first eight seasons. If the hitters have just figured him out, he may struggle.
The positive thing here for Hammel and A's fans is that Hammel isn't really the same pitcher he was in Baltimore. He's using his slider a lot more now (33.0 percent as opposed to 21.0 percent last year), and he has completely bagged his change-up (just 2.5 percent usage to 8.1 percent last year). It's possible that he's figured something out and can now handle A.L. batting orders.
While a step back for Hammel is more likely than one for Samardzija, it's certainly not a sure thing. Even if he were to regress a bit, the A's would probably be set. They already had the best rotation in the A.L., and it just got a whole lot better.
So it's time to pack up the bags, peeps. Turn out the lights. Warm up the fat lady's voice. If nothing drastic happens, the Oakland A's have just penciled their name as the 2014 A.L. Champs. This has made one thing blatantly clear to the rest of the league: the A's ain't messin' around, and they won't stop until they've got the title wrapped up. Samardzija and Hammel just bring them two big steps closer to that.