John Lackey and Jeff Samardzija Have Been Strong, Overlooked Signings
After a lull of MLB activity to kick off the offseason, things have really heated up over the past few days at the winter meetings. A flurry of major acquisitions such as the Starlin Castro and Shelby Miller trades have certainly stolen the headlines, and rightfully so, given the big name players involved.
Having said that, there have also been a lot of minor transactions over the past week that may prove even more influential by the time the 2016 MLB season rolls to a close.
Two of the aforementioned signings that have been largely overshadowed are the Cubs reaching an agreement with veteran hurler, John Lackey, and the Giants coming to terms with Jeff Samardzija. Now it may seem counterintuitive that a five-year, 90-million dollar pact, like the one Jeff Samardzija signed with the Giants, could be considered a minor headline, but the current baseball landscape has rendered that number essentially chump change.
In another “low budget” agreement, John Lackey will venture to the north side of Chicago where he will pitch at Wrigley for a measly 32 million dollars over two years.
These two signings, although not for eye-popping values, represent extremely shrewd investments by two keen witted clubs hoping to sure up their potential playoff rotations.
Lackey's Fit With the Cubs
After a disastrous 2011 campaign with the Boston Red Sox, which many have deemed the worst season long pitching performance of all time, Lackey has quietly become one of the most underrated, consistent starters in the big leagues.
Following the infamous chicken and beer offseason and Lackey’s reparative Tommy John surgery, the hulking right-hander has delivered three consecutive seasons of 180+ innings with a sub 4.00 ERA and a highly respectable K/9 of above 7.00. Further, the move west to the St. Louis Cardinals at the trade deadline in 2014 has seemingly reinvigorated the 37-year-old, as Lackey posted a career best 2.77 ERA across 33 starts last year pitching for his first National League club.
Yanking a very legitimate third starter away from a fellow pennant contender represents a major coup for Theo Epstein and the Cubs, as Lackey will surely devour another 175-plus innings this year while bringing a bevy of big game experience to a young Cubs clubhouse.
Now, the Cubs’ front office clearly believes that the veteran right-hander is capable of replicating his career 2015 season, but should we? ERA-FIP discrepancy (outlined in my most recent article) is one of my favorite stats for projecting pitching regression, and Lackey’s -0.80 mark suggests that he's in line for at least a slight increase in ERA. In addition, the former Cardinal experienced a career high strand rate last year of 82.6%, second in the major leagues only to statistical freak and newly signed Diamondback, Zack Greinke.
While these numbers are certainly disheartening, one must also consider that the league leaderboards in LOB%(strand rate) and ERA-FIP discrepancy are generally littered with the preeminent pitchers in the game. While Lackey isn’t going to challenge for a Cy Young anytime soon, one must consider the possibility that the veteran is simply out-pitching these predictive statistics, as great pitchers so often do. Lackey posted a superb first strike percentage of 70.8% last year, trailing only Max Scherzer for the league lead in that ever-important statistic. So while the newly-minted Cub nearly matched his velocity from previous seasons identically and varied his pitches at roughly the same rates, he was able to get ahead of batters more effectively than almost anyone else in the league, and reaped the benefits.
If Lackey can build on his confidence from last year and continue to get ahead in the count against the offensively challenged lineups in the NL, the elder statesman may be in line for yet another career season at the age of 37. While slight regression is likely unavoidable, Lackey should be able to build on last year's momentum and provide the Cubs with around 200 innings at an ERA less than 3.30 and more than 7.00 strikeouts per nine. In fact, it would not be surprising to see Lackey become the premier number-three starter in baseball, as many of his 2015 statistics were in line with career norms (BABIP, HR/9, GB%, Opponents BA, and Hard/Soft contact rates). This “minor” signing will not seem so inconsequential next September, you can be sure of that.
Better Numbers for Samardzija?
Unlike Lackey, Jeff Samardzija is coming off a rather substandard season in which he posted a career high ERA of 4.96 across 32 starts for the South Side Sox. In 2015, Shark experienced what some may call a Murphy’s Law season, where everything that could possibly go wrong, absolutely did. Samardzija experienced the fourth highest ERA-FIP discrepancy in the big leagues last year, at a ghastly and likely unsustainable 0.73 difference. However, even if the 6'5" righty had pitched to his predicted FIP, his 4.23 ERA would surely have also been a disappointment for White Sox fans and fantasy baseball owners alike.
As bleak as the outlook may seem, there is a silver lining here. Samardzija was victimized by the gopher ball at a historic rate last year, as his 1.22 HR/9 represents a 20% increase over his career mark. This bloated home run total undoubtedly also inflated Samardzija’s FIP, and we can expect that his ERA-FIP discrepancy would have been even larger given a normalized dinger rate.
Now, the 30-year-old has moved west, and is abandoning the bandbox also known as U.S. Cellular Field for the vast expanse of space that is San Francisco’s AT&T Park. The Giants’ oceanfront venue was practically made for a fly-ball pitcher like Samardzija (11th in the Majors last year with a 39.8% FB rate), as AT&T’s home run park factor was lowest in the majors at a minuscule .599. Samardzija’s former home in Chicago, on the other hand, was eighth in the league in home run park factors last year at 1.113. Further, there were 47 fewer home runs hit in San Francisco last year when compared with Chicago, and the home runs in San Francisco were, on average, five feet longer.
Given the above information, we can definitively posit that the former Notre Dame wide receiver will give up fewer home runs in 2016, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see Samardzija’s HR/9 plummet well below 1.00 given his new home. So while Samardzija experienced an abominable season last year, it would be wise to bet on a bounce-back campaign. Samardzija did significantly trim his walk rate in 2015, while experiencing an above average BABIP, and a well-documented spike in home runs. If these factors rectify themselves, Shark could be a sneaky value for the Giants this year, and a valuable mid-rotation starter.
Plus, moving a seafaring creature from landlocked Chicago to Pacific beachfront property like San Francisco can’t hurt, right?