Jeff Samardzija joined the “Carmen and Jurko Show” on ESPN 100 earlier this week and gave fans a glimpse of his goals as a starting pitcher who would like to stay with the Chicago Cubs long term. “This year, I need to prove that I can take that next step and without a doubt I’m that guy that they want here pitching in Game 1, Game 3 and Game 7 of the World Series”.
As a fan, one cannot help but love to hear those words from any player, much less a player as talented as Samardzija. Last season was his second full year as a starting pitcher, and it was a disappointing step backwards from the flashes of brilliance he showed in 2012.
However, signs of becoming an elite pitcher were also on display at times last year. In particular, Samardzija started the season strong with his command, which looked to be a continuation of the improved command he showed during 2012.
Prior to 2012, Samardzija had shown off his raw stuff, but he seemed to have no idea where the ball was going. Suddenly that wasn’t the case when he received his first crack at the Cubs starting rotation as he lowered his walk rate from 5.1 BB/9 out of the bullpen in 2011 to 2.9 BB/9 in 2012. At the same time, his strikeout rate hit an all-time high at 9.3 K/9, giving him a well above average K/BB of 3.21 in 174.2 innings pitched in 2012.
Samardzija began the 2013 season picking up right where he left off in 2012, with a 3.36 K/BB in April and a 3.30 K/BB in May. The results followed suit with a 3.35 ERA in April and a 2.31 ERA in May. It appeared that he was taking the next step towards becoming a top of the rotation pitcher — until the wheels fell off in the last four months of the season.
Despite a solid K/BB of 3.08 in June, Samardzija allowed 47 hits in 40.2 innings, compiling a 4.20 ERA that month. In July, August and September, Samardzija again allowed more hits than innings pitched and recorded an ERA above 5.00 in each consecutive month.
Part of Samardzija’s struggles were simply related to bad luck. In the second half, batters had a .324 BABIP against Samardzija, well above the .296 mark he had established one season prior. Batters were clearly squaring Samardzija up though, as he continued to give up too many home runs with 11 allowed in 89 second half innings. According to both FIP and xFIP, however, Samardzija was much better than his 4.34 ERA would suggest. His FIP sat at a respectable 3.77 while his xFIP was even better at 3.45 on the year.
These stats are nice to see because they help explain the unexpected results of Samardzija’s 2013 season. Another factor that may have come into play in the second half of last year is fatigue. While he is built like a horse, Samardzija went from 88 innings pitched in 2011 to 174.2 innings pitched in 2012, and he simply was not the same pitcher once the calendar turned to June in 2013.
With that said, he clearly has work left to do if he wants to become the type of pitcher that he wants to become for this Cubs team. What it all comes down to for Samardzija is command of his pitches, which is the result of consistently repeating his delivery and putting the ball where he wants to. The good news for Cubs fans is if he can be consistent, Samardzija has the stuff to be one of the best pitchers in baseball, and no one in the game would dispute that.
When a player as talented as Jeff Samardzija has the makeup to work hard enough to reach his ceiling, it’s time for fans to get excited. The only question that remains is if he does reach his goal, will the Cubs reward him with a lucrative long-term contract? Given the Cubs’ need for impact starting pitching, the answer to that question should be a resounding yes.