Jeff Samardzija is the Most Unlucky Pitcher in Baseball So Far

The start to Jeff Samardizja’s season has been absolutely dreadful, at least on the surface. Samardzija had a typical Samardizija season last year, in ERA in the high threes, was extremely durable, and missed enough bats to accrue a 2.6 WAR.

** At this point I am already tired of typing “Samardzija” so I will now refer to him as Jeff)

While Jeff’s finishing line was about as predictable as it could be, an adjustment he made in the second half of the year had many experts speculating that he could be on the verge of a breakout in 2017. In the last two months of the 2016 season, Jeff completely abandoned his cutter and started utilizing a two-seam fastball more frequently, while doubling his splitter usage. Between April and July of 2016, Jeff threw 31.7% cutters, but in August and September he threw the pitch only 5.58% of the time. In the same time span, Jeff upped his splitter usage from 5.10% to 9.96%. After making this adjustment in late July of 2016, Jeff had a 2.85 ERA over the course of the final two months of the season. Some analysts pointed to these changes as evidence that Jeff had turned a corner, but many are jumping off the bandwagon after his rocky start to 2017. While the early season results look ugly on paper, and they look really ugly, but when we look deeper into Jeff’s statistical profile, there are plenty of reasons to not jump ship quite yet.

Perhaps the largest testament to Jeff’s unluckiness in 2017 is the noticeable difference between his 7.40 ERA and 4.41 FIP. Even more striking is the fact that his SIERA (skill interactive ERA). When looking at the peripheral stats, it is pretty apparent why he ERA looks inflated. First, Jeff opponents have an unsustainable BABIP of .359 despite the fact that his opponents are posting Hard Hit% rates against Jeff that align with his career average. Secondly, Jeff has a 58.1% strand rate this year (the league average in 2017 was 82.9%). This means that rather the flukey hits that Jeff has been giving are also untimely. Third, and perhaps most importantly, Jeff has started all his games against the Rockies and D’Backs, who currently rank as the league’s top ranked offenses.

Jeff’s lack of fortune in the early weeks of the 2017 season is also striking because he has taken the aforementioned pitch usage adjustments he made in the final months of 2016 and actually improved upon them. After doubling the use of his splitters in the second half of 2016, he has again doubled his usage so far in 2017. But Jeff is not only using his splitter more, he is also growing more effective with it.

Below is a table showing Jeff’s progression with his splitter:

April – July (2016) Aug. –  Sep. (2016) 2017
Splitter Usage % 4.72% 12.34% 17.61%
Splitter Whiff % 6.06% 21.21% 26.67%

This table is not tough to decipher. The more Jeff uses his splitter, the more effective he is with it. The more times you throw a pitch that you are effective with, the more successful you will be. You may be thinking that the fact that Jeff is becoming more effective with his splitter isn’t a signal that he should improve moving forward considering he still only throws the pitch 17.61% of the time. This may be true, but the increase in whiffs Jeff is generating by utilizing his splitter has raised his overall SwStr rate from 9.2% in 2016 to 11.2% this season which has resulted in a spike in his strikeout rate.
I am by no means saying that Jeff is on the verge of a breakout, I am rather pointing out that Jeff’s ugly early season stat line is an aberration and that the adjustments he made last season that signaled a breakout have not disappeared. Jeff will never be more than a mid-rotation starter, but his early season struggles serve as another example of why you should almost never trust early season stat lines.

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