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Jeff Samardzija Figures It Out

The Cubs’ wild thing started challenging batters and throwing strikes, reinventing himself as a possible ace at age 28.

Jeff Samardzija

Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

When Jeff Samardzija was bouncing up and down between the minors and triple-A, he looked like the latest Cubs flamethrower with no control, an odd accompaniment to human panic attack Carlos Marmol (career walks-per-nine: 6.03, about twice the MLB average) and Raphael Dolis, the poor man’s Carlos Marmol.

In 2011, his first full season in the majors, Samardzija walked over five batters per nine innings, the third-worst rate in baseball for anyone who threw at least eighty innings. The next year, the Cubs were looking at paying a combined ten million dollars to three relievers who did anything but that. That same year, Scott Spratt of The Hardball Times calculated the pitchers who were most likely to throw a ball on a 3-1 or 3-2 count, a “who’s who of wild pitchers from the last three years.” Marmol had the seventh-highest rate, Samardzija just missed the top 20.

This made the Cubs tremendously entertaining to watch, especially for Cardinals fans like me, who were better positioned to appreciate the drama Marmol and Samardzija brought to the team’s precious few leads. It did not, however, look like a good investment. Nonetheless, the latter emerged as a starter after 2012 spring training, to the surprise of even close observers like Ken Rosenthal.

And he got good. This is what it looks like, from the catcher’s perspective.

Samardzija didn’t challenge left-handed batters during all of 2011, staying safely on the outside of the plate. 44 percent of the pitches he threw to left-handed hitters were balls; that’s really high. In 2012, he lowered that to 38 percent, which might not seem like much, but at least gets him in the range of normal. 

Samardzija’s ERA and home runs per nine innings jumped as a result of pitching to contact, but his K rate increased to more than a strikeout per inning, and he nearly cut his walk rate in half. Today Samardzija threw eight innings, walked one, struck out nine, and had a strikes-to-balls ratio of 65/35; he picked up the win.

Just barely, though: Carlos Marmol, his former bullpen colleague, faced three batters—he struck out the first, hit the second, and walked the third, throwing nine strikes to 19 balls. Veteran Japanese closer Kyuji Fujikawa vultured a save, meaning that Marmol Watch Year Two began early.

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