This article is titled Jeff Samardzija is Still the Most Unlucky Pitcher in Baseball, but I am not sure that title captures just how unfortunate he has been thus far in 2017. Perhaps a more apt title would read Jeff Samardzija Has Been Getting Royally Screwed At a Historical Pace.
Earlier this season, I opined about how Jeff Samardzija had been the most unlucky pitcher in baseball through the first month and half of the season. Samardzija, who I referred to as Jeff in the article because typing out Samardzija over and over is tiresome, had posted a FIP nearly two points below his ERA and had won just one of his first ten starts. Well, fast forward almost two months later and not much has changed. Jeff (yes, I am going to call him that again. Like Jeff’s unluckiness, my unwillingness to type out his last name has not changed either) has the 7th best xFIP in baseball, but is burdened with an unsightly 4-10 record and a 4.59 ERA at the break.
Jeff’s peripherals thus far have far surpassed his actual performance, but due to nothing else going right for the team in the city by the bay, nobody has seemed to notice. To put into context just how much Jeff’s transformation has gone under the radar, let’s take a quick look at the xFIP leaderboards at the break.
For those of you that are not familiar with xFIP, it is a statistic that measures a pitcher’s run prevention skills independent of the skills of the defense. The difference between xFIP and FIP is that replaces a pitcher’s home run total assuming the average HR / FB percentage. In this case, xFIP is a better indicator of Jeff’s unluckiness because it shows that Jeff is not just benefitting from the home run reducing effects of spacious AT&T Park.
Without further adieu, here are your NL xFIP leaders:
Pretty crazy, right? The other three names on the list are legitimate Cy Young contenders, all pitching for contenders, with a combined record of 35-11. Meanwhile, Jeff is pitching for the team with the worst offense in all of baseball, so he has 4-10 record.
Jeff has stacked up amongst the best pitchers in baseball in 2017 when looking at xFIP, but he has been the best of all time when it comes to his ability to punch out batters without walking them. Jeff currently has a 9.07 K/BB ratio this season. The next closest K/BB ratio was James Burke with a 7.53 mark. He pitched for the Buffalo Bisons in 1884. His FanGraphs page doesn’t even include what arm he threw with. I digress.
It is not surprising that Jeff has a great strikeout rate and an unparalleled walk rate considering that these statistics are two of the main components of FIP, but breaking the all-time record by 12%? That’s unbelievable. That is like a hitter racking up 88 home runs. Okay, it is not like that, but you get what I am saying.
I know I am belaboring the point here, but Jeff had a span of five starts earlier this year where he had 59 strikeouts and just one walk. No pitcher has ever had a five-game stretch like that. You can’t make this stuff up.
So Jeff has been able to strike out batters at a very high clip and limit walks at a historic rate. So what? If hitters are still mashing the balls they do hit, then you can’t really say Jeff has been unlucky. However, with the 10th lowest Hard Hit% and the 6th best Soft contact% in the National League, that is not the case. There is truly no explanation for this level of unluckiness. At this point, I am refreshing the page twice to make sure these statistics are real.
When we look at opposing hitter’s plate discipline statistics against Jeff, his lack of fortune is all the more staggering. First, his Z-contact% is down from his career average of 86.1% to 83.9%, which means that among the pitches Jeff throws in the strike zone (which is a lot), hitters are making less contact than ever before. Second, his O-swing%, which measures the number of pitches outside the zone that hitters swing at, has gone from a career 30.9% to 32.3%, meaning Jeff is enticing hitters to swing at bad pitches more than ever before.
Not only are these numbers impressive relative to Jeff’s career thus far, but they are also among the league leaders. His 32.3% swing rate is 3rd in the NL, behind two guys named Scherzer and Greinke. His Z-contact% is 9th in the NL. The names ahead of him? DeGrom, Scherzer, Ray, Lynn, Kershaw, Arrieta, Lester, and Strasburg. Good company.
This Z-contact% is especially notable considering how many strikes that Jeff throws. If a hitter knows that a pitcher is going to throw in the zone, there is less guessing. When a hitter is more geared up to swing, they are more likely to make contact. Jeff is 14th in the NL in Zone%, which I am sure you could guess measures a number of pitches a pitcher throws in the strike zone. The only pitchers who throw more pitches in the strike zone and get more swings and misses in the zone are Strasburg, Kershaw, Scherzer, and Arrieta. I think I have made my point. Jeff has good stuff.
So what is to blame for Jeff’s bad luck? First off, having the 7th highest HR/FB% while pitching your home games at AT&T Park is pretty astounding. Second, opponents have posted a .329 BABIP against Jeff which is also good for 7th highest in the league. This is all the more notable considering the aforementioned peripheral statistics concerning the nature of the batted balls against him. Add in that his LOB% is the third-worst in all of baseball (thanks again, Giants bullpen) and we get a guy will almost inevitably experience position regression in the second half.
Unlike my first post about Jeff, the sample sizes for his transformation of his repertoire are now large enough to have normalized. I noted in that piece how he made wholesale changes to his pitch usage, scrapping a cutter in favor of his splitter and curve. As the last post notes, his cutter was getting raked, so taking this pitch out of his arsenal and adding another weapon in his curveball made him less predictable and thus less hittable. If he had reverted back to his old pitch usage trends, there might be reason to believe that his newfound success was something of an anomaly, but since he made this adjustment his numbers have remained constant on a month-by-month basis.
Jeff is putting up the peripheral numbers of a Cy Young contender, but the standard statistics of someone who should be designated for assignment. Don’t be surprised if Jeff has an incredible second half because right now the only thing more unfortunate that his standard statistics is his haircut / facial hair combo.