Under The Hood With Jeff Samardzija


A good friend of mine and fellow baseball fan Craig Skochinski wrote up a piece about Jeff Samardzija that was so fun to read, I just had to share it with everyone here. Thanks Craig! Hope you readers enjoy Craig’s work:

Cubs fans had little to cheer about in 2012 and heading into 2013, well …. let’s not talk about that.  One bright spot for fans was the emergence of Jeff Samardzija, who had a breakout performance for the Cubs; toeing the rubber 28 times, throwing a career high 174.2 inning pitched, striking out a very impressive 9.27 batters per 9 inning, the 4th best K/9 in the bigs behind only Scherzer, Darvish and Gio Gonzalez.  Jeff also posted a very solid 2.89 BB/9 IP, along with a 3.81 ERA, 3.55 FIP good for 3.3 WAR (all numbers fangraphs).  Look at any numbers you want, the man had a very good year.  You don’t need advanced metrics or me to tell you he had a good year, regardless I’m far more interested in the how, why and whether we can expect this to continue.

Sep 3, 2012; Washington, DC, USA; Chicago Cubs starting pitcher Jeff Samardzija (29) throws in the third inning against the Washington Nationals at Nationals Park. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

To find out, I’ll go “under the hood” so to speak, meaning I’ll take a look at his pitch f/x data and see what there is to see.  For those of you unfamiliar with pitch f/x fangraphs has a good explanation on what it is and links to further reading on the subject here.

Basically Pitch f/x is a system installed in every baseball stadium that tracks things like, pitch movement, release point, velocity, spin and location for every pitch thrown.  Brooks Baseball is one site doing the lord’s work that tabulates all the data and arranges it in nice charts and graphs so that nerds like me can sift through the data and write about what we find. So, without further ado, let’s take a look.

The first thing I like to look at is pitch selection, what pitches did he use to get batters out and did this change from previous years?

Pitch Type

















The first thing that jumps out is that Jeff (yes we’re on a first name basis and no, I’m not typing out Samardzija every time) introduced a new pitch, a cut fastball, which typically doesn’t tilt like a slider and comes in with more giddyup.  The cutter’s not the story though and I’ll explain why later.

Right now I want to focus on -and what I think contributed most to his success- is the increased use of the splitter.  The splitter is the key pitch for him and best explains the increase in strikeouts, as it’s the one he most often uses when ahead in the count and with 2 strikes on the batter.  Against lefties, with two strikes Jeff used his splitter 36% of the time in 2011, still a lot more than any other pitch, and yet he increased that to 46% in 2012. Against righties: 32% in 2011, 39% in 2012.  Good decision since hitters couldn’t seem to lay off this pitch, which made doubly good by the fact that they can’t seem to hit it either, whiffing at a 42% rate.  Against his splitter hitters managed just a .132/.258/.116 racking up 100 of his 180 strikeouts with the pitch – which is just stupid.  To illustrate just how bad he was making the average hitter look, I tried to find the worst hitter in the league last year to compare those numbers to. Lowest batting average was Carlos Pena at .197, the worst OBP was Drew Stubbs at .277 and the worst slugging% was Jemile Weeks at .304.  His splitter made the average guy look worse than even this grotesque franken-baby triple slash line of the worst hitters in these categories last season. Again, it’s extremely important to note that this is the pitch Jeff would use most often ahead in the count and with two strikes against the batter, which you have to remember is a big reason for the crooked numbers as hitters are forced to expand the strike zone and swing at anything close. Still.

Of course it’s not like you can just throw any ol’ junk ball in two strike counts and expect to rack up a ton of strikeouts and otherwise make professional ball players look foolish. What makes Jeff’s strikeout weapon so effective is this:

This graph show’s Samardzijia’s release points for all of his pitches from the catcher’s perspective.  All of his pitches have roughly the same release point, and to the hitter, his splitter will look even more like his fourseamer creating excellent deception.  The splitter will come in with about 9 mph less on it and will break slightly in on a right-hander and will drop almost 2 feet more than the fourseamer.

Here’s a couple cool graphs which show how the pitch looks from the first base side:

First the Fourseam:

And the Splitter:

Pretty cool, huh?

Now back to that cut fastball for a minute, while at first I was tempted to say: “Hey look! A new pitch! That’s why he was awesome!” However, in the process of writing this article, I had to do a lot of learning on the fly about pitch f/x.  Turns out I almost made The Internet cry (note: phew!). Pitch classification is still very young in it’s development, as is pitchf/x as a whole (I think the system was first installed in baseball stadiums in 2007).  So a lot of the time a pitcher’s pitches get labelled differently by the people doing the labelling even though the pitcher is throwing the exact same stuff.  I consulted another source while trying to make sense of all this: Texas Leaugers, which had Samardizija throwing a cutter about as often in 2011 as he did in 2012, and since it’s very similar to the slider in spin, break and even velocity, it’s very tough to separate the two.  Basically this is a long-winded way of saying that I’m ignoring it for the purposes of this article since I don’t know shit lack the expertise and experience to accurately say whether it even was a new pitch, never mind trying to say anything about it.

So, what have we learned? Well ol’ Jeffy Z (pronounced: “zee” for all you canucks out there) as I’ve affectionately come to call him (in my head) did well to realize that his splitter is really freaking good! Also that it’s tough to lay off of in two strike counts and also very tough to hit.  By increasing his usage of it as an out pitch he was able to dramatically improve his strikeout rate.  Since strikeouts typically don’t vary much from year to year I think we can reasonably expect Samardizija to continue to be strong strikeout guy as he’s got a nice mix of pitches to help him get ahead in the count and then put them away with his splitter.  Of course coaches and players all have access to the same data and I’m sure they’re telling their hitters to lay off that pitch, but hey, it’s not that easy.

Good news for Cubs fans.