Converting Jeff Samardzija to the Rotation

From all indications, Jeff Samardzija is a near lock to begin the season in the Cubs’ starting rotation. Dale Sveum clearly thinks highly of him, and other candidates haven’t proven themselves this spring quite to the extent that Samardzija has.

With only two weeks remaining in the Cactus League, Samardzija has dominated. He has struck out 8.10 batters per nine innings, but far more impressively, he has yet to walk a batter. The past few seasons, Samardzija has struggled with his command, owning a career 5.30 BB/9 rate. He has always maintained high strikeout rates, and being a reliever, the high walk rates can be easier to swallow (a la Carlos Marmol).

Being a starter now, the high walk totals may make Cubs fans anxious about his transition, but is it safe to assume he’s greatly improved his control?

Under the Jim Hendry administration, Jeff Samardzija was inappropriately rushed through the system, after being given a $10 million contract following his 2006 draft selection. He spent the equivalency of two full seasons in minors before being called up to the majors at the age of 23 in 2008.

Samardzija did well in his brief exposure to the majors, but struggled mightily in 2009 tossing up a 7.53 ERA and a 1.76 WHIP in 20 games, two starts. That season transformed Samardzija from a fan-favorite into an enigma among Cubs fans. He followed 2009 with an even worse 2010 campaign where he posted a 2-2 record in only seven games, three starts, with an 8.38 ERA and a 2.12 WHIP (at Triple-A Iowa in 2010, 11-3 in 35 games, 15 starts, with a 4.37 ERA and a 1.37 WHIP). The book was supposedly closed on Samardzija as a starting pitcher, and possibly even a major leaguer.

Last season, Samardzija displayed his prowess as a solid middle relief option for the Cubs. He roared back with a sub-3.00 ERA (8-4 with a 2.97 ERA and a 1.30 WHIP in 75 relief appearances) and helped a bullpen led by Kerry Wood, Sean Marshall and a struggling Carlos Marmol.

Samardzija has always stated his desire to be a starter. Coupled with his strong finish last season and the team’s need for starting pitching, Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer decided to give him a chance to earn a spot in the rotation when they took over the organization.

If Samardzija becomes a starter, his fastball (which averaged 95 MPH last season) will almost certainly lose velocity given that he has to save his energy over a greater volume of innings. Before last season, his fastball averaged 93 MPH–still good, but just a touch slower.

Samardzija’s secondary pitches (slider, split-fastball, and cutter) were all above-average according to FanGraphs pitch values. His slider and cutter have made significant strides in becoming solid pitches, possibly being his second and third best. His splitter was considered to be a plus-pitch coming out of college (birthing the thought that he was just a two-pitch pitcher, and thus a reliever), however with the development of third and fourth offerings, he certainly has the arsenal of a model starting pitcher.

Jeff Samardzija hasn’t officially been given a starting job, but he is definitely the front-runner for the fourth spot in the rotation. And while his career, to this point, hasn’t been marked with a lot of consistent success, the strides he made in the off-season and this spring could allow him to become a very good starting pitcher.

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  • Ripsnorter1

    There has never been a question about his stuff. He has good stuff. It has always been about command. He really worked this past off-season, and it has paid off handsomely in ST. If he can keep his command, this is the year for him to win more than 10 games.

    • BosephHeyden

      Yes. Exactly this. I would love to see Samardzija get stretched out just a little longer in the next week or so, but this is his thing: constant control. He was extremely effective as a reliever because he only had to go one or two innings at any given time. But, in all honesty, there’s a reason we drafted Samardzija how we drafted him and there’s a reason he’s moved up so fast: because he’s supposed to be a good STARTER.

  • Tony_Hall

    It’s nice to see that his hard work and determination to be a starter have paid off for him and the Cubs. He was just a  2 pitch pitcher when he came up as reliever and has really worked on his stuff and secondary pitches, if now his 2nd pitch is considered his 4th pitch.

    Who knows how he will be and how his career will look 2-3 years from now, but many would have cast him aside (I might have even said that a time or two when he was looking awful) but you can’t throw away assets, just because they struggle.  You have to coach them and develop them.

  • DaCubs

    Samardzija is 27 yrs old and and probably hasn’t started three sraight times in the rotation since college, my guess is he doesn’t keep the command thing going beyond two starts and his fastball dips down a couple MPH, if team stays with him and he builds stamina he will come back with command and we may have found a starter.  Regardless Sveum will have to exercise patience as some point this year with him but this is the year to do it since we are rebuilding everywhere you look.  Good luck Jeff!!!

    • Tony_Hall

      Here are his year game started within the Cubs system, includes all levels. I think he made quite a few consecutive starts from 2007-2010.

      2006 – 7 GS2007 – 26 GS
      2008 – 21 GS
      2009 – 19 GS
      2010 – 18 GS

      • DaCubs

        You are correct stamina and accuracy should not be a problem thankfully we have our number four pitcher identified.  Hopefully he gets beyond the @5 innings per start he has shown throughout his career.  Once again good luck Jeff!!! 

  • Spoda17

    I hope he does make it and become a very solid big league pitcher.  I have always like Jeff, and I also wish him well.  DaCubs I agree, but hope he can keep it going for more than a start or two.

    If he struggles out of Spring… he may not recover…

  • jw

    Watching him throw this spring he certainly passes the eye test…he is making hitters look defensive

  • Doogolas11

    It’s worth noting that over the last three months of the year his walk rate was 3.59 per 9 innings. And if you look by month, BB rate went down a ton throughout the year and leveled off at a reasonable rate towards the end of the year, by month:
    22.9%
    13.0%
    12.3%
    9.4%
    9.8%
    9.8%

    Tim Lincecum, Jon Lester and Ubaldo Jiminez are all guys that had walk rates around 9.6%. Billingsly and Gio Gonzalez each had a BB% higher than that as well. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Richard-Hood/100000706523521 Richard Hood

    For most pitchers between the age of 27 to 30 they stop being throwers and start being pitchers. With Shark if the adjustments he has made stick we have a chance to see another Wilson situation.  Now all he has to do is stay on top of his command and have the stamina to keep up a full season of work as a starter.

  • ChadAudio

    I certainly hope Jeff becomes a solid starting pitcher, I never felt he got a fair chance under the previous management.  It always felt like Lou would let him “compete” for a chance at the rotation, but never take him seriously.

    That being said, at this point, I get conflicted when rooting for Shark.  I think we are a better team with Shark in the pen… maybe even as our closer.  I just don’t believe in Marmol anymore, and with Marshall and Shark out of the pen, we look really bad.  There is only one thing worse then watching a bad defensive team… and that’s watching one with a bad bull pen.

    I want Jeff to be a good starting pitcher, and I think he is due for another chance, but I have a feeling the team would be better with Wells in the rotation and Shark in the pen.

    • cubtex

      They are not going anywhere this year so now is the time to develop Shark as a starter. You are right about the bullpen though this year! It will be bad.

      • Ripsnorter1

        Maybe Dolis and Castillo will surprise us.

        • cubtex

          I like both of their upsides…but being young they will both go through growing pains. They are 2 arms to build on.

      • ChadAudio

        So true cubtex, we have nothing else to loose this year… so, we might as well.  And honestly, I wish Shark the best, I think he has earned this opportunity… I hope he is solid.
        My apprehension is purely selfish… I just hate watching a team with a bad bullpen.  I’d way rather watch a team with bad starting pitching and offense, then watch a team with a bad bullpen.

  • wrigleylover

    He should probably be given a chance in the rotation, but your comment  “other candidates haven’t proven themselves this spring quite to the extent Samardzija has” is wrong. Volstad has done better this spring 2.70 ERA vs 0.90 ERA and both with no walks.  Time will tell if he can go the 175 or so innings required as a starter. Since Samardzija and Volstad are so similar ( Height, etc.)  I would position Maholm between them in the rotation.

    • wrigleylover

      My error I  guess they are not that similar in height Samardzija is only 6’5″.  

      • Scott

        Volstad is 6’8”, 230 lbs.  Samardzija is 6’5″ 225 lbs.  Physically, they are not that different, but cubtex is right, they are different pitchers because of the kind of stuff they have in their arsenal.  Re-read cubtex’s argument.

    • cubtex

      Volstad and Samardzija are not similar pitchers. Volstad is more of a finesse guy that needs to hit his spots to be effective. Shark is a power guy. They need to limit Samardzija’s innings so he should be the #5. He only threw around 80 innings last year so you need to be somewhat cautious.

  • roguesqr09

    Worth mentioning…..my best friend’s (female), sister’s husband….is best friends with the Shark’s brother. I haven’t meet him yet, but my friend has! 

    I better get something with his autograph this year for my bday!

    • John_CC

      Seriously!?

      Well, this isn’t worth mentioning, but one time my brother (male) got invited to a party at Farnsworth’s condo (when he was a Cub) because our mutual friend’s (male) friend (female) knew Kyle’s girlfriend (at the time).  Farnsy was on the road with the team and they said the party sucked, but they did steal his toenail clipper for a keepsake!

  • Aaron

    I’m happy to see the Shark finally get his shot at the rotation (if all goes well this Spring)

    I’m also happy to hear rumblings about teams inquiring on DeWitt…hopefully he’s gone, and we can FINALLY close the book on yet another terrible Hendry trade. 

    Here’s how the roster SHOULD shake out…but won’t:
    Garza
    Dempster
    Maholm
    Samardzija
    Volstad

    Marmol
    Wood
    Dolis
    Russell
    Maine
    L. Castillo
    Mateo-for velocity purposes, and because he’s out of options

    C-Soto, Clevenger
    1B-LaHair
    2B-Barney, Cardenas
    SS-Castro
    3B-Stewart, Baker
    LF-Soriano, Mather
    CF-B. Jackson, Byrd
    RF-DeJesus

    Notable omissions: Byrd, Johnson, Wells, and DeWitt…all could be traded, except for Johnson (can’t til June because he was a FA). I would hope that DeWitt is the first one dealt

    • ChadAudio

      Good thoughts Aaron.

      In reality, the rotation and bullpen will probably be as you described.

      I agree with most of your suggested Hitters, except for B Jax (I think he needs to start in AAA) and Cardenas (I would keep Tony Campana and leave Baker and Mather as backup IF)

      Just curious, do you have a particular reason for choosing Clevenger over Castillo as the backup catcher?

  • Theboardrider

    Bold prediction.  Shark is an All-Star this year….