If his last start is any indication, Samardzija’s most recent changes are working wonders.
It’s been a few months since the last “Jeff Samardzija has altered his pitch selection” article, so that means it’s time to give an update. Samardzija is always tinkering with his approach depending on what he has feel for and what’s working. He has six different pitches—four seamer, cutter, sinker, slider, split finger, and curveball according to Baseball Savant’s classification—so he’s not at a loss for ways to attack hitters.
Samardzija’s repertoire is somewhat anachronistic in that he throws just about anything. Over the past couple years, we’ve seen more and more pitches remove pitches from their arsenal rather than add. Since starters aren’t going as deep into games, they often don’t need a fourth or even a third pitch because they aren’t going to face the order a third time through. Pitchers are min-maxing their setups, minimizing the pitches that don’t do as well and maximizing their best offerings.
Meanwhile, Samardzija throws the kitchen sink, depending on unpredictability and adaptability to survive. Or at least that’s what he’s done until recently. Over the past month, Samardzija has trimmed down on what he throws. Since July 1, Samardzija has thrown just four curveballs, and all but one came in his first two starts of the month.
The curve wasn’t a huge part of his game, but you could normally expect him to snap over four or five in a 100-pitch outing. He’s also gone stretches before without throwing any including the first half of 2016, so it’s not that he’s totally abandoned the pitch. He could pick it up again before season’s end if he regains feel for it or loses feel for another pitch.
It’s not hard to reason why he’s stopped throwing it for now, however. It’s neither a strike-stealer nor a kill pitch. He had only thrown 36.5 percent of his curves in the strike zone, the lowest mark of his career. Only his splitter has been out of the zone more often, but a key difference there is that hitters chase the splitter.
If Samardzija throws his curve out of the strike zone, the hitter is more than likely to take it. If he throws it in the strike zone, the results might be worse. Hitters don’t miss his curve if it’s over the plate, so the best-case scenario is the hitter fouls it off. A pitch that can’t get hitters to chase out of the zone or get them to swing and miss in the zone isn’t one you want to throw.
Another adjustment that Samardzija has made over the last month is that he’s moving away from his sinker. Over the last two seasons, the sinker has been Samardzija’s go-to fastball. He’s used it more often than any other pitch. In Saturday’s eight-inning dominance of the Phillies, Samardzija threw just seven sinkers out of 103 pitches.
Samardzija’s sinker and cutter have jockeyed for the second spot in his repertoire all season. Most of that has depended on the handedness of the batter. Samardzija has preferred the cutter to lefties and the sinker to righties. Even with all the righties in the Phillies lineup, Samardzija stuck to the cutter. He actually threw a higher percentage of cutters to righties than he has all season. It barely edged out a July 15 outing in which he struck out nine batters in 6 2/3 innings. On Saturday, it was the only pitch he could use to get righties to swing and miss.
On the season, the sinker and the four seamer have been hit about as hard, but the four seamer has induced far more swings and misses. Samardzija has a 20.7 whiff percentage* with the sinker compared to 13.2 with the sinker.
*Baseball Savant’s whiff percentage differs from SwStr% in that whiff percentage is swing and misses divided by swings. SwStr% is swing and misses divided by total pitches.
Though he has lost velocity, Samardzija’s four seamer ranks in the 97th percentile in spin rate. Higher spin fastballs resist gravity better and stay off a batter’s swing plane more effectively. The league is moving away from sinkers as a whole because sinkers tend to align perfectly with a batter’s swing plane.
Whether this is a permanent change remains to be seen but for now, Samardzija appears to be consolidating his arsenal. He’s dropped the curve out completely and the sinker has taken a back seat to the cutter even against right-handed hitters. If his outing against the Phillies is any indication, these are changes for the better.