Jeff Samardzija continued his up-and-down season yesterday, allowing 6 runs on 8 hits over 5.2 innings against the light-hitting White Sox. Despite scoring the fewest runs in the American League in 2017, the White Sox hit 4 homeruns off Samardzija, and totaled 6 for the game. The 6 earned runs allowed by Samardzija breaks a 3-start stretch where Samardzija had allowed 1 run or less in over 6+ innings. His 28 homeruns allowed on the season are now the 3rd most in the National League, and despite his ability to combine elite velocity and movement, Samardzija finds himself in the bottom 10 in the National League in total bases allowed, triples allowed, homeruns allowed, runs batted in allowed, and opponents slugging percentage. I’m often asked how a pitcher with such an electric arsenal gets hit so hard, and while an obvious factor centers on poor pitch location within the strikezone (meaning that while he is throwing strikes, those strikes are in the center of the plate), there’s another factor in Samardzija’s delivery that I believe, based on experience, makes him much more hittable than he should be.
Based on his velocity, repertoire, and movement (NOT his results), there are a few pitchers in baseball who compare closely to Samardzija. Steven Strasburg, Corey Kluber, and Sonny Gray, in addition to Samardzija, all feature high velocity fastballs (to varying degrees), sinkers, sliders, curveballs and change-ups as their blueprint to keep hitters off balance. However, the most noticeable difference between the Samardzija and the other three, is his overall effectiveness. In 2017, Kluber, Strasburg, and Gray all find themselves in the top 20 of Major League Baseball in ERA, batting average against, opponents slugging percentage, and opponents OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage). When we dive into the video of all three and compare it to Samardzija, perhaps we’re provided with a better understanding as to why the results are so different.
If we look at a recent start from Sonny Gray against the Baltimore Orioles, a 2-pitch sequence to slugger Trey Mancini best illustrates how and why he is so effective. In drawing a red circle upon the release of the pitch, we have established a “hitter’s window,” representing, amongst other things, the process of pitch recognition and pitch selection. Generally speaking, the more a pitcher can release his varying pitches through the same “window,” the harder it will be for a hitter to recognize them. As for Gray, who relies heavily on a 2-seam fastball/sinker (1st pitch) and slider/cutter (2nd pitch), you can see that both have an identical look as the ball enters the hitting zone. From the results of Mancini’s swing, it’s evident that he’s not able to tell one pitch from the other despite them moving in opposite directions and at different velocities.
The same thing goes for Strasburg. While we can’t establish a hitter’s window due to the differing angles of videos, you can see the 2-seam fastball and curveball looking like similar pitches upon Strasburg’s release.
The Kluber sequence is extremely telling because it show’s 3 straight sliders that come out of the same window, and then a 2-seam fastball that looks identical, but almost has the illusion of the ball tailing and rising at 94mph into the right-handed hitter.
As for Samardzija, he’s experienced much more inconsistent results despite possessing the same type of “stuff” as the three mentioned above. But when we look at the 4 homeruns he allowed in yesterday’s game, perhaps were provided with the reason as to why.
The first two homeruns were both off of 94mph 2-seam fastballs that came right back over the middle of the plate. Additionally, both were delivered through precisely the same hitters window.
The third homerun was a curveball in which the vertical movement of the pitch immediately moved the ball above the window, and at 71mph, provided two immediate hints to the hitter that the pitch was a elevated non-fastball. Obviously because of the nature of the pitch, a breaking ball will move more on a vertical plane, however as we saw from Strasburg’s curveball, starting the pitch in the same window as the fastball not only increases its deception, it ensures the ball will cross the plate at the bottom of the hitting zone.
The final homerun was a 90mph cut-fastball that again, was delivered on the elevated portion of the hitters’ window.
So what does this all mean to a hitter?
If I were hitting against Samardzija, I would know going into the at-bat that unlike Strasburg, Gray, and Kluber, Samardzija’s fastballs and non-fastballs come out of different windows. Being able to eliminate pitches is critical to a hitter’s chances of making hard contact, so having the ability to distinguish pitches based on how they come out of the pitchers hand is extremely valuable.
If we look at Samardzija when he pitches well, it’s obvious that his success goes hand-in-hand with his deception. Back in May, Samardzija had one of his finest outings in a Giants uniform, firing 8 innings of 3-hit ball, striking out 11 without allowing an earned run against the Dodgers. In 9 of his 11 strikeouts, Samardzija stayed within the same hitters window regardless of pitch-type and location. Additionally, one of the two strikeouts that started above the hitters window was a pre-determined elevated fastball to Cody Bellinger.
It’s no secret that Samardzija’s issues have nothing to do with “stuff.” However, until he can become more consistent in his ability to keep hitters off balance through deception, we’re likely to see the same struggles he’s had in his 2 seasons with the orange and black.