This off-season, the vast majority of talk about the Red Sox' free agent plans center around their need to acquire an ace. With Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke, Jordan Zimmermann and David Price all on the market this winter, this is probably the best chance the new Dombrowski-led front office will ever have to sign an arm that slots at the top of the rotation for years to come. All of those guys are widely considered "aces" and their stat lines support the claim. Yet here I am advocating for one pitcher who has little or no claim to the "ace" moniker--a pitcher who is coming off of a career-high in ERA, a career low in strikeouts and who also carries the albatross of a qualifying offer compensation pick.
Jeff Samardzija is not the ace the Red Sox need and he is certainly not the ace they deserve. In fact, he really isn't much of an ace at all. He is, however, a very talented pitcher capable of making a significant impact on the 2016 team. And all those negatives above should make him a far more cost-effective option that guys like Cueto and Zimmermann, two clearly better pitchers who have their own question marks. In fact, if Samardzjia does wind up as one of the top victims of the qualifying offer this season, he should even be inexpensive enough to be signed in addition to a Price or a Greinke rather than instead of.
From 2012 to 2015, Samardzija has had one great season by fWAR: 2014. That year, he posted a 4.1 mark, which matches Cueto's 2015 performance and tops anything Jordan Zimmermann has done except his high-water mark from 2014 of 5.3. But fWAR, being built on FIP rather than ERA makes it overly kind to Samardzija, who has typically had no issue missing bats, but who can also get hit hard when he fails to miss them. Shark has had ERAs over 4.00 as often as he has been under 3.00 over the last five seasons and his 2015 season was a disaster. He posted a 4.96 ERA and led the AL in hits, runs and home runs allowed. Even if you accept that FIP is a better predictor of future ERA number than ERA itself, you have to acknowledge that Shark has BABIP issues, at least at times. Playing home games in Fenway is not going to help matters either.
But for all of these issues, Shark still has tremendous potential as a value signing. He has struck out 8.2 batters per nine in his career and walked 3.0. His control appears to be improving as he ages as well. In his excellent 2014 season, he walked just 1.8 per nine and last season he walked 2.1. Prior to 2014, he had very average ground-ball-to-fly-ball numbers, but in 2014, he topped 50 percent ground balls. He took a sharp turn in the other direction last season, with a career-low 39 percent rate, but as you will see below, that number is probably not indicative of his skills going forward. From a scouting perspective, Samardzija brings great athleticism to the table and his 6'5, 225 frame promises durability as much as a pitcher's build can.
Had Jeff Samardzija performed exactly the way we might expect a pitcher with his stuff to perform, there would be little reason to advocate for signing him. Even if his 2015 season had never happened, he would be among the second tier of free agent starters this offseason and starting pitching is generally pretty expensive, even below the top tier of the market. But this offseason, Samardzija doesn't just have the off-year in 2015 going against him. He has everything going against him. The cost of the qualifying offer will hit him hard. In fact, it is somewhat bewildering that he even turned the offer down, given that he is a perfect candidate for a one-year "pillow" contract and matching the $15.8 million the qualifying offer would have earned him could be tough with a draft pick attached. Getting away from the South Side might be in Shark's best interest, but he may well leave money on the table to do so. Even if the losers in the market for Price, Greinke, Cueto, and Zimmermann all turn to Samardzija as a plan-B and multiple years do end up on the table, he is a good bet to be undervalued. A deal like Ervin Santana's four-year, $55 million deal is probably the floor for Shark, but the ceiling is almost certainly lower than James Shield's four-year, $75 million deal.
Of course, at almost any price, the 2015 version of Samardzija would be too expensive. However, there are several reasons to believe that is not who he is going to be in the future. The first and most obvious issue with his 2015 season is simply bad luck. Samardzija's lack of strikeouts and newly-found fly ball tendencies hurt his FIP and xFIP, but his ERA was greatly inflated by a 67.2 left-on-base rate, the fourth lowest rate in baseball. That number is well below Shark's career rate as well, so it is hard to imagine that anything Samardjzija did last season led to this dismal strand rate.
What his teammates did, or didn't do, might have had a greater impact on that strand rate. Samardzija pitched in front of the worst defense in baseball (by UZR, third worst by DRS). His numbers and his decision to reject the qualifying offer need to be viewed in light of this fact. Shark did not just suffer worse numbers because of the fielding behind him. He seems to have become a worse pitcher because of it. The Cubs teams he played for were never the Kansas City Royals' peers with the gloves, but they were regularly average or above average in the field and nothing like the -41 defenders he pitched in front of this past season. Whether he was attempting to pitch differently to work around poor fielding or he and his coaches simply developed a different game plan in his lone season on the South Side, Samardzija was not the same pitcher last year in terms of his pitch usage and approach.
How not to play defense, and perhaps a perfect example of what went wrong for Samardzija in 2015. -- Photo credit: Dennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports
Whatever caused Samardzija to change his style, it does not appear to be a reaction to an injury. Brooks baseball's numbers show a decline in velocity across the board, but the Pitch F/X data at Fangraphs disagrees, putting his four-seamer, two-seamer, cutter and slider all at essentially the same velo as his 2014 season. If there is any decline in his plus-velocity, it is not out of line with what we might expect from a pitcher entering his 30's and not an obvious red flag for injury. Even in 2015, his fastball, cutter and two-seamer had above average velocity. His pitches have not lost movement either. A quick look at Brooks Baseball's chart of his vertical and horizontal movement shows little change in any of his offerings. A more reasonable explanation for Samardzija's 2015 struggles is in how he employed his pitches.
Near the end of the season, Mike Podhorzer of Fangraphs looked at Shark's Struggles and noted that
"His two fastballs have generated similar whiff rates each year, while his cutter has induced swings and misses at an almost identical rate. The answer lies in his two off-speed pitches, the slider and splitter."
Podhorzer goes on to show that his slider remained fairly effective and splitter was the main culprit of his issues, both in getting strikeouts and keeping the ball on the ground. The pitch failed to dive out of the zone as it had before and was significantly less effective, both as an out pitch and as a pitch that could generate ground balls. The cause of this failure is a mystery, but unless elbow issues are behind it, it should be fixable and the presence of splitter master Koji Uehara in the Red Sox bullpen can't hurt the Red Sox if they choose to undertake this reclamation project.
Bad luck and the loss of his splitter might be part of the reason Shark struggled last season, but the full explanation has to include some mention of his near total departure from the pitch most likely to keep the ball on the ground: his sinker. Not only did he neglect the pitch, but he did so early in the game when it could help keep his pitch count down and help his secondary stuff play up as he continued through the order for the second and third time (see Lester, Jon). Predictably, this change hurt his whiff rates on his slider and splitter as he faced batters second and third time. In 2014, he rarely showed the splitter in the early innings and was able to get a higher percentage of whiffs on it when he went to it late in the game. By going to his off-speed stuff more often and earlier, Samardzija reduced its effectiveness and also increased his fly ball rate to an extreme degree.
Whether this change was an overreaction to the epically bad defense behind him or a faulty game plan, it is probably not a difficult fix. The Red Sox were a solid defensive team in 2015. Hanley Ramirez's cringe-worthy glove work won't be an issue in the outfield next year, so the 2016 team should be even better, if you assume he'll be better at a position closer to his infield origins. Samardjiza will cost the team a high draft pick and that is an unfortunate side effect of signing him. But this is a team that needs to turn things around now and not in three or four years when that pick will make an impact. Samardzija does not need to fix the rotation single-handedly and he probably should not be the only free agent pitcher the Red Sox sign. But he is almost certain to be undervalued this off-season and adding him to the pitching mix would be a smart move for Dombrowski this winter. He has the talent to be a number two, or a strong number three pitcher, and his floor is that of an average starter. While guys like Brian Johnson and Henry Owens could be better, their floor is still largely unknown and even sticking in the rotation is still a question for them. Adding cost-effective insurance for the rotation has no real downside. If everything breaks right for the kids, an effective Samardzija will still appeal to other teams in trade and that can at least repay the cost of the draft pick.
If this offseason plays out like the past two, the Red Sox can wait and see on Jeff Samardzija. It is difficult to gauge how much teams will knock him for his 2015 season and the cost of a draft has killed the market for comparable examples like Ervin Santana in the past. If history repeats itself, Jeff Samardzija might be the perfect buy-low candidate for a Red Sox team that needs arms and has the ability to take a few chances.