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« Jennings Belts Three | Main | Braves Add Free-Swinging Juan Francisco »

Samardzija's Marginal Fastball

New Cubs manager Dale Sveum recently named righty Jeff Samardzija his club's third starter, giving the former Notre Dame wide receiver whom Chicago coaxed into baseball with a $10 million contract back in 2006 his first chance to stick in the rotation.

The Cubs haven't gotten much return on that investment so far. Pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen, Samardzija has a career 95 ERA+ in 169.2 innings pitched. His strikeout rate is okay but hardly special (7.5 K/9), he has walked far too many batters (5.3 BB/9) and he sports a ground ball rate barely above 40 percent. Samardzija gained prospect notoriety for his booming fastball, which has averaged 94.4 mph in the majors and topped out at 99 mph. But it has been a BP-quality offering since he debuted in 2008, especially against left-handed hitters.

Opponents have hit .285/.402/.459 against Samardzija's fastball since '08, compared to the .266/.352/.416 average for relief pitchers over that time frame. While righties are putting plenty of good swings on Samardzija's fastball and benefitting from his wildness (.274/.374/.423), lefties have teed off for a .303/.443/.513 line.

Samardzija has tossed a ton of fastballs away to lefty hitters, often missing to his arm side off the plate:

Samardzija's fastball location to lefty hitters, 2008-11

Just 42% of Samardzija's fastballs to lefties have been thrown in the strike zone, way below the 48% average for righty relievers versus opposite-handed hitters from 2008-11.

Compounding matters is that when Samardzija does locate his fastball in the zone to lefties, he leaves the pitch belt-high. About 40% of his in-zone fastballs to lefties have been thrown to the horizontal middle of the zone (36-37% average). That's where left-handers have made him pay:

Lefty hitters' in-play slugging percentage vs. Samardzija's fastball, 2008-11

ZiPS projected Samardzija for a 4.12 ERA out of the 'pen in 2012, a mark that would move closer to five if he follows the general pattern of other relievers-turned-starters. Considering that the Cubs aren't playing for much this year and that Samardzija is out of minor league options, you can understand the desire to find out if he can hack it in the rotation. Still, his control woes make this conversion look like a Hail Mary.  

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