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« HR Recap: Joey Votto (5/14/2012) | Main | Best Mistake Hitters since 2010 »

Samardzija's Splitter Key to Breakout

When the Cubs announced that Jeff Samardzija would shift from the bullpen to the starting rotation in 2012, the move looked like a noble experiment by a non-contender that nonetheless figured to fail. After all, the former Notre Dame wideout struggled to throw strikes while working almost exclusively as a reliever from 2008-2011, walking 5.3 batters per nine innings and posting a 95 ERA+. 'Pen arms just about always fare worse when stretched out and forced to face lineups multiple times, so even the most optimistic Bleacher Bum had to be skeptical about Samardzija's prospects for success.

But, like relief convert Ryan Dempster before him, Samardzija has made a swift transition to the rotation so far. The power righty has a 131 ERA+ in 43.2 innings, striking out over a batter per inning (9.3 K/9) while also paring his walk rate to 2.9 per nine. Samaradzija's high-octane fastball is still getting scorched -- opponents are batting .372 and slugging .526 against the pitch -- but his splitter has become one of the game's true swing-and-miss offerings.

Samardzija's split, typically thrown about nine mph slower than his near-95 mph fastball, has racked up 28 of his 45 strikeouts this season. He's throwing the split a near equal amount to lefties (18.2 percent of his pitches) and righties (17.6 percent), and he's burying it at hitters' knees. Only 31 percent of Samardzija's splitters have been thrown in the strike zone, yet they're so tantalizingly close to the plate that hitters practically have to go after them for fear of being called out on strikes:

Samardzija's splitter location, 2012

Batters have swung at 44 percent of Samardzija's borderline-but-out-of-the-zone splitters, above the 37 percent average for the pitch this season. And they're coming up empty on those outside cuts. Check out hitters' contact rate by location against Samardzija's splitter, and then the league average for splitters:

Opponent contact rate vs. Samardzija's splitter, 2012

Average contact rate vs. splitters, 2012

That's a lot of Cubbie blue for Samardzija. Hitters have missed 53 percent of the time they have swung against Samardzija's split this season, the best mark in the majors. The aforementioned Dempster is second on the list. With so many whiffs, Samardzija's splitter has limited batters to a .070 average and a .116 slugging percentage. He basically turns opponents into weak-hitting pitchers when he snaps off a splitter.

Theo Epstein and Jed Hoyer have a major rebuild on their hands in Chicago, but Samardzija's emergence potentially gives the club two power arms to build around when paired with Matt Garza. That's enough to keep the Bleacher Bums beaming for now.  

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