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Entries in Chicago Cubs (33)

Monday
May142012

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.  

Tuesday
May082012

Home Run Recap: Jason Heyward

Jeff Samardzija vs. Jason Heyward Pitch Sequence, May 7th, 2012 (2nd inning)

In last night's great start from Cubs' starter Jeff Samardzija, the lone blip came in the second inning when the tall righthander gave up a home run to Atlanta Braves' Jason Heyward

The former Notre Dame standout started Heyward out with a two-seamer and a splitter which were both low in the zone.  The third pitch ended up right in Heyward's hot spot, as you can see from the heat map above. It was a 95 MPH two-seamer that Heyward hit out over the wall in right field at Wrigley. 

Samardzija tried to keep the ball low on Heyward all day, which is odd considering Heyward generates most of his power on balls low in the zone. He was likely hoping to get Heyward to chase a few pitches down and out of the zone, and missed his spot on the HR pitch.  From the video link above, you can see that Soto was actually setting him up outside.

Given the kind of velocity Samardzija can get behind his fastball, he might do better trying to come up and in on Heyward in future meetings.

Monday
Mar052012

Starlin Castro's Second-Half Pop

For most of his brief MLB career, Starlin Castro has hit atop the Cubs lineup or out of the two-hole. But new manager Dale Sveum said he's considering batting his soon-to-be 22-year-old shortstop third in 2012.

The three-spot in the lineup is usually the domain of power hitters who can drive in the guys hitting at the top -- NL players hitting third slugged .457 last year, the highest of any lineup spot. Castro, with a career .422 slugging percentage, might seem like an odd choice for a meat-of-the-order spot. But Sveum and the Cubs are likely betting that the 6-foot, 190 pound Castro grows into more of a power hitter and continues his second-half slugging from 2011.

Castro hit a grounder 53% of the time that he put the ball in play from April-June last year, well above the 44% league average. With all of those worm-burners, Castro hit just two home runs in 360 plate appearances. He hit choppers on pitches at the knees far more than most hitters. Check out his ground ball rate by pitch location, and then the league average:

Castro's ground ball rate by pitch location, April-June

Average ground ball rate by pitch location, 2011

Once the calendar turned to July, however, Castro's approach was more like that of a guy capable of driving in runs. His ground ball rate on low pitches in the zone decreased mightily:

Castro's ground ball rate by pitch location, July-September

Castro hit grounders 44% of the time from July through September. With more skyward contact, he hit eight home runs in 355 plate appearances. Overall, Castro added 10 feet of distance on his fly balls hit from April-June (261 feet) to July-September (271 feet).

While Castro wasn't a huge power threat in the minors (.421 slugging), either, his youth, size and change in approach mean he could emerge as a 15-20 homer guy as he matures. In placing Castro sixth on his "Top 50 MLB Players Age 25 or Under," ESPN's Keith Law went so far as to say, "He's likely to keep posting .300 averages and should end up with 20-plus homers and slugging percentages around .500, perhaps even better if he can work on getting into better counts." Castro might not be a middle-order masher yet, but he could be that guy one day.

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