The last time Jeff Samardzija struck out a batter per inning was 2013. It was his second year as a full-time starting pitcher with the Cubs, and the team was in the third season of what would be one of the worst four-year stretches of all-time. Samardzija fanned 214 batters in 213 2/3 innings that year, the beginning of his reputation as a workhorse pitcher. He has thrown at least 200 innings every season since, but hasn't come close to striking out a batter per inning in any of them. That, in addition to climbing rates, has kept Samardzija stuck in neutral as a mid-to-bottom rotation starter.
Everything is crumbling around Samardzija in San Francisco, but he's in the midst of his best season since that 2013 campaign. The 32-year-old righty has made nine starts this season, and while his ERA sits at 4.57, the rest of his numbers suggest that's nothing more than the product of bad luck. He has a 2.89 FIP, 1.13 WHIP and 71 strikeouts against 10 walks in 61 innings. Samardzija has the third highest spread between his ERA and WHIP in the majors, trailing Trevor Bauer and Bartolo Colon. Those two, however, have ERAs well north of 6.00, placing their FIPs in the mid-4.00s. Samardzija is the only pitcher in the majors with a difference of at least 0.6 runs between his ERA and FIP who also has a FIP below 3.00. In other words, his ERA-to-FIP spread actually means something.
FIP, of course, highlights what a pitcher can control while ignoring what he can't. While it has some blind spots (such as underrating pitchers who can regularly induce weak contact on the ground) it loves pitchers who rack up strikeouts while avoiding walks. As such, it's no surprise that Samardzija has been the most unfortunate pitcher in the majors this year, based on FIP. He's one of three pitchers who has struck out seven times as many batters as he has walked while also posting a strikeout rate of at least 25%. The other two are Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale. Kershaw, in fact, has the same 2.89 FIP as Samardzija. His ERA, however, is more than two runs lower than Samardzija's.
It's more than just FIP suggesting that Samardzija has been quite unlucky this year. His BABIP is up at .331, while his strand rate is 63.3%, both of which comfortably worse than league average. What's more, Samardzija's hard-hit rate of 28.1% is the 20th lowest among 94 qualified pitchers, and better than both Sale's and Kershaw's. Sometimes, pitchers earn a BABIP that is well higher than league average. Such is not the case with Samardzija this season.
At least some of the low strand rate is on Samardzija. He has allowed seven homers this year, and is allowing more than a homer per nine innings for what would be the fifth time in his six seasons as a starting pitcher. Still, that can't explain everything, and the Giants bullpen is better than league average in both ERA and FIP. Samardzija's BABIP and strand rate are both due for some normalization, and he'll see the results show up in his ERA.
When it comes to strikeouts, two pitches are doing the heavy lifting for Samardzija. His slider, which he throws 18.7% of the time, has a whiff rate of 19.5%. His splitter, which has always been a go-to pitch, enjoys a 10.2% usage rate and 22.1% whiff rate, making it a true out-pitch. Let's take a look at both of these offerings.
First, the slider.
And now, the splitter. No, this is not a changeup.
These are both filthy pitches. Samardzija can throw the slider for a strike when he needs to, and the splitter is a deadly chase offering, especially against lefties. He is going to be able to get whiffs with these two pitches regularly every time he takes the mound.
And yet, there's good reason to fade Samardzija. His arsenal is largely the same, in every way, as it has been since the Cubs converted him to a starter in 2012. The following pie chart, courtesy of Statcast, depicts his pitch usage this season.
That is, more or less, right in line with his career norms. There are some subtle differences, but none stark enough to represent the sharp uptick in strikeout rate this year. Just as importantly, the velocity and movement on his pitches is the same as it always was, statistically speaking. There is no dramatic difference that suggests any of his pitches is better this year than it was previously.
A few key indicators match up with those assessments. First, Samardzija's o-swing rate, the frequency with which hitters swing at pitches out of the zone, is 32.5%. That's impressive, to be sure, but it's lower than it was in 2014 and 2015, and just half a percentage point better than last season. His 66.3% o-contact rate, while better than it was the last two seasons, is nearly four percentage points higher than it was in 2014, and more than five percentage points worse than 2013, when he last struck out a batter per inning. It's hard to point to that as the reason for his increase in whiffs.
In short, it seems like simple variance is most responsible for Samardzija's increasing strikeout rate. While he's due to reclaim as much as a run or more in ERA with his BABIP and strand rate playing more to league average, he's just as likely to give back a portion of the strikeout rate that has made him a strong fantasy option this year.
With that said, Samardzija still has plenty of fantasy value for the rest of the season. First of all, BABIP and strand rate regression alone could keep his rest-of-season ERA in the low 3.00s. Even if he does slack off in the strikeout department, the rate improvements would make him intriguing in all fantasy formats. On top of that, we should not be projecting him to return to the unimposing strikeout rates of the last two seasons. Samardzija is getting hitters to swing at one-third of pitches outside the zone, and they make contact on just two-thirds of those swings. That's a strong ratio that will help him produce more than his fair share of whiffs the rest of the way. Understand, however, that you're not likely to get 10 strikeouts per nine innings for much longer.
Add it all up, and Samardzija has the look of a top-40 starting pitcher for the rest of the season. Given his unsightly ERA, it's worth trying to pry him away from his current owner at a discounted price.